Pass the Passive Writing, Please!

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I thought I was a pretty good writer when I was in college. I probably was, at least as far as making my argument was concerned. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn until after I graduated that I was guilty of a common writing error: I overused passive writing because I thought it sounded “literary.”

Boy, was I wrong! Yet I had plenty of company, and I can even point to a couple of good reasons why it happened and why writers continue to overwrite using the passive voice.

Are you making the mistake of using passive voice? Here are examples of the difference between active and passive voice. #editing #writing #writingtip #passivevoice Click To Tweet

Let me explain. In the active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive writing, the subject receives the action. It’s that simple. For example:

Active voice: Candace wrote a new blog about passive writing.

Passive voice: A new blog about passive writing was written by Candace.

In passive writing, the subject might even disappear from the sentence, like this:

A new blog about passive writing was written and posted.

In most cases, you want to emphasize the subject that does the action (active voice); in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. And because passive writing is often wordier than active writing, writers should always be looking for ways to craft a cleaner, more concise sentence.

While it is preferable to use an active voice most of the time, there is a time and place for passive writing. Daily Writing Tips puts it this way: “Passive writing is common in scientific papers because it lets the writers avoid using the words I or we, to avoid saying where their ideas came from That’s why some teachers think that passive voice sounds more educated. Usually, though, it’s simply less definite . . . but in the real world, when they have something to say, even scientists don’t have the luxury of not being definite.” And in A Writer’s Reference, author Diane Hacker writes,

“The passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to minimize the importance of the actor.”

Passive writing is tricky, though, and something you should work to avoid in most cases. Absolutewrite.com offers:

“It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for your hard work      and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability to create remarkable stories.”

That sounds like a goal worth pursuing! So don’t try to sound “literary” or “educated” by overusing the passive voice when you write. If your grammar checker flags a passive sentence, take a careful look to be sure you’ve written it that way for a good reason. If not, it’s time for a revision.

A final word: in the classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, author Patricia T. O’Connor writes, “If you have something to say, be direct about it. As in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” That’s good advice for all of us, so the next time you self-edit, say it the way you mean it and work to construct your sentences so they are direct and active.

—Candace

Next week: Avoiding Awkward Sentences

“Being” a Being Who Has a Pet Grammar Peeve

using being
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In my work as an editor and proofreader, a common and frequent error I see is the use of the phrases “being that,” “being as,” and “being as how.” While these casual and colloquial uses of the irregular verb to be are common, they are not appropriate for writers.

I find that writers often use these phrases because they don’t know how else to make their point. Let’s take this sentence, for example:

“Being as a I am a well-rounded student in high school, I expect to get acceptance letters from a lot of colleges.”

The construction of this sentence is too casual for someone who is writing professionally—or someone who is trying to impress a college selection committee. Yes, there are other issues with that sentence, and I’ll address some of them in future posts, but for now, let’s focus on the introductory phrase.

“Being as I am” is awkward at best and just plain ugly at its worst. As Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I puts it, “This clunker . . . may squeak by in conversation . . . but should be avoided in writing.”

The fix is simple: Substitute “because” for “being as” or “being that” and you’ve solve the issue! Here’s our sentence again with the correct word choice:

Being as Because I am a well-rounded student in high school, I expect to get acceptance letters from a lot of colleges.”

An alternate choice could be, “As I am a well-rounded student in high school, I expect to get acceptance letters from a lot of colleges.”

When you are self-editing, remember to avoid this incorrect use of 'to be.' #writetip #editingtip #grammar #sentences Click To Tweet

When you are self-editing, remember to avoid this incorrect use of to be. And if you have something to say about this or other grammar goofs, I hope you’ll share them here or write to me at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com.

—Candace

Next week: Affected Writing

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