Active and Passive Voice

Active and passive voice refer to the subject of a sentence, and how action is performed. With active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (think verb). In a passive voice, the subject receives the action.

 

Take a look at the following sentences:

 

EX. 1     The politician believes he is the best person for the job.

EX. 2      It is believed by the politician that he is the best person for the job.

 See the difference?

Both sentences above say the same thing, but the first example is clearer and more to the point. Why? Because the first sentence uses active voice, the subject, “The politician,” is doing the action, “believes.”

 

Active voice places the subject first, followed by the verb and object, as in-

 

The doctor stated that the patient’s high stress caused her heart attack.

It was stated by the doctor that the patient’s high stress caused her heart attack.

Because passive sentence construction add words and changes the normal doer-action-receiver, the reader must work harder to understand the intended meaning. Passive constructions are by their very nature wordier than active constructions, which also can lead to confusion.

 

See the following examples of active vs. passive voice below:

 Active: Diane (subject) loves (verb) her new chickens (object).

Passive: The new chickens (object) were loved (passive verb) by Diane.

 

Active: The Camaro (subject) outran (verb) the police cruiser (object).

Passive: The police cruiser (object) was outran (passive verb) by the Camaro (object).

 

Note that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. In addition, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence

 

“By” Sentence

 One way to identify a passive sentence construction is to note the word “by” in the sentence. If you have a passive sentence with a “by” phrase, such as, “The boy was bitten by the dog,” rewrite the sentence so the subject comes first, followed by the verb:
“The dog bit the boy.”

 Passive Voice Uses

 Passive voice actually is preferred in some instances. If you want to emphasize the action rather than the subject (or actor) you might use passive voice.

 

After the debate, the bill was endorsed by the state legislature.

 

Another instance you’ll find passive voice is in scientific writing.

 

“The DNA was tested.” (By whom?)

 

In this example, we don’t know who tested the DNA, as the author decided that wasn’t important. Scientists are expected to sound objective, so they take themselves, the subject, out of their sentences.

 

Although you may not be able to eliminate all passive voice from your writing, work to minimize it as much as possible. Your writing will be clearer, your message will be stronger, and your audience will be grateful!

 Now You Try!

Revise the passive sentences below to active. (Note the use of verb form).

 

  1. The new nursing program had been approved by the Curriculum Committee and the Board of Trustees.
  2. With five seconds left in the game, an illegal time-out was called by one of the players.
  3. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
  4. An unexpected tornado smashed several homes and uprooted trees in a suburb of Knoxville.
  5. I was surprised by the teacher’s lack of sympathy.
 (Exercises from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/quizzes/passive_quiz.htm)

 

 

 

 

 

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All About Absolute Phrases

Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we learned about independent and dependent clauses, and the 4 sentence types – Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex. Now that we know about clauses and sentence types, we’ll look at absolute phrases.

An absolute phrase combines a noun and a participle with accompanying modifiers or objects. Noun + Participle + Optional Modifier(s) and/or Object(s)

Absolute phrases modify entire sentences, not just one word. They are optional in sentences and can be removed without damaging the grammatical integrity of the sentence, and are always set off with commas (and sometimes dashes).

 Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the class not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the class not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

Revising with Absolute Phrases

Incorporating absolute phrases into your writing works to break up short, choppy sentences. The example below has combined two sentences by omitting “were” in the second sentence, turning it into an absolute phrase:

The hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

Their boots were caked in mud.

Their boots caked in mud, the hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

In the example below, three sentences are combined:

I went snorkeling in Mexico.

The water was warm.

The sun was bright.

The water warm and sun bright, I snorkeled all afternoon.

In the above example, The water warm and sun bright modifies the independent clause, I went snorkeling in Mexico.

As you can see, absolute phrases are a great way to incorporate variety into your writing. They are especially useful in narrative writing when description is necessary, and when you want to break up short, plodding sentences.

 

 

 

 

 

Identifying Sentence Types

In English, sentences are classified into four basic structures: Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex. Learning the nuances of each of these structures will help add variety to your writing.

These four basic sentence structures are based on the use of dependent and independent clauses in a sentence, so first, we need to understand how these clauses work.

Dependent Clause:

A dependent clause is not a complete sentence, and does not express a complete thought. A dependent clause can, however, contain a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a sentence, as in the examples below:

When the semester was over.

Because she stayed up all night.

When they went to the movies.

As you can see, these sentences do not represent a complete thought; they are dependent on other words to complete the sentence.

Independent Clause:

An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence. It expresses a complete thought and needs no other words to complete it. It will always have a subject and a verb, as in the examples below:

The snow fell all day long.

The dog jumped the fence.

The college closed for the summer.

Even very short sentences can be independent clauses or complete sentences, as long as a subject and verb are present:

The snow fell.

The dog jumped.

The college closed.

Consequently, very long sentences (or what appear to be sentences) can still be dependent clauses:

Although the rain fell all morning and into the night as the thunder rolled across the hillside.

While the car sped out of control during the rain-delayed race at Sunset Hills Speedway.

Beginning with the final play of the half when the quarterback was carted off the field after he was tackled.

Each of the previous sentences, even though quite long, are dependent clauses and need other words to form a complete sentence.

Now that we understand clauses, let’s look at our four sentence structures.

Simple Sentence

A simple sentence contains one independent clause and no dependent clause.

S  V
I eat blueberry muffins.

S    V
My uncle sold his old Ford pickup.

S                   V
School has been cancelled due to the snow storm.


Compound Sentence

A compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses, but no dependent clauses. The clauses are joined by a conjunction (or coordinating conjunction).

S     V                                       S      V
He cooked dinner, and she cleaned up.

“He cooked dinner” is a complete thought or sentence, with a subject and verb. “She cleaned up” is also a complete sentence with a subject and verb. The coordinating conjunction, “and” joins the two independent clauses together to form a compound sentence. Below are other examples of compound sentences.

The screaming children frightened the pelicans, and they flew away.

Winter is almost over, and spring isn’t far behind.

Joe quit his job, but he found a new one.


Complex Sentence

Complex sentences are a bit more – complex. These sentence types have one independent clause (I) and at least one dependent clause (D). The dependent clauses are italicized:

D                                                                       I
After John couldn’t find a job, he realized he should go back to school.

D                                                     I
While away on vacation, the neighbor’s house was burglarized.

D                                                                     I
Since Lisa was absent from class, she had to make up the exam on Monday.


Compound-Complex Sentence

A compound-complex sentence has multiple independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. The dependent clause is introduced by either a subordinate conjunction (such as while, although, or because) or a relative pronoun (such as who
or which).

Below, the independent clauses are underlined, and the dependent clauses are in red.

Catch-22 is widely regarded as Joseph Heller’s best novel, and because Heller served in World War II, which the novel satirizes, the zany but savage wit of the novel packs an extra punch. (example from Purdue Owl)

Because I am a writing tutor, some people expect me to write perfectly without fail, but that is unrealistic.

Although I love reading, I don’t like romance novels, although some can be entertaining.

When a dependent clause begins a sentence, a comma will follow at the end of the clause, before the independent clause. Also, a comma should be placed after an independent clause if followed by a dependent clause, as in the third example.

For English language learners and beginning writers, it is important to learn how to formulate simple sentence structures first, and then begin to incorporate more complex structures to add variety to your writing.

The ability to identify and understand different types of clauses and sentence categories will not only help you punctuate sentences properly, but will also improve your writing style.

Show it off! Tips for Adding Description to your Narrative

When writing a narrative essay, your reader needs to see, hear, smell, taste and touch along with the writer, so it’s the writer’s job to show these details as clearly as possible. It’s not enough to tell the readers that someone is beautiful, handsome, slim or happy; the readers must see it for themselves. Writers can do this by incorporating sensory details.

As humans, we learn about the world and our surroundings through our senses. A reader needs to feel engaged in the written world you are creating. When we write using sensory detail, we are showing someone or something as it is instead of telling. Incorporating the five senses – sight (visual), sound (auditory), smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), and touch (tactile) – into a narrative forces readers to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch just as the writer or character does. Writing that incorporates sensory images engages the reader and makes the writing come alive. Writing that utilizes sensory images quicken the pulse, gives you goose bumps, makes you taste and smell and hear what the writer tastes, smells, and hears.

Take, for instance, the following example:

The mountains are beautiful.

What, exactly, does “beautiful” look like? The word “beautiful” doesn’t tell us what color the mountains are, how high they are, what they might sound like (echoing or rustling leaves?) or smell like (clean cedar or musty leaves?). Mountains in Colorado are quite different in every “sense” than mountains in southern Appalachia.

Take this example taken from a student essay, as the writer is describing her grandmother:

She was very pretty.

What does “pretty” look like?

Revision:

My grandmother’s silver hair sat at her crown in a tight knot. Her skin, creviced from decades of laughter, hung loosely over her still high cheekbones. As she kneaded the dough, her thin, delicate hands sprinkled flour atop the dough, the smell of freshly baked bread clinging to her like perfume.

In narrative essays, you want the reader to experience what you experienced. Telling an audience something looks beautiful or pretty is vague; you need to create a sensory image of what “beautiful” or “pretty” means to you. Look at the following short paragraph describing a boy helping an elderly woman up a flight of stairs:

Grandmother Workman reached over and grabbed her grandson’s arm. He was nervous because the staircase was so steep, but she leaned against him and they began to climb.

Now, look at the same scene, but here, the writer has incorporated sensory detail:

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal’s thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers’ labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.

(writing.colostate.edu)

How many senses are utilized in this scene?

One way to help you incorporate more sensory images into your writing is by drafting the narrative first, then go back through the draft to see where you have told when you could have shown, and incorporate sensory details. The chart below is one type of tool to use as you construct and revise your narrative:

Sight

I see…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sound

I hear…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Taste

I taste…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Smell

I smell…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Touch

I feel…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Remember that as you write your narrative, your reader didn’t experience what you experienced. To engage your reader, work on incorporating sensory detail into your narrative, and watch your writing come alive.

All about Conjunctions

 

Conjunctions function as connectors in sentences. They join words, phrases, clauses and sentences. Short sentences often weaken the effectiveness of your writing, so by joining short, choppy sentences with conjunctions, the sentence variety is improved, thereby improving the style and flow of your writing.

In the first example below, notice how the style is improved by joining sentences with conjunctions in the second example:

Maria created a resumé. She copied it on expensive, high-quality paper.  Her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

Revision: Maria created a résumé, and she copied it on expensive, high-quality paper, but her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

(example from Purdue Owl)

In the previous example, the conjunctions “and” and “but” join the sentences, the most commonly used conjunctions. Their use is pretty straightforward; “and” means “in addition to,” and “but” means “yet” or “on the contrary.” However, choosing the appropriate conjunction can sometimes be a bit difficult.

Conjunctions are classified as either coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, or subordinating conjunctions. We’ll discuss coordinating and subordinating conjunctions below.

Coordinating conjunctions include and, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so. These conjunctions are used when you want to relate equal ideas in a sentence.

They purchased the ranch and they began to raise goats and sheep.

Steve purchased a cup of coffee in the new shop, but the service was quite slow.

Amanda needed yarn for her scarf, so she went to the fabric store.


Subordinating conjunctions are used to emphasize one idea over the other. This means one idea is “subordinate,” or secondary to, the other idea.

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

after     although     as      as if     as long as
as though     because     before     even if
even though     if     if only     in order that
now that     once     rather than     since     so that
than     that     though     till     unless     until
when     whenever     where     whereas     wherever     while

Understanding when to use a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction can be a bit tricky. The conjunction “and” is often overused, and a sentence would be more clear and effective with a subordinating conjunction. The sentences below show the difference in emphasis when a coordinating conjunction is used as opposed to a subordinating conjunction:

Example:

Aqua Blues is a great band and they only recorded one album.

Revision:

Aqua Blues is a great band, even though they only recorded one album.

The first example is grammatically correct, but the two clauses don’t really carry equal weight. By using a subordinating conjunction, the emphasis is placed on the independent clause (Aqua Blue is a great band).

Note the differences in the examples below when the sentences are revised using subordinating conjunctions:

Example: John practiced the cello and the cat screeched from the porch.

Revisions:

John practiced the cello while the cat screeched from the porch.

Although the cat screeched from the porch, John practiced his cello.

John practiced the cello even though the cat screeched from the porch.


To edit your writing for appropriate use of conjunctions, ask yourself, does the independent clause contain the most important idea you want to convey?:

The textbook was short and had good information.

The textbook was short but had good information.

The textbook was short although it had good information.

Although the textbook was short, it had good information.

 

Visit http://www.englishgrammar.org/conjunctions-exercise-2/ for conjunction exercise.
 (Some explanation cited from The Everyday Writer by Andrea A. Lunsford)

Tighten Up! Omit Needless Words & Phrases from your Writing

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Many writers, beginning and experienced, often inflate their sentences with unnecessary words, but strong writing is not complicated or wordy writing. Good writing is tight, concise, and to the point. Inflating your writing with superfluous words will lead to confusion in not only your sentences, but can also lead to a confusing message in your essay. Read on to learn how to tighten your writing and improve your sentences.

Eliminate Wordy Phrases

One of the easiest fixes to tighten your writing is to eliminate wordy phrases. Read over your essay to see if a wordy phrase can be reduced to a word or two without changing the meaning:

At the present time  Today our business has no deficit.

The end result is tragic if a patient is not treated swiftly.

The final outcome will be difficult to determine.

Because of the fact that NASA has cut funding, the space missions are in jeopardy.

 

Eliminate Empty or Meaningless Words

Read each sentence carefully to locate words that offer no essential information to a sentence. Some of the most common empty words in student essays are very, really, and definitely.

They were really trying hard to get the bill passed.

The paper was very interesting. 

The research definitely shows that meditation reduces stress.

If you find you use very or really a little too frequently, it’s often a sign that the sentence needs to be rewritten with stronger language. Note the changes in the revised sentence below:

They were struggling to get the bill passed.

The paper was fascinating.

The research confirms that meditation reduces stress.

 

Omit “It is” Constructions

One of the most common sentence constructions found in student writing is beginning a sentence with “It is” or “There are,” both of which create a subject-less, and often confusing, sentence. Look at the sentences below and consider what the “it is” might be referring to:

It is possible that the cause of her headaches is stress.

Revised: The cause of her headaches is stress.

It is worth pointing out that both governors were incorrect.

Revised: Note that both governors were incorrect.

It is clear that research supports his findings.

Revised: Clearly the research supports his findings.

It is often the case that initial experiments fail to prove anything.

Revised: Often initial experiments fail to prove anything.

 

Tighten sentences beginning with “There are” to clarify meaning and improve style by locating the real subject of the sentence. Below, the real subject of the sentences is underlined:

There are numerous reports of widespread corruption.

Revised: Numerous reports suggest widespread corruption.

There are only two questions left to answer.

Two questions are left to answer.

There are numerous studies that show the opposite is true.

Numerous studies show the opposite is true.

 

Before you turn in your final draft, take some time to work on eliminating any redundant, excessive, or unnecessary words or language from your sentences. Your ideas will communicate more clearly, writing will flow more smoothly, which means your ideas will be taken more seriously.

End With a Flourish: How to compose a powerful final sentence

(A version of this post originally appeared Feb. 2014)

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Many writers spend a lot of time in the early stages of the composition process perfecting their introductory paragraph, taking care to grab the reader’s attention with a great hook and laying out a convincing argument. By the time we get to the conclusion, we often get impatient and don’t spend the time drafting a compelling conclusion. Most often, a conclusion that falls flat isn’t about the content, but it’s more often a problem of last-line syntax.

What do I mean by syntax?

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch.  The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.

Look at the similar sentences in the examples below:

  • There is no more important issue than this.
  • There is no more important or more urgent issue.

At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example which ends with a vague phrase. In Example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.

The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.

In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:
1)         Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

2)         Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

 The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words, “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message.

Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off. . .

In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by a dependent clause (“humanity has advanced in many ways”), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:

Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?

Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.

Tips and Tricks

 When attempting to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that you should avoid placing in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.

Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.

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Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.

All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.   –Toni Morrison, Sula

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia