All about Passive Voice

    Instant Quiz 

Can you correct the mistake in today’s sentence?

The committee is comprised of two representatives from each department.

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Passive voice can be confusing!

Some editors and teachers will tell you it’s wrong to use passive voice. (Not true.) And I’ve known writers and editors who weren’t sure what passive voice is – they couldn’t always figure out which sentences were active and which were passive. Let’s clear up these issues today.

First: can you identify the passive voice sentences?

  1. Linda is always right.
  2. I was working full time in the city.
  3. The ball was thrown.
  4. There were mistakes in three of the charts.
  5. The game was won by the Jets.

Answer: only #3 and #5 are passive voice. It’s a common misconception that any sentence with the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, be, been) is passive. Not true!

Defining passive voice requires a lot of grammar gobbledygook. So I’m going to offer an easier explanation. Compare these sentences:

Jeff composed three songs.  ACTIVE

Three songs were composed by Jeff.  PASSIVE

Three songs were composed.  PASSIVE

In active voice sentences, the doer (“Jeff”) comes first. In passive voice sentences, the doer comes later – or isn’t mentioned at all. (Still puzzled? Keep reading the examples! And remember that “by” is a useful clue that you might have a passive-voice sentence.)

* * * * *

Now we can deal with the second question: Is passive voice bad? Some teachers and editors will tell you it’s always wrong to use passive voice. 

Not true.

Passive voice is useful in two situations: When you don’t want to embarrass someone, and when you want to shift the emphasis in a sentence. Those are the only situations that call for passive voice.

Many writers overuse passive voice – a bad practice because it complicates and weakens your writing. If you have a passive-voice habit, now is the time to break it!

Let’s look at appropriate ways to use passive voice. Compare these sentence pairs:

Joe and Mary left a mess in the break room.  (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

A mess was left in the break room. (Passive voice – kinder)

The accounting department made some careless mistakes in the Roper report.   (Active voice – pointing out wrongdoing)

Careless mistakes were made in the Roper report.   (Passive voice – kinder)

Doug Gaines presented the Citizenship Award.  (Active voice – emphasis on Doug)

The Citizenship Award was presented by Doug Gaines.  (Passive voice – emphasis on the award)

Please note that these are exceptions to a wise principle: Don’t use passive voice.

There’s one more issue: Many professionals think passive voice ensures accuracy and adds credibility to professional writing. They’re wrong, and I’ll explain why in my next post.

A chalkboard that asks if I'm doing this right.

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

The problem today is the word comprised. It means “includes.” One way to correct the sentence is to change comprised to composed:

The committee is composed of two representatives from each department.  CORRECT

But what if you really, really want to use the word comprised? Then you revise the sentence:

The committee comprises two representatives from each department.  CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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A Writing Coach in Your Head

When I was in high school, my best friend – Kathleen – yearned to be a nun. Not just any nun, mind you. She was going to be a hermit nun. And because we were best friends, we did what teenagers do constantly (talk). I learned a lot about some strange religious orders in the Catholic Church – the Carthusians and Camaldolese, who live a hermit life.

And – inevitably – I read Kathleen’s favorite author, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. (She never did become a nun, by the way, and ended up converting to Judaism. Interesting woman. I wish you could have met her! Sadly, she died too young.)

Merton was a beacon for spiritually minded readers in the 1960s (when I was in high school) – and in the 1970s, and the 1980s, and…you get the idea. His most popular book, The Seven Storey Mountain, is still selling well.

I am sorry to tell you that I was bored by The Seven Storey Mountain, and…truth to tell…I’ve always found Merton unreadable. Well, mostly unreadable. When he climbed down from that damn mountain to write about the realities of monastic life, he was wonderful. Sadly, he didn’t do it often enough.

One of his best essays was written to satisfy readers’ curiosity about what a monastery is like. It’s a challenging topic, when you think about it: lots and lots of description – which is usually boring to read. (I often skip the descriptive sentences and paragraphs in books, and I bet you sometimes do that too.)

Merton’s solution was turn the description into a story. (Often the best solution to any writing problem is to turn the task into a story!). Every monk had to take a shift as a night watchman, checking the entire monastery for potential fires. So, one night, Merton took his readers with him.

As he walked through the sleeping monastery, he recorded what he saw – and his thoughts – all in the context of the danger spots for fires (there are lots of candles in a monastery!). You get a feeling for what it’s like to live in a monastery.

Here’s my point. There’s more to writing than thesis statements, transitions, and sentence structure. It’s about being interesting. It’s about life.

And here’s another point. If you’re a voracious reader, you have an expert writing coach living inside your head.

Here’s what I mean. There’s a marvelous book about a female monastery (of nuns): A Right to Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis. I would wager (if it’s okay to make a bet about a nun) that she read Thomas Merton the way my friend Kathleen did – voraciously.

And so she borrowed Merton’s idea of taking her readers on a tour through her monastery – and did it better. You don’t think a book about a monastery can be fun to read? Try A Right to Be Merry.

Her tour is a procession of nuns through the monastery two days before Christmas. So not only do you visit (through words) the various parts of the monastery – you see the nuns happily preparing for Christmas.

Here’s a project for you. Go to the shelves where you store your favorite books. You know them well already, right? I want you to read them again – from a different angle. As you’re reading, ask yourself what problems the authors faced as they were writing. How did they solve them? And – most important – what strategies can you use yourself?

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Do We Need Punctuation?

Do we need punctuation? Silly question. Of course we do…don’t we?

The answer may not be as clear as we think it is. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynn Truss writes about what happens when we don’t use commas and periods: If we think of punctuation as “the stitching of language,” without it “all the buttons fall off.”

Or we can think of punctuation as a set of “traffic signals”: When commas and periods are missing, “words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead.”

It makes sense – until you realize there’s no punctuation in many ancient Greek and Roman textsAnd what about writers in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, who didn’t start using punctuation until modern times?

I’m as cranky as Lynn Truss is about correct punctuation – perhaps crankier. If I’d been her editor, I would have inserted a comma between the coordinate clauses in her second sentence. (In simple English, I would have put a comma after each other: “words bang into each other, and everyone ends up in Minehead.”).

But I’m irritated by her the-world-is-coming-to-an-end attitude towards punctuation errors.

It’s not just that she sometimes makes mistakes. A bigger problem is that when students discover how idiotic pronouncements like Truss’s are,  they lose faith in everything that we English teachers tell them.

Here’s an example: I often hear people confidently declare that “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary,” a dubious fact they were told in the fourth or fifth grade. Well, ain’t is in there, and I can usually get my hands on a dictionary or two to prove it.

What invariably follows is a “Why should I believe anything?” cynicism about English.

* * * * * * 

Punctuation is a social convention and a convenience. It certainly makes writing easier to read. But readers and writers largely got along without it until the printing press was invented, and even then periods and commas took a while to catch on.

Apostrophes were introduced later; Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t bother with them.

Many educated people – truth-to-tell – don’t understand punctuation. I once knew a Harvard graduate, the author of several books, who didn’t know the difference between semicolons and commas. (The same is true of math. I once knew a postmaster who couldn’t understand even basic functions with fractions. People learn ways to adapt.)

The English language has tremendous vitality. It will survive ain’t, Lynn Truss’s complaints, and texting.

Let’s remember that English nearly died after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The upper classes and those who did business with them spoke French. (Even today, the menus in Buckingham Palace are written out for Queen Elizabeth II in French.) Only the peasants spoke English.

The English language survived the Norman Conquest, and it will outlast us too.

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Figure Skating

I have two reasons for watching as many figure skating competitions as I can. One is to get to know the skaters. The other is to spot a potential Paul Wylie or Dorothy Hamill.

Neither goal has been particularly successful. I have trouble telling all those Russian and Japanese skaters apart. And I’m still waiting to see a male skater like Paul Wylie or a female like Dorothy Hamill.

Dorothy Hamill is a particular mystery. Why has no one been able to figure out – and replicate – her magic? Is the problem that today’s emphasis on jumps and tricks get in the way of artistry?

Maybe not. I spent Sunday afternoon watching Skate America for three hours. The competition was just wrapping up, and the last skater took the ice – a Japanese teenager who just moved up from the junior level. I have watched so much figure skating that I can tell within three or four seconds whether the person on the ice is my kind of skater.

Oh, my. Kaori Sakamoto just floats on the ice. She came in second, beating the spectacular Evgenia Medvedeva, who is wonderful but doesn’t have that Hamill magic. (I will, I will learn those names.)

By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with writing. Sunday’s competition was a long one, and I saw – umpteen times – the same commercial for Homelight realty referral service. That meant that I heard this sentence endlessly repeated:

Homelight ranks over one million agents based on their actual track record.

Today I am asking you to put actual on your do-not-use word list. While you’re at it, put actually there too. (That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to use these words. Geez – I just used actual on Quora five minutes ago! It means they have to convince you that they add something useful to a sentence.)

Here’s a little trick for finding (and eliminating) cutesy words that don’t enhance your writing. Ask if the word changes the meaning of the sentence.

Let’s try it:

Her actual track record is excellent.

Her track record is excellent.

Actually, I like the pink sneakers better.

I like the pink sneakers better.

Thanks! I feel better now that I got that off my chest.

Japanese figure skater Kaori Sakamoto

           Kaori Sakamoto

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Freedom of Speech

I often answer questions at Quora.com. Some are fun to answer, but others are disheartening. I’m especially bothered by questions written by people who seem to be afraid to use normal English. Here’s an example: “How do the media recognize freedom of speech?”

Good grief. How would you “recognize” freedom of speech? Would you say “I recognize that!” when someone read the First Amendment to you?

I think the person was trying to find out how the media practice freedom of speech. I explained that freedom of speech means that Congress can’t pass laws limiting what we say or write. There are a few exceptions (such as slander, libel, and lying under oath) – but not many.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want. (Try shouting at your boss, and you’ll quickly figure that out yourself.) Nor does it mean that people can’t disagree with you. Open disagreements and debate are vital to a democracy. Nor does it mean that you can march over to a TV station and insist that they let you appear on tonight’s news broadcast.

OK. Back to my original point. When you write (or speak), you need to use clear, simple language. Here’s another example. This morning someone on Quora asked if the double standard in academic publishing was the reason no one reads academic articles any more.

Whew. If you’re familiar with the error called “begging the question,” you know that the poster made two errors. First, he assumed that academic publishing has a double standard. Second, he assumed that people have stopped reading academic journals.

I pointed out both problems – and got a response that it should have been obvious that he was talking about scientific publishing.

As I said, whew. Apparently he has a gripe with a scientific journal. Maybe it’s a legitimate one, and we could learn something from him. But there’s no way to tell from the question he posted.

So: a plea. Skip the gobbledygook. Make sure you’ve said – plainly, clearly, and powerfully – what you meant to say. You’ll save all of us a lot of time! And there’s another benefit: Your own life will roll along more smoothly. Good communication is one of the keys to living well.

The Founding Fathers

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Secrets of Success

After decades of teaching, writing, and editing, I’ve devised three rules that I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a successful writer:

1.  Have something to say.

Good ideas generate good writing. If you don’t have much to say, you’re not going to write sparkling sentences and provocative prose. Why do so many students write badly? The number one reason is getting stuck with a weak topic.

Finding a good topic, alas, is not easy. Think about the gaps in experience and interests between, say, a 17-year-old college student and a 45-year-old literary critic. Is it surprising that so many students hate to write – and that teachers dread reading their essays?

One solution is what’s called “service learning.” As part of their coursework, students perform writing tasks for community organizations. They keep journals about their volunteer experiences and make a presentation about what they’ve learned. Suddenly students find that they have a lot to say, and the door to powerful writing begins to open.

If you’re out of school and free to write about anything, you’re in luck. Cultivate stimulating ideas, experiences, and friendships. Develop your analytical thinking powers. Observe. Ask questions. Good writing has little to do with grammar (you can always get someone to fix your commas) and everything to do with what you know.

2. Ask someone to check what you’ve written.

In school, getting help with a paper is sometimes considered cheating. In the larger world, getting help with a writing task is considered common sense. No competent person in business would dream of submitting an important report, for example, without having a colleague check it first. My husband and I (both professional writers) always check each other’s work. I edit for friends, and they do the same for me.

I would offer this advice to anyone who wants to be a successful writer: Make friends with at least one person who knows a lot about writing. Wine, dine, and flatter that person. Consider marriage if the person is really competent. That relationship is going to be invaluable as you navigate the perilous waters of a writing career.

3.  Revise.

One afternoon I sat down and wrote a 1,000-word reflective piece for a local paper. “This can’t be any good,” I thought. “I spent hardly any time on it.” Nonetheless I submitted it to the local editor, who promptly sent it on (unbeknownst to me) to a national publication, where it was published and even generated some fan mail. It remains one of the best pieces I’ve ever written – I reread it the other day and was astonished at how good it was.

Here’s what I learned from that experience: Anyone can be struck by lightning once; I’ve had my magical moment, and it’s unlikely to happen again. So everything I’ve written since has gone through endless drafts and revisions. I know I’m not going to get struck by lightning again. Maybe you’ll get your turn too – but maybe you won’t. Best not to risk it. Endless revising and polishing are the surest path to writing success. 

(If you’re wondering why that one piece was so successful for me, go back and reread Rule 1.)

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Affect or Effect?

Many writers are befuddled by affect and effect. Today I’m going to offer you some practical tips, unconventional advice, and advanced information about these two words.

Here’s a trick for keeping them straight: Affect is usually an action – both affect and action start with “a.”

Effect is usually a thing: the effect. Did you notice there are two e’s in a row? The effect.

Let’s go on to the unconventional advice. Here it is: Don’t use the verb affect. Ever. Here’s why: It’s vague.

For example:

The new medication affected his glucose level.

Did the medication raise the glucose level – or drop it? Was the change beneficial – or harmful?

I used to circle affect on students’ papers and ask for a revision with a more specific word. Here’s what I would get back:

The new medication altered his glucose level.

Sigh.

You can choose from some useful substitutes: help, harm, benefit, improve, damage…you get the idea.

Let’s go on to the advanced information. Earlier I told you that affect is usually an action, and effect is usually a thing. Why did I fudge with “usually”? I did that because professionals use these words in specialized ways.

  1. Effect can be a verb (action) that means “bring about change”: “The benefits effected by the new policy did not justify its cost.”
  2. Psychologists sometimes use affect to mean emotion: “The dramatic changes in affect proved that the new therapy was working.”

I suggest leaving these two usages to the specialists.

Before we return to conventional usage of affect and effect, allow me a digression. I struggle with the words petal, pedal, and peddle. Just this morning I saw peddle used correctly in a newspaper article, and my immediate reaction was that it was wrong. I had to stop and think before I mentally congratulated the journalist for getting it right.

Petal (which I always confuse with pedal) is a particular problem because I do all of my husband’s typing for him – and he is, of course, a garden writer. Do you have any idea how many plants have petals?

My point is that I always slow down, double-check, and ultimately get these troublesome words right (even when my husband is impatiently waiting to dictate the next sentence about his damned petunias).

So here’s some advice when you’re dealing with confusing words like affect and effect: Get out a dictionary, go online, call your mother-in-law who’s a grammar curmudgeon – do whatever you have to do, but don’t guess when you encounter a troublesome word!

question mark cube Pixabay ok

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Formatting a Manuscript

Now that we have computers, writers are expected to do some of the publishing preparations themselves. Here are some tips and resources:

  • You’re not using a typewriter anymore! Use only one space after a period.
  • Don’t use the space bar for formatting. Limit yourself to one space after a word and after a punctuation mark.
  • Use the styles menu for all your formatting.
  • Don’t use the underlining key at all.
  • Click this link for some self-publishing resources that I’ve collected.
  • Log on to Smashwords.com to download a free guide to manuscript preparation that includes using styles and other computer skills (it was a lifesaver for me).

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The Weather Report

We’ve seen some violent weather this year. Here’s a sentence I saw in a headline on the Weather Channel last month:

Large, battering waves will enhance the storm surge.

I have two quibbles about this sentence.

First, I don’t like that comma between large and battering. If you’re a stickler about usage, the comma is correct. (Often – although not always – it’s correct to put a comma between two adjectives: large, battering). But I think the sentence would be more dramatic without it.

Second, I wouldn’t have used enhance. It’s a positive word, and there’s nothing positive about a storm surge that puts lives and property at risk. I would have used increase.

It’s important to pay attention to the way words and sentences feel. I have another example (also related to weather). Our local weather reports used to be hosted by a man who struggled with two basic words in the English language.

The first was “milder,” which he thought was a synonym for “warmer.” So we would be told that the temperature was going to be “milder” tomorrow because it was going from  88 to 91.

Another habit (this one really drove me crazy, and I wrote him a letter about it – to no avail) had to do with the word “threat.” He thought it was a synonym for chance. And so – again and again – during a horrifyingly long drought we would hear that there was a “threat of rain this weekend.”

The real threat was what I wanted to do to him every time I heard one of those weather reports. Don’t follow his example, please!

a large, powerful ocean wave

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Don’t Tell Them What They Already Know

I spend way too much time doing what I’m doing now – sitting at this computer. It’s usually unproductive time. (OK, let’s be honest. It’s wasted time.)

But sometimes there’s a payoff. I just came across a wonderful essay by Paul McHenry Roberts called How to Say Nothing in 500 Words. OMG. It’s an oldie-but-goodie piece that goes back to the 1950’s.

The article brought back memories of the countless dull essays I’ve read during my career as an English teacher. And – happily – it also revived memories of some of the great ones. (It also tickled me with a reference to a portable typewriter – ye cats, that was my life for many years.)

I wish I’d read it at the beginning of my teaching career. I started out teaching writing the way I’d been taught – a lot of rules and advice – instead of emphasizing the most important thing: having something to say.

But I digress. This is the first of two or three posts about McHenry’s advice. Here are two rules from him that get to right to the heart of the matter: 

Avoid the Obvious Content

Take the Less Usual Side

Here’s my version: Never tell them what they already know.

It is a rule I strive mightily to live by right here on WritewithJean. There are websites galore about writing (I’ve visited them.) They will solemnly tell you how to differentiate between its and it’s – how to use subordinating conjunctions – how to write an introductory paragraph – and so on.

Yuk.

I’m a Shaw scholar, so I keep up with the new work being done in my field. So much of it is ponderous and heavy – a straightforward idea dressed up in fancy words to impress me. No, I am not impressed. Please – tell me something interesting – surprising – thought provoking.

Suzanne Farrell (world-class ballet dancer who was also George Balanchine’s muse) once said something about pirouettes (fast spins) that has stuck in my head ever since.  Any dancer, she said, can do a pirouette. The problem was to make it interesting. Bravo, Suzanne! (Or perhaps I should say Brava!)

My blog has – I’m happy to say – some loyal visitors who tell me they enjoy my posts. My #1 rule is that I won’t sit down to write unless I have something to say that you haven’t heard before. Or – if you have heard it (today’s topic, for example), I’ll strive mightily to keep you reading anyway.

That pretty much sums up my writing philosophy – and my practice. It should be your policy and practice as well. 

Yes, it’s difficult sometimes. But the upside is that if I stumble across your piece while I’m wasting time at my computer, I’ll probably read the whole thing – eagerly. And that’s been your goal all along, hasn’t it?

Bored bulldog at a computer desk

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