As writers, we know we are not supposed to use the passive voice. Nearly every writers' guide tells us to prefer the active voice. This is a view I generally endorse. But, as a student in one of my grammar classes recently argued, knee-jerk conversion of every sentence to active may actually make the writing lose its point.
For example, if a paragraph is about Bob, Bob should be in the subject position in most of the sentences. Bob may do some things, but Bob may have some things done to him. To keep him in the subject role, you have to use passive for some sentences, like this:
Bob traveled [active] to Paris last fall. When he purchased [active] his plane tickets, he was offered [passive] a discount on some castle tours. When he arrived [active] in France, however, he discovered [active] that he had been scheduled [passive] for two tours at the same time. He complained [active] at the tour office, and demanded that the second tour be rescheduled [passive].
This week's challenge: Rewrite the following entirely passive paragraph using mostly active voice. If you chose to retain the passive on some sentences, indicate why. [Hint: decide whether this is the story of the blower vac or of "you" the owner of the new power tool.] I'm looking forward to reading your submissions.
Your new blower vac should be kept clean. It should be used only with dry leaves. When damp earth and debris are picked up, the inside of the fan chamber may become clogged. Then the performance of the unit may be decreased. This area should be cleaned out using a stick or other non-metalic scraper. Cleaning should only be done when the unit is disconnected from the power source. The blower vac should not be stored adjacent to fertilizers or chemicals. The metal parts can be corroded by such storage.
Many excellent sentences resulted from last week's challenge. Virtually every sentence readers sent in was an improvement over the original with the false subject. Here is the overall best take on the sentences, presented by Stacey Edwards, who also explains how she analyzed each sentence:
Original sentences are numbered. Revisions are beneath each numbered sentence. [Bold face indicates original subject and verb.]
- There are two places you can edit a resource calendar: the Working Time tab of the Resource Information dialog box and the Change Working Time dialog box.
- There is a widespread misperception that search fields are case sensitive. (no clear subject or verb)
- It is difficult for voting rights advocates to prove in federal court that packing minority voters into majority-minority districts diminishes their ability to elect candidates of choice.
- There is an average wait time for tables of more than 40 minutes. (missing subject)
- It is sometimes desirable to convert user-defined missing values to nulls.
- There is one simple query that can be issued that allows you to select all records from a table but display only a specified column.
You can edit a resource calendar in either the Working Time tab of the Resource Information dialog box or the Change Working Time dialog box.
Many new employees mistakenly believe that search fields are case sensitive.
Voting rights advocates have difficulty proving in federal court that packing minority voters into majority-minority districts diminishes the voters' ability to elect their candidates of choice.
Diners wait an average of over 40 minutes for tables.
Sometimes, you should convert user-defined missing values to nulls.
You can issue a single simple query so that you can select all records from a table, but display only a specified column.
Edwards made sure to find a human subject for every sentence, and I do recommend that writers attempt to find that human actor whenever possible. I especially love what she did with number 2: she figured out that there was no strong subject or verb, so she cast about for a good subject and put that in: "Many new employees" along with a strong verb, "believe."
On the other hand, sometimes it may be legitimate to speak of things doing things. If the concept or function or widget you are explaining is the most important thing in the sentence, you may want to place that in the subject slot. Here is an example where Barbara Wiedl did this:
The average wait for tables is more than 40 minutes.
The reader's principal concern may well be the wait time, and placing it first in the sentence is a good call.
Similarly, both Wiedl and Michael Stein revised number 5 this way:
Converting user-defined missing values to nulls is sometimes desirable.
Lisa Mileusnich gives another good take on number 5 (similar to Stacey's):
Sometimes you should convert user-defined missing values to nulls.
Number 5 also illustrates a common problem I find when I read training materials from which I am trying to learn: the what and how are included, but not the why. By using the words sometimes you at the front, Mileusnich's sentence leads one directly to the question of "When should I make this conversion, and when should I not?" The original, with its "it is sometimes desirable to..." takes the why as a given, as if the reader already knows that conversion is "desirable." Eliminating false subjects may sometimes show us that the sentence could actually contain a lot more information.
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