(Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash)
By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action
It’s always surprising to me when my co-workers react with enthusiasm when I share grammar or writing rules. Despite having been the fourth-grader who diagrammed the tough sentences on the chalkboard, even I sometimes feel bored by, or tangled up in, grammar or style questions.
For me, writing rules are a means to an end. Sure, I have memorized and apply tons of style rules (Is that with a hyphen? When is this word capitalized?), and I recognize that consistent style makes a document look more professional. Bad grammar can certainly make readers stumble, not to mention question the writer’s authority. On the other hand, how much time do I really need to spend debating whether “data” is singular or plural in a given context?
No, the part of editing I truly find satisfying is improving sentence flow. Turning a long, confusing sentence into something clear and concise feels great. It also helps readers quickly grasp the writer’s meaning, which can make them more likely to continue reading. This, of course, has important applications for many organizations JVA works with; they really want foundations and other potential donors to read what they write. So in this blog and a follow-up, I’ll talk about a couple of rules—nay, techniques—for improving the flow of your documents. Today the focus is active voice.
What is active voice?
When we write in active voice (versus passive voice), the subject of the sentence performs the action. Here are some examples of passive-voice sentences and their active-voice counterparts.
Passive: Data collection is facilitated by the data and intake specialist, with support from others.
Active: The data and intake specialist facilitates data collection, and others support the efforts.
In the first sentence above, the subject of the sentence (who or what the sentence is about) is “data collection.” But data collection isn’t doing anything. The data and intake specialist does the thing. In the second sentence, we’ve remedied that; the data and intake specialist performs the action (facilitates data collection).
Here are a couple more examples:
Passive: Both surveys were developed by the funder and are required for organizations that receive grant funding.
Active: The funder developed both surveys, which are required for organizations that receive grant funding.
Passive: Basic demographic information and performance measures deemed important by the foundation are collected through the form.
Active: The form collects basic demographic information and performance measures that the foundation deems important.
When it’s OK to be passive
Passive voice forces readers to change their expectations mid-sentence. Readers expect the subject to be the actor, so they’re just briefly thrown off when that is not the case. Instances do exist, however, when passive voice is more appropriate. The University of Toronto has a nice, succinct list of situations when passive voice may be more appropriate. The scenario that I run across most at JVA is a combination of two of the justifications that site lists:
- The actor is irrelevant.
- The writer wants to emphasize the person or thing acted upon.
Example: Numerous statistically significant between-subjects main effects were found.
Explanation: This is an example from a JVA report involving lots of statistical analysis. In such reports, we could plausibly begin each sentence with “JVA found” or “Researchers found,” but we’ve already established from the beginning of the report who is performing the research, and including such phrases tends to sound like we are trying to make everything about us rather than about the research results.
- The focus groups were conducted in English.
- The presentations were selected for their relevance to the topic requests outlined in the formal call for submissions.
If you aren’t sure whether a sentence is OK in passive voice, try to come up with an active counterpart and see if it works. And if you aren’t sure whether a sentence is passive, Datayze has a handy passive voice detector for when you’re stumped. (The website also has an odd combination of applications for search engine optimization, time management, pregnancy information and baby names.) The passive voice detector will even apply the Zombies Test for you if you question its initial ruling.
Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics are another useful tool for assessing whether your writing is in active or passive voice. Under Word’s Preferences menu, choose Spelling and Grammar, and then click on Show Readability Statistics. After you’ve finished writing your document, when you hit Spelling and Grammar, after the spellcheck is complete, a dialogue box will show you not only the percentage of passive sentences in your document but also a couple of measurements of reading ease. It’s a great reality check.
In my next blog about writing, I’ll take on parallel construction. If you think that refers to work on the interstate, you might want to check it out.