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How to Improve Your Writing with Active Verbs

Unless you’re trying to hide something, or unless you truly don’t know the facts, you should make your writing as specific as possible. Specifics reside in active voice. In English, using active verbs makes your writing clearer and more engaging. Compare these pairs of sentences:

The president of the Egg-Lovers’ Club was murdered yesterday. (The cops are still looking for the villain who wielded the hammer and crushed the president’s skull like an eggshell.)
Sir Francis Bacon murdered the president of the Egg-Lovers’ Club yesterday. (Bacon will soon move into a maximum-security cell.)
It is recommended that the furnace not be cleaned until next year. (Someone wants to save money, but no one is taking responsibility for this action. If the furnace breaks when the thermometer hits 20 below because too much glop is inside, no one’s name comes up for blame.)
The superintendent recommends that the furnace not be cleaned until next year. (Now the building’s residents may threaten the superintendent with the icicles they chip off their noses.)

Do you notice how these active-verb sentences provide extra information? In the first pair of sample sentences, you know the name of the murderer. In the second pair, you know who recommends postponing maintenance of the furnace. Knowing (in life as well as in grammar) is usually better than not knowing, and active voice, which generally provides more facts, is usually better than passive voice.

Active voice is also better than passive because active voice tends to use fewer words to say the same thing. Compare the following sentences:

Lulu was failed by the teacher because the grammar book was torn up by Lulu before it was ever opened. (20 words)
The teacher failed Lulu because Lulu tore up the grammar book before opening it. (14 words)

Okay, six words don’t make the difference between a 900-page novel and a 3-page story, but those words do add up. If you’re writing a letter or an essay, switching from passive to active voice may save you one-third of your words and therefore one-third of the reader’s energy and patience.

Right about now, you may be remembering a past homework assignment: The teacher asked for 500 words on Hamlet and you had only one teeny idea about the play. You may have thought that padding was a good idea! Wrong. Your teacher (or boss) can see that you’ve buried only one teeny idea in those piles of paragraphs. Besides losing points for knowing too little, you’re likely to lose points for wasting the reader’s time. The solution? Write in active voice and don’t pad your writing.

Some questions on the SAT and ACT ask you to revise a sentence by choosing the best of five possible versions. Fairly often, the correct answer changes the passive verb of the original to active voice.

Which sentence works better?

A. The omelet was made with whipped egg whites and chopped ham, but the yolks were discarded.
B. Eggworthy made an omelet of whipped egg whites and chopped ham but discarded the yolks.

Answer: Sentence B, which employs active voice (made, discarded) is preferable to Sentence A, which has passive verbs (was made, were discarded). Not only is Sentence B one word shorter, but it also provides more information (the name of the cook).

Try another: Choose the better sentence.

A. The Omelet Contest was run so poorly that some entries were labeled "dangerous" by the health officer.
B. Sal Monella ran the Omelet Contest so poorly that the health officer labeled some entries "dangerous."

Answer: Sentence B wins! Its active verb (ran) creates a stronger sentence than the passive verb (was run) of Sentence A. Also, Sentence B supplies the name of the contest official who forgot to refrigerate the cooking supplies.

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