Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Today's Writing Tip Is on Passive Sentences

Generally, a passive sentence fails to identify who performed an action. A good example would be, "The bank was robbed." We don't know who robbed the bank. Sometimes that's fine because the person who committed the robbery has not yet been apprehended. But if we do know who stole the money – and we are not in cahoots with him – we may want to phrase that sentence more dynamically: "Jack robbed the bank."

A less recognizable form of the passive sentence is when we simply make a clumsy sentence construction. This morning I was listening to CNN talk about the results of Super Tuesday. One of the announcers referred to "The counties that were won by Santorum" and "The counties that were won by Romney." Why not just say, "The counties that Santorum won" or "The counties that Romney won"?

Also, the word "that" is losing popularity; many publishers and editors recommend deleting it whenever you can. So the cleanest way to write the above sentences would be, "The counties Santorum (or Romney) won..." That not only removes any passivity from the sentence, but it also reduces wordiness.

Sigrid Macdonald is a manuscript editor and the author of three books, including Be Your Own Editor, a category bestseller on Amazon.

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