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)

 

 

 

 

 

5 Tips to Integrate Sources & Use Attributive Tags Effectively

 

Regardless whether you summarize, paraphrase, or directly quote, outside sources must be integrated smoothly into your essay. Research that is stuck in carelessly without careful integration runs the risk of sounding like it doesn’t belong, creating paragraphs that lack cohesiveness and focus. Instructors often refer to this as the “cut and paste” research paper that will often garner a failing grade. Follow the tips below to learn how to integrate source material effectively.

Tip # 1: Write the draft first

Before you begin to integrate your sources, you need something to integrate them into. Writers who try to compose a paper at the same time they are integrating sources find they lose their “voice,” and begin to sound like the voice of the research they are quoting. To avoid this, write a first draft of your paper, with only your words and your voice doing the talking. By taking this first step in getting your ideas on paper, you’ll avoid letting the research take over. Some instructors require a rough draft before even integrating source material to confirm you are not borrowing others’ ideas.

Tip # 2: Use Attributive Tags

 Attributive, or author tags, refers to a few words of introduction of your source. An attributive tag includes the author’s name, and varying information depending on the context, including the author’s professional title (is he or she a “Dr.”  Scientist,” “Researcher,” or “Professor”?), the article’s title, and any other relevant information, which could include the author’s position on the subject (“John Smith, ecologist and staunch opponent of keeping animals in captivity. . .”).

An author tag identifies the information presented as coming from an outside source and not you. You must make clear throughout your paper what information is coming from outside sources. Failing to use attributions is considered a type of unintentional plagiarism.

Tip # 3: Vary the way author tags are used

 Author tags can be incorporated in 3 ways:

  1. The author tag can be introduced first before the quoted material.
  2. The author tag can be placed in the middle of the quoted material.
  3. The author tag can be placed at the end of the quoted material.

EX. 1
Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, says that “there is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149).

EX. 2
“There is no such thing as the classroom,” says Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, “as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149).

EX. 3
“There is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways,” says Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (149).

Note that in the first example, there is no comma after that, as it reads as a continuous thought. If the attribution ended with the word says, it would have a comma immediately after “says” and the first word of the quoted sentence would be capitalized.

Vivian Cook, author of Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, says, “There is no such thing as the classroom, as classrooms vary in so many ways” (149)

Tip # 4: Use a colon when the author tag is a full sentence

The rule for using a colon following an attributive tag is if the tag is a complete sentence or independent clause, it must be followed by a colon. (Note that the author tags in the previous examples are all technically sentence fragments.)

Incorrect

Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams. “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (57).

The quote above is an example of a dangling quote, or a quote that stands alone as a sentence. You can often (though not always) correct this mistake by taking the previous sentence and place a colon at the end instead of a period:

Correct:

Cameron believes artists should stop making excuses for not following their dreams: “Stop waiting until you make enough money to do what you really love” (57)

Tip #5: Use attributive tags with paraphrases and summary

When incorporating paraphrase and summary, it is impossible to tell if the information is the thoughts of the writer or from an outside source without attributive tags. In the examples below, the writer includes the name of the source, even though it is a paraphrase and not a direct quote. By doing this, the reader knows the information is coming from research and not the writer:

In Talking from 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen explains that for women in the workplace, the situation is changing, whether we talk about it or not (130).

Nickerson argues that clear communication hinges upon what an audience does and does not know. It is crucial to assume the audience has neither too much nor too little knowledge of the subject, or the communication may be inhibited by either confusion or offense (737).

As you work on integrating your source material –

  • Avoid using two quotations in a row without intervening (explanatory) material of your own.
  • Avoid referring to your sources as quotes. Instead of, “In this quote,” write “Here we see. . .” or “As Smith points out. . .”.  (http://library.rpcc.edu)
  • Introduce the quote; quote; explain the quote. Always place outside research in context to the point you are attempting to make, and do it in your own words.

Taking care to integrate your outside source material will result in a top-notch research essay that will flow naturally and earn you respect as a thorough and fair researcher.

 

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Argument Essays

When writing argument essays, understanding basic principles for academic writing will help you avoid the many possible pitfalls that might be lurking. Below are ten do’s and don’ts to follow for the best argument essay ever!

  1. DO follow assignment guidelines. Students often write great essays, only to fail to follow assignment directions. If you are asked to include eight sources and you give two, that’s not meeting the minimum requirements. If you write an informational essay when you are assigned an argument paper, that’s a big problem. If in doubt, always ask your instructor.
  2. DON’T preface a statement with phrases such as, “I believe,” or “I think.” These expressions only serve to weaken the statement. It’s akin to an apology for your opinion. Unless you are quoting or paraphrasing, it’s a given you “believe” or “think” something. Instead of “I think that college should be free for all,” revise to, “College should be free for all.” See how much stronger and emphatic the second example is?
  3. DO take citation style seriously. Many students who have never written a research paper or are unfamiliar with MLA or APA citation requirements often believe the rules concerning in-text citation, works cited, or reference pages are a low priority. However, most instructors who assign research papers expect students to follow these rules and will often deduct a large number of points for failure to follow the guidelines.
  4. DO attribute all ideas to their source. Often in research papers, it’s obvious that ideas or opinions are not the author’s, but are not cited to an outside source. Students paraphrase others’ ideas into their own words, but often fail to cite. This creates the impression that the information is coming from the writer, when in fact, it’s a source’s idea or opinion. Always give credit to avoid plagiarism.
  5. DON’T signpost. Signposting refers to directional signs in your writing that tell the audience what you just said or what you will say. This might be required in speech class, but it’s not necessary in written papers. Avoid telling your audience what you previously said or what you will say – just say it!
  6. DO integrate quotes smoothly. When incorporating sources, research must be integrated into your own writing smoothly, introduced completely, and synthesized fully. Simply sticking a quote in a paragraph because it might be related to the content doesn’t offer the reader any context and could lead to research that seems stuck in and out-of-context.
  7. DON’T use inflated phrases. When writing a research paper, students often think they have to take on a voice of authority, and they believe they need to use wordy constructions to sound “academic,” when all it does is sound pretentious. Wordy, inflated phrases are also confusing to read. Use your own voice and eliminate wordiness.
  8. DO organize your paper logically. While there are several different ways to organize an argument essay, make sure the organization method you choose is logical for what you are trying to do. Ideas should flow smoothly one to the next, and avoid repetition. Avoid jumping back and forth between paragraph topics.
  9. DON’T slack on the conclusion. A common response on student papers is, “Ends abruptly.” Often students concentrate so intently on building the body of a research paper and incorporating sources that they overlook the importance of a strong conclusion.
  10. DO carefully proofread. Spell-check is great, but it doesn’t help find word usage errors, one of the most common errors in academic papers. It’s also difficult to find everything in one read-through. After you have read your essay through at least once to check for good paragraph structure, focus and flow, do a final edit for punctuation and grammar only. Better yet, read it backwards to slow your reading down, making it easier to see errors.

 

 

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.

No Research Required: Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay

 

Narrative or Personal Essays are a common writing assignment in English classrooms. Many freshman will run across this type of writing in college, and for natural storytellers, it can be a fun assignment. If the guidelines ask you to simply retell an event from your past, you already know the information! For a narrative essay, most likely, no research is required. Composing a narrative is simply a matter of putting a story from your past on paper. Sounds easy, right?

Actually, not as easy as it sounds. Move ahead with caution.

One of the biggest problems that arise when composing a personal narrative is not compiling the information; you already know it, as it’s part of your memory. The problems often lie in organizing those memories into a cohesive, well-organizing, interesting story that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. This is not always so easy.

Once Upon a Time

Logic would tell you that if you want to retell a story or event, you will start at the beginning and conclude at the end. Right? Not necessarily. Taking a story out of chronological order is often the most effective way to hold the reader’s attention, create rising tension, an exciting climax, and conclude with a thoughtful reflection of what it all meant to you. This is what is referred to as the “narrative arc.” This seems logical; beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.

The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back, before the actual event even begins, then proceed to tell every detail up to the conclusion. By the time the reader gets to the main event or action, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin in the middle of the action, or what writers refer to as in media res, we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.

In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of starting in the middle of the event is to open the story with dramatic action rather than explanation (exposition) which sets up the characters and situation in an exciting and captivating story. The reader is hooked immediately; a “hook” is often a requirement of a narrative essay. Beginning in the middle of action avoids what writers refer to as spinning your wheels or throat clearing; a lot of talk that gets you nowhere.

In medias res often (though not always) entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order; earlier events are condensed briefly in the backstory. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. The entire Star Wars series is completely out of chronological order! Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.

CUT!

When composing your own essay, there is no right technique on how to organize it, but one tool writers use once a solid draft is complete, is scissors. Print your draft on one side, and cut each paragraph into its own page. One you have all of your paragraphs cut up, lay each out in front of you. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. When you chopped up your essay, did you notice a lot of paragraph breaks, or two double spaces between paragraphs (white space)? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. If a paragraph doesn’t fit, maybe it’s not needed. Maybe you’ll find a gap in time or action that needs more information to clarify details of the event.

Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you may find that the first two pages of your narrative are unneeded. You will hook the reader more quickly by eliminating non-essential details and placing him or her immediately into the action, which will improve the narrative arc and set you on course for a narrative essay that your reader can’t put down.

 

 

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.