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Active Voice and Passive Voice


Active and Passive Voice

When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the main action. In the passive voice, the main action is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.” (subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.” (subject: parts; main verb: collected)

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, then the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive. In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S –> V = active (the subject does the verb)
V –> S = passive (the verb is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the grammatical subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject/Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?).

By using the object as the grammatical subject, a passive voice sentence makes the information convoluted and complex, and the reader will be less likely to respond to it. Additionally, the meaningful subject (i.e., who or what does the main action) will never be the grammatical subject in the passive voice. 

Definitions:
Main action: The main action described by the sentence, what the sentence is about.
Meaningful subject: The person or thing doing the main action.
Grammatical subject: The word in the subject position in the sentence.

In nearly every sentence, the active voice results in more direct writing. However, the passive voice has a purpose, too. Next, we’ll look at the reasons for each voice.

Reasons for active voice

The main reason for using the active voice is that it directly answers the readers’ question: Who did what to whom? It provides that information and in that order. As a result, the reader can more easily understand and remember the idea you wish to communicate.

Other reasons include the following:

  1. Sentences in the active voice are more engaging. Something is performing an action.
  2. The active voice is more likely to use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject and the meaningful action as the main verb.
  3. Active voice sentences are generally more concise.
  4. The active voice emphasizes active verbs.

In brief, active voice follows the principles of direct writing.

Reasons for passive voice

The passive voice may be appropriate for two reasons: (1) to de-emphasize the person or thing doing the action, and (2) to shorten the grammatical subject.

The main reason for using the passive voice is to hide or de-emphasize the meaningful subject, the person or thing that did the meaningful action. Instead, the passive voice emphasizes the person or thing on which the action was performed, as seen in D.2a and D.2b.

Example D.2a, passive, emphasizes the material: “The material was first developed in the laboratory by researchers from Oslo.”
Example D.2.b, active, emphasizes the researchers: “Researchers from Oslo first developed the material in a laboratory.”

In both D.2a and D.2b, the meaningful action is developed, making researchers the meaningful subject. Whereas the active voice sentence in D.2a uses the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, the passive voice sentence in D.2b does not. If the writer wishes to focus on the material, and if the researchers are not important (or not at this point in the document), the writer might prefer the passive voice.

Scientific writing, regardless of the field, does not require the passive voice. This also applies to dissertation writing. The active voice is perfectly appropriate for describing the research methodology. The purpose of the research methodology is to describe what the researchers did to collect and analyze the data. Thus, the researchers are correct to use the active voice when describing their actions. Instead of writing

“The data were collected from six species of house sparrows,”

The researcher can write

“We collected data from six species of house sparrows.”

In many cases, the writer can revise the sentence to use the active voice without mentioning the researchers, as seen here:

“Six species of house sparrows provided the initial data for analysis.”

The second reason for using the passive voice is to simplify and shorten the subject of the sentence so that the main verb is closer to the beginning of the sentence and easier to find.

Example D.3a, active voice sentence: “The decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency consumed valuable work time.” (subject: 21 words)
Example D.3b, passive voice sentence: “Valuable work time was consumed by the decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency.” (subject: 3 words)

Example D.3a uses the meaningful subject (The decision whether to . . .) as the grammatical subject. It focuses the readers’ attention on the main idea of the sentence. For these reasons, Example D.3a is more direct than Example D.3b. However, the subject contains 21 words, greatly delaying the reader from reaching the main verb. On the other hand, Example D.3b uses the object (Valuable work time) as the grammatical subject, forcing the meaningful subject to the end of the sentence. However, the grammatical subject contains only 3 words, so the reader can reach the main verb more quickly.

In cases similar to Examples D.3a, the writer may choose to use the passive voice to reduce the length of the grammatical subject.

In a limited number of cases, the passive voice is useful, but examine every passive voice sentence carefully to make sure it is the better choice. Other than in these two cases, the active voice will produce better writing. When we editing clients’ documents at Precise Edit, we rarely need to use the passive voice.

(Adapted from the forthcoming Bowman’s Concise Guide to Technical Writing, available mid-February 2012 at http://HostileEditing.com.)

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Library Book Talk a Fun Success


Precise Edit's Alina Padilla giving away a copy of "300 Days of Better Writing."

We gave our second library book talk, “Writing that Hits Your Target,” at the Tony Hillerman Library in Albuquerque on Saturday, March 9th. Like the first book talk in Santa Fe (the La Farge Library), it was a success!

The presentation was short, but full of useful information for all writers. We also answered questions about the editing process. 

The presentation addressed five major writing concepts from 300 Days of Better Writing:

  • Rhetorical/grammatical subject;
  • Subject, verb, and object;
  • Sentence and paragraph transitions;
  • 1 idea per paragraph; and
  • Writing simply. 

We also gave away a book to one lucky recipient. 

We look forward to more successful library book talks in the future. We also look forward to teaching more on-line courses of “Top Five Writing Strategies,” which cover the same major topics. 

We would like to thank the staff at Tony Hillerman for helping make our book talk a success. 

For more information on our writing guides visit PreciseEdit.com.

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When corpses go swimming


“Swimming happily, the corpse floated by his head.”

Ok-what’s wrong with that statement? It seems to say that the corpse is swimming happily, which is a rather odd thing for corpses to do.

The problem is that the introductory phrase is a dangling modifier. This means that the subject (stated or implied) of the introductory adverbial phrase doesn’t match the subject of the sentence.

In the example above, the subject of the main sentence is “the corpse.” However, the implied subject of the introductory phrase “swimming happily” is he. Because they aren’t the same, we, the readers, are left with a rather strange image.

Without having any additional clues about the subject, the reader will assume that the subject of the introductory phrase is the same as the subject of the main sentence. This is why why the corpse seems to swimming happily.

Here’s another: “As a professor of economics, the plan is likely to succeed.”

This seems to imply that the plan is a professor. That’s odd, too. The subject of the main sentence is “plan,” so without any clues to tell us differently, we assume that the subject of the introductory phrase is also “plan,” making “plan” a professor of economics.

Even if we had the clues, however, the phrase would still dangle because the subjects would be different. That’s what a dangling modifier is: an introductory phrase or clause that doesn’t have the same subject (implied or stated) as the main sentence.

Thus, to fix these dangling modifiers, we need to make the subject (implied or stated) of the introductory phrase the same as the subject of the main sentence. Here are possible revisions for the above examples.

“While swimming happily, he saw a corpse float by his head.”
“As a professor of economics, I believe that the plan is likely to succeed.”

Do you know any dangling modifers that amuse you? Have you heard any dangling modifiers or seen any in print (hint, listen to CNN)? Please share below!

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How much should my e-book cost?


 Amazon.com and SmashWords have opened the doors for self-publishing authors to distribute their e-books worldwide, and many authors are quick to take advantage of this opportunity. They upload their book files, fill in the book descriptions and other information, and then get to the question of price. How much should an e-book cost?

Many new self-publishing authors are looking for the most readers possible, so they choose a low price. Perhaps the author is hoping consumers will buy the book on impulse because the price is so low. Perhaps the author thinks that the low price will result in massive sales volume, which would compensate for the lower profit per book. I see many books with a $0.99 price tag.

This isn’t always the best approach to setting the price for an e-book. In fact, it’s usually the wrong approach. We can turn to the field of micro-economics to understand why gaining more readers isn’t always desirable, and why high sales volume doesn’t always produce the most profit. We’ll look at sales price from the basis of three concepts:

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Doing the Right Thing for Your Clients


I’m in a business where I can do what I love: help clients communicate well through writing. If I do this well, and if I provide a service or product that people want at a price they are willing to pay, I make money. My profit, therefore, is a good indicator of the health and quality of my business. As a former accounting professor told me, “Money in, good. Money out, bad.”

Sometimes the money has to go out. Of course, every business has expenses: people to pay, services to contract, supplies to buy, etc. But sometimes, the money goes out because it’s the right thing to do. I’ll give you two examples of this concept. Continue reading

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Commas for Lunch


Learn to use commas correctly, leading to professional and clear writing. “Commas for Lunch,” a live, 1-hour online course by David Bowman, chief editor of Precise Edit.

Topics include the 6 major uses of commas and the 3 most common places where people use commas when they shouldn’t. Participants’ questions will also be discussed and answered.

Date: February 4, 2011
Time: 11:00 a.m. EST
18 seat maximum
Free

The course PDF is $0.99 (not required to participate).
Click here to register, or visit PreciseEdit.com for more information.

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“Commas for Lunch”, a free on-line workshop.


Learn to use commas correctly, leading to professional and clear writing. “Commas for Lunch”, a one-hour on-line course by David Bowman, chief editor of Precise Edit. Date: Sept. 24, 2010 Time: 1:00 p.m. EST. 18 seat maximum Attendance is Free. COURSE FULL.

Stay tuned–We’ll do this again.

UPDATE: 0 Seats remain.

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