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Grammar: Actions (Part 1)

by Alex McLeese

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2

“Action is eloquence.” — William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.21

BAD WRITING IS WRITTEN HERE

During the writing of this post, mistakes were made. At times, the words were chosen poorly. Activity was eschewed in favor of a creeping passivity. And when this post was finally published, even interested readers were made to doze off at their desks. We can only hope that, by the end of the post, they will have been taught a valuable lesson.

Now, wake up! What were those mistakes, and, most importantly, who made them? Look again at the previous paragraph. Can you find even one mention of a subject that is doing something? No! Who made the mistakes? Who chose the words poorly? Who eschewed activity? Who made readers doze off? Who might teach them a lesson? Well, I did, of course! Like a politician who might likewise admit only that “mistakes were made”—the kind of thing George Orwell hated about political language—I was trying to avoid being held accountable for my errors by omitting any mention of myself.

WRITING GURUS SPEAK OUT

You might have heard of the active and passive voices from one of those teachers (praise them) who still cover grammar thoroughly. But the issue is less about a fine point of grammar than about effective style. If you write in the active voice more often, your readers will benefit immensely.

William Zinsser is the author of the best-selling book On Writing Well, now in its seventh edition. E. B. White turned his professor William Strunk’s book The Elements of Style into the single most famous American book on writing prose. If you don’t believe me, trust them:

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”2

 “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive…The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.3

THE ACTIVE VOICE

So just what is this active voice? The following explanation, with a sample sentence adapted for this blog, comes from Joseph Williams’ excellent book Style.

“When you write in the active voice, you typically put:

  1. A character in the subject as the agent of an action.
  2. The goal or receiver of an action in a direct object.

Subject/character/agent         verb/action                 object/goal

                  I                               wrote                      the Expos paper.

Passive voice differs in three ways:

  1. The subject names the goal of the action.
  2. A form of be precedes a verb in its past participle form.
  3. The agent of the action is in a by-phrase or dropped.

Subject/goal                be        +         verb/action     prepositional phrase/character/agent

The Expos paper         was                  written              [by me].”4

 While writing in the active voice is usually best, there are some exceptions. Williams encourages writers to use the passive voice when the agent of an action is self-evident, when it creates a shorter subject, and when it makes a sequence of subjects more coherent.5

 Now that you know what the active voice is, go ahead and correct the first paragraph of this post, and make use of it in your papers!


1Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 7th ed. (New York: Longman, 2003), 33.

2William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 7th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 67.

3William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 18.

4Williams, 61.

5Ibid., 75.


Alex McLeese ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in History.

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