Write in Active Voice—Avoid Passive Voice Answers

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Which picture do you find more compelling? The player driving to the basket for a layup? Or a ball going through a basket? I assume that nearly everyone is more interested in the picture on the left than the one on the right. We are social animals, compelled by human stories and drama. To have a player scoring is far more interesting than a ball falling through the net because we don’t know who scored the point or how hard they strived to score.

Writing in active voice is the picture on the left; writing in passive voice is the picture on the right.

 

What is it?

In active voice the actor does the action. In passive voice the actor receives the action. It’s the difference between creating a sentence that tells the reader who did what, and in that order, or creating a sentence that tells us what was done by whom.

The basic structure of an English sentence follows the pattern subject-verb-object. In active voice the actor is in the subject position of the sentence. In passive voice the actor is absent or placed in the object position of the sentence.

Active Voice: The player drives to the basket.
Passive Voice: The basketball was shot. 

All passive voice contains a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being). But not every sentence with a be verb is passive. The previous sentence is not passive because the be verb links an adjective (passive) to a noun (sentence).

Passive sentences may also have a prepositional phrase at the end to indicate who the actor is:

Passive VoiceThe basketball was shot by a player.

But if this sentence is about the picture at the top, then it infers who that actor is since no one is present in the picture. Yet another problem.

 

Write in Active Voice!

The difference between active and passive voice is simple really—the difference between putting the actor at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. But the effects on your writing are dramatic.

Take a mundane sentence as an example: Ice cream was reimagined by Ben and Jerry.

The actors sit at the back of the sentence. What normally would sit in the object position of the sentence after the verb (ice cream) finds itself in the spotlight at the beginning of the sentence. Extra words crowd the sentence (by and was). Also, the compelling verb (reimagined) loses its punch in the passive voice. The -ed crumbles the word into a phantom of its true self.

What about this instead? Ben and Jerry reimagined ice cream.

This sentence has umph and power. It’s forceful and compels the reader forward. The actors sit at the front of the sentence and act out the action of the sentence. The verb sings now.

Also, passive voice should be avoid because it is not emphatic and often a sign of an author who doesn’t know what to say. Or, sometimes people want to hide responsibility for some action or veil their lack of knowledge and so turn to passive voice to do so. Don’t come off as an indecisive writer shirking responsibility. Change your passive voice.

Put the actor at the beginning of the sentence. Activate your verbs. Eliminate the extra words. Passive voice will weigh down your sentences.

 

Choose answers that are in active voice

Test makers love to foil students with passive voice answer choices. Once you add this to your checklist of possible errors on the test, it will be easy to notice and easy to narrow down your choices. Whether you are dealing with GMAT Sentence Corrections or SAT Improving Sentences, testmakers will definitely test this skill, so be on the look out. Eliminate all answer choices in passive voice. You will start getting more answers correct if you do.

 

But don’t hate passive voice–sometimes it’s appropriate

Passive voice tends to get a bad rap. Yes, it does add extra words to sentences. Yes, it does make verbs less compelling. Yes, it does arrest the forward movement of sentences. And yes, it does result in tentative sentences.

Yet sometimes we need passive voice.

For one, sometimes we actually don’t know who the actor is. When an action has taken place, and we want to talk about it, then we need to use passive voice. For example:

The ball was thrown through the glass window.

At times, we would rather emphasize the action and not the actor or to emphasize the receiver of the action. This is a time to use passive voice:

The houses, the cars, the trees, the entire small town was demolished by the storm.

 

 

 

 

 Staying Consistent, Or How to Identify Faulty Parallelism

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Both images found on Wiki Commons

Which train track would you like to see ahead of you as you coast through the countryside? Dumb question, right? I know. I know. But would you say the same thing if I showed you two sentences and asked you to decide which ‘track’ is parallel?

Which would you rather do: fly like a bird in the skies or be swimming in the seas like a fish? or Which would you rather do: fly like a bird in the skies or swim like a fish in the seas?

If you chose the first sentence, your paragraph just careened off the ‘tracks’ into a granite gorge. Just as train tracks need to be perfectly parallel east to west, your words, phrases, and sentences need to be perfectly parallel beginning to end.

By using parallelism, you can emphasize an idea with greater force; you can improve the rhythm and style of your sentences; you can make your ideas more memorable; and you can make it easier for your readers to process the information on the screen or page.

RULE

Parallelism is all about consistency. It requires similar ideas to have a similar form and structure. This applies to comparisons, sentences with lists, simple sentences with linking verbs, and collections of sentences.

Parallelism in phrases and clauses can apply to the repetition of a collection of words at the beginning or at the end of those phrases and clauses. Word order plays an important role in parallelism too. In the previous sentence, I used “phrases and clauses” twice, and both times these words stayed in the same order. It would be disarming if the first time I wrote “phrases and clauses,” and the second time I wrote “clauses and phrases.”

HOW TO CORRECT

Depending on the situation, you will have a couple ways to revise faulty parallelism. On the test, you will not have much flexibility with how to correct the sentence, but when you are writing, you will have many options. Remember to choose the construction that is most clear, natural, and concise.

Gerunds and Infinitives

A common faulty parallelism involves switching between gerunds and infinitives in a list. Remember to stay consistent. So, decide on what form you want to use, and change all items in the list to this form.

FAULTY: Living in San Francisco, driving up and down all the hills, and to shift between gears makes for exciting driving.

PARALLEL: Living in San Francisco, driving up and down all the hills, and shifting between the gears makes for exciting driving.

Phrase and Articles

Make sure that a list of phrases are parallel. Parallelism can apply not only to the beginning of phrases and clauses, but also to the end of phrases and clauses. So, look at the whole phrase when you are deciding if they are parallel.

FAULTY: On the way to the market, I saw many cats, I saw many dogs, and there was even an elephant on the beach.

PARALLEL: On the way to the market, I saw many cats, I saw many dogs, and I saw an elephant on the beach.

Comparisons

Make sure that the items you are comparing are the same part of speech and the same structure.

FAULTY: Either the death of her mother or the fact that her dog died soon after led to Ophelia’s deep depression.

PARALLEL: Either the death of her mother or death of her dog soon after led to Ophelia’s deep depression.

ON THE TEST

Anytime you find a comparison in a sentence, or a sentence that contains a list of things, check the things being compared or the items in the list. This is a prime location for faulty parallelism. More often than not, these structures were put there by the testmaker for a specific reason–to test your knowledge of parallelism.

The best way to identify a lot of these errors is to individually read each item of the list with the stem phrase at the beginning of the sentence. In this way, you will be able to quickly see if they match.

Some problems will be made even more difficult by the addition of modifying phrases separating the items in the lists. Ignore these phrases when checking a sentence and choosing an answer choice.

 Pronoun-Antecedent Reference and Agreement

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stacks and stacks of crab traps

By Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire (Flickr: Crab Traps 1) CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Look at these crab traps, think about how each one is perfectly designed to lure its bait, structurally engineered for an easy entrance, but a nearly impossible exit, dropped in places where the crabs will easily find them, and enough traps to ensure that the fishermen will get their just reward. Now, imagine that you are the crab, and the test makers are the fisherman, intent on serving you for dinner. But instead of setting traps with string, metal, netting, and buoys, they use sentences, phrases, and words. One favorite trap of theirs involves pronouns and their antecedents.

THE RULE

A pronoun replaces a noun and must be consistent with the noun in number and gender. In grammar-speak, this consistency is known as agreement. Although a seemingly straightforward rule, errors involving pronouns and antecedents occur often, and usually in causal conversations. Test makers love to exploit these discrepancies between speech and formal writing in order to test a student’s actual knowledge of grammar rules.

HOW TO CORRECT THE ERROR

INCORRECT: Each of the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while they sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs.

1. Change the pronoun (a common way to fix the problem on the test)

CORRECT: Each of the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while it sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on its back.

2. Change the antecedent

CORRECT: All the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while they sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs.

3. Rewrite the sentence

CORRECT: Sucking trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs, the elephants lounged lazily in the sun.

ON THE GMAT, ACT, & SAT

When the portion of an underlined sentence contains a pronoun, you will need to run through a mental checklist of common pronoun-antecedent errors (luckily I have a list below for you :) ). To begin with, practice with a list near you of the common errors so you can actually run through a checklist, but as you progress, you will need the list less and less.

1. Ignore Modifying Phrases: Test makers lay traps for students, but their traps are standardized, repeated, and ultimately, easy to spot. One common trap is to disguise the true antecedent by placing a modifying phrase between it and the pronoun. Unfocused, tired, and novice students identify a plural noun in the modifying phrase or fail to find an antecedent at all. Thus, ignore modifying phrases when checking for pronoun-antecedent agreement.

2. Clarify Ambiguous Pronouns: Perhaps no error is more loved in grammar by testmakers than ambiguous pronoun reference. When a sentence contains more than one word that the pronoun can refer to, confusion occurs. This error is made in casual speech, which makes it difficult to identify unless students know the rule.

3. Beware of Possessive Pronouns: Another way to confuse test takers is by using a possessive noun, like Doug’s or Aki’s. Always look past these possessive pronouns–an antecedent cannot be implied in a sentence and must be stated explicitly–to the word modified by the possessive pronoun: Doug’s bicycles or Aki’s jellyfish.

4. Beware Indefinite Pronouns: Indefinite pronouns are tricky. In casual conversation, many people mistakenly use indefinite pronouns as if they were plural. As a result, your inner ear might be compromised by the casual speech of podcasts, songs, announcers, anchors, and friends. Make sure that you know the indefinite pronouns and make sure that you choose an answer that treats them as singular.

Possessive Pronouns: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, somebody, someone, something

5. Beware of Collective Nouns: Collective nouns are loved by test makers and loathed by test takers. These nouns, which refer to collections or groups as a whole, are sometimes treated singular, sometimes plural, and so test makers have many options to ensnare and befuddle students. Your only recourse is to determine the intended meaning of the sentence: is the group acting together or are the members in the group acting individually within the group? Often, though, test makers will write faulty sentences by treating the collective noun as singular when it should be plural.

Common Collective Nouns: party, committee, class, audience, crowd, troop, family, council, assembly

6. Nouns Combined with and, or, & nor: Test makers lay traps with and, or, and nor not only involving verbs, but also involving pronouns. The rules for subject-verb agreement apply here–nouns joined by and are plural; the last noun in a sequence or pair joined by or and nor will dictate whether it is singular or plural. Do a quick check to make sure the pronoun properly agrees with these combined nouns in the sentence.

7. this, that, which, and it: As pronouns, this, that, which, and it cannot replace entire sentences, ideas or concepts. Check to make sure that an antecedent is in the sentence for these words to refer to, not just implied. To resolve, look for answer choices that add an antecedent to the sentnence.

 Avoid Unnecessary Shifts in Verb Tense

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timeline showing the evolution of life

By LadyofHats, via Wikimedia Commons

One crucial aspect of our language allows us to explain the timeline of evolution depicted above: verb tenses. Alright, I’ll allow that some knowledge of biological systems, genetics, carbon dating, archeology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and a lot of free time would also be necessary. But, I’d still argue verb tenses are even more important. Where would you begin otherwise? How could you explain to me that corals had been on the earth for millions of years before fish began swimming in the oceans? How would you know that mushrooms had been on the scene even before the sponges, yet, bacteria was an important precursor for these life forms?

In this article, I intend to cover some general rules to follow when using verb tenses and also to give you some tips for the test. Let’s begin with what to look for on the test.

TESTING & VERB TENSES

When solving questions on the SAT, ACT, or GMAT that involve improving sentences or identifying errors in sentences, always check the answer choices to see how the verb tense and aspect change from answer choice to answer choice. This will be an easy way to weed out wrong answers–eliminate answer choices that use complex verb tenses or aspects. In most situations, a simple verb tense (past: loved, present: love, and future: will love) will be correct.

The other tenses, like past perfect or future perfect continuous, are only needed if a writer needs to distinguish between two or more moments in time. So, ask yourself: does this sentence have two or more events taking place at different points in time? If the answer is “Yes,” then you’ll need to choose an answer choice with a more complex verb tense. If the answer is “No,” then eliminate answers that do not use simple verb tenses. Test takers like to build trap wrong answers with convoluted and complex verb tenses.

GENERAL RULES

Avoid Unnecessary Time Shifts

Unless necessary, don’t shift between different moments in time. If you think about this, it should intuitively make sense: when I speak to my mom about my day, I use the past tense; when I write an email to friends about plans for the weekend, I use the future tense. I wouldn’t want to switch between these time sequences unnecessarily.

The reason for this is that shifts in time can be disorienting for readers and listeners; they have to stop and sort through the logical chronology of the actions. Ultimately, it is a failure on the part of the writer or speaker to communicate clearly and unambiguously to the listener. Consider the following example:

I sat in front of my computer all day trying to write an email. My parents need to know what happened, but I am afraid to tell them. I never intend to get speeding tickets when I drive, but it seems to happen more and more. What will I do?

This short paragraph jumps from one temporal moment to the next with little reason. First, the author uses past tense (sat), but switches to present tense (know, intend, seems), and ends with a future tense (will do). How are we supposed to know when this person wrote the email? Initially, we assume that it was in the past, but then halfway through, it appears that the person is still unsure what to do, and might not have written the email at all. Correct this paragraph by changing all verbs to the past tense.

A common error arises when writing about a movie or novel. Since we read the book in the past, our tendency is to talk about the events in the book taking place in the past as well. But since the events in the book are repeatable (that is, another person can sit down and read the same book and experience the same plot), use the present tense.

Active Voice

Voice, in grammar, tells us the relationship between the subject and the action–specifically, who is responsible for the action. In nearly all situations, use active voice.

 “Why?” you may ask. For one, active voice is better reading. Readers are more engaged, listeners are more compelled by your story, and you write less in the end. Active voice drives the story or essay forward, and ultimately, allows you to be more descriptive; and it doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction either.

Ice cream was eaten. (Passive)

Passive voice always contains a be verb. Check your sentences for be verbs and you’ll be able to identify passive constructions and correct them.

I ate ice cream. (Active)

Also, active voice ensures that your subject is doing the action in the sentence. Whereas in passive voice, the subject has something done to them or is not in the sentence at all. Of course, situations arise where passive voice can be appropriate. For example, science writing often uses passive voice in order to sound more objective and remove the human element from the experiment or study. Moreover, it is a favorite construction for politicians because it allows them to talk generally about events, and never directly state who is responsible for the actions (Actions were taken, but I’m not going to tell you who committed the actions). So, aside from situations where you want to avoid naming the person who committed the action, use active voice.