Style Part 3: Too Many Passive Sentences

עודכן ב: 6 יונ 2018

A sentence is active when the subject is the doer of the action. It is passive when the subject is the receiver of the action.

Active sentence: Two hundred million people saw the movie.

Passive sentence: The movie was seen by 200 million people.

In the above examples, the action is seeing. In the active sentence, the subject (two hundred million people) is the doer of the action. In the passive sentence, the subject (the movie) is the receiver of the action.

Because passive sentences are usually longer and harder to read, using too many passive sentences can make your writing slow and uninteresting. Many experts think that passive sentences should make up only about 5 percent of your writing.

Active sentences, on the other hand, generally are clearer, are more direct, and seem stronger. However, this does not mean that you should stop using passive sentences. Appropriate use of passive sentences can make your writing more powerful.

Here are a few suggestions about when to use passive sentences:

1. When the action is more important than the doer

The theater was opened last month.

New students are invited to meet the dean in Room 226.

In these sentences, the theater being opened and the new students being invited are more important than the “doers” (the people who opened the theater or invited the new students). In fact, the “doers” are not important enough to mention.

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2. When the receiver of the action is more important than the doer

Everyone was given a key to the gym. The letters were faxed this morning.

In the first sentence, we care more about the people who were given a key than the people who were doing the giving. In the second sentence, the letters that were faxed are more important than the person who did the faxing.

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3. When the result of the action is more important than the doer

Our advice was followed by our clients.

The new computers were installed by the systems staff.

In the first sentence, the advice being followed is more important than the people giving the advice. In the second sentence, the installation of the computers is more important than the people who installed them.

4. When you do not know who did an action, do not care, or do not want your reader to know

Passive: A mistake was made, and all the scholarship application files were lost.

Passive: This report was written at the last minute.

The active forms of these examples would be as follows:

Active: I made a mistake and lost all the scholarship application files.

Active: I wrote this report at the last minute.

If you were the person who made the mistake in the first sentence, or the person who wrote the report in the second, would you choose the active or passive voice?

5. When you want to sound objective

Using passive sentences is a common practice in scientific and tech- nical writing. When you are reporting the results of an experiment or describing a study, it helps to sound objective and fair. Thus reports are

filled with sentences like these:

The pigeons were observed over a period of three weeks. The subjects were divided into three groups.

The use of the passive voice in lab reports also keeps the reader focused on the experiment itself, rather than on the researchers.

Summary: When you look over your writing, think about whether you have used too many passive sentences. Passive sentences are longer and more difficult to read and understand, so use them only when they help you to emphasize something important.

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