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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Just Do It: Use active verbs as part of your plain language regime | Caryn Gootkin, The Media Online

If you want to put life in your writing, use active verbs. That's Gootkin's key message in this article. "Just Do It," as Nike says.

She writes:
If you use strong, active verbs, your writing will draw the reader in and hold their attention, communicating your message effectively. ... Passive writing distances your reader from the action of the sentence and, usually, adds unnecessary words to your prose.
Examples of active and passive voice:
  • Active voice: “I made a mistake.” 
  • Passive voice: “Mistakes were made.”
Gootkin explains:
The second example shows how passive sentences conceal the doer of the action, promoting the subject to the head of the sentence despite the fact that it hasn't in fact done anything.
She notes that writers and speakers sometimes use passive voice because they want to conceal the doer of the action--as President Ronald Reagan's speechwriters may have chosen to do in when they included the passive sentence above in his 1987 State of the Union Address. Gootkin goes on to describe other reasons for using passive verbs.

But she emphasizes, again:
Changing a sentence from passive to active reduces the number of words used, fulfilling the plain language principles of using shorter sentences and the fewest words possible to convey meaning. Passive verbs also distance the reader from the action, often introducing vagueness and imprecision into a text. If you don’t have a compelling reason to use the passive voice, don’t.
For more related advice, see the active vs. passive verbs entry in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual. Also see Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

This article is featured today (Oct. 11) in Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs--my daily online newspaper available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

BTW, Gootkin's article also promotes International Plain Language Day, coming Oct. 13.

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