Overusing The Passive Voice? Fixing Fractured Logic and Clouded Purpose

The passive voice is one of those pesky Clarity, Grammar, and Usage problems that often pepper our work in our early drafts. We tend to talk in the passive voice or overuse “to be” conjugations when chatting with friends. Unfortunately, the passive voice—the inversion of the Subject-Verb-Object agreement in a clause—can have seriously deleterious effects on the clarity of our prose. Sometimes, when the passive voice inverts the subject-verb-object agreement of the sentence, it upsets the cause-and-effect relationship and fractures the logic of the sentence. The fractured logic of the sentence obscures meaning and clouds the sentence’s purpose. Ultimately, the passive voice dulls the keen edge of your insight. In this entry, we’ll introduce a revision strategy that will help you identify and rectify the passive voice in your prose.

Step 1: Before we turn to your work, rename the elements of the subject-verb-object agreement

    • Subject = Actor (cause)—the who or what does something
    • Verb = Action—i.e., hurts, loves, lives, thinks, names, upsets, etc.
    • Object = Recipient (effect/result)—the whom or what “receives” the actor’s action
    • We believe thinking through the passive voice as an arrangement of Actors, Actions, and Recipient—rather than the sometimes-confusing language of the grammatical subject, verb, and object—can help us more easily identify and correct the passive voice in our writing.

Step 2: Now, turn to your work. Identify the Action. What is done—what is the purpose of the sentence?

Step 3: Identify the Actor. Who or what does the “thing?”

Step 4: Identify the Recipient. Whom or what receives the action?

Step 5: Ask yourself, do I use unnecessary verbs that do not act upon a recipient? Are their purposeless verbs/actions in my sentence? Note: although the verb “to be” can be an action, it is often used in a way where it is not acting on anyone/anything and is thus, unnecessary.

Step 6: “Strike-through” unnecessary verbs. i.e., Strike-through.

Step 7: Ask yourself, does the actor appear before the action? Does the recipient appear after the action?

Step 8: Ask yourself, does the “effect/result” of the action appear after the cause?

Step 9: Reorder the sentence without the struck-through, purposeless verbs/actions identified in step 6 so that the Actor appears before the Action and the Recipient follows the Action.

 

Example 1.

“Advocating for science is what Sagan does throughout the book.”

Steps 2 – 6: Identify and Strike-through.

Advocating for science is what Carl Sagan does throughout The Demon Haunted World.”

Okay, so the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement in this sentence should be pretty clear. Sagan advocates for science. The extra, unnecessary verbs “is” and “does,” make this sentence a bit hard to parse and helps invert the cause-and-effect logic of the sentence. Here, the Action and Recipient follow a sound logical relationship. Science is the “thing” that is advocated. But Sagan is the catalyst of the action of the sentence. Sagan is the cause.

Steps 7 – 9: determine order of actor, action, and recipient with respect to the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement and the cause-and-effect logic of my sentence. Ask, what is the purpose of the sentence? Reorder sentence with fidelity to the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement.

Carl Sagan advocates for science throughout The Demon Haunted World.”

Example 2.

“The kind of protected environment that DiAngelo believes white people live in is one where they do not educate themselves enough about racial differences.”

Steps 2 – 6: Identify and Strike-through.

“The kind of protected environment that DiAngelo believes white people live in is one where they do not educate themselves enough about racial differences.”

Unlike the sentence in example one, here we have multiple ActorActionRecipient Arrangements. Indeed, many of the sentences we write have more than one ActorActionRecipient Arrangement.

protected environmentwhite peoplelive

DiAngelobelieveswhite people live

Theydo not educatethemselves enough about racial differences

In this example part 2 of step 2, “what is the purpose of the sentence,” is particularly important to our revision strategy. For us, the purpose of the sentence rests with illuminating the relationship between “white people” and their “protected environment” rather than merely relaying what “DiAngelo believes.” The ActorActionRecipient Arrangement: “They-do not educate-themselves enough about racial differences” modifies/unpacks the recipient protected environment.”

Steps 7 – 9: determine order of actor, action, and recipient with respect to the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement and the cause-and-effect logic of my sentence. Ask, what is the purpose of the sentence? Reorder sentence with fidelity to the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement.

DiAngelo believes white people live in a protected environment that insulates them from learning about racial differences.

In this rewrite, we centered the sentence’s “purpose” ActorActionRecipient Arrangement (white peopleliveprotected environment).

We also, maintained the DiAngelobelieveswhite people live, ActorActionRecipient Arrangement, and reframed the Theydo not educatethemselves enough about racial differences, ActorActionRecipient Arrangement, so that it better explains the relationship between the “protected environment” and racial differences.

In this ActorActionRecipient Arrangement the protected environment of the ActorActionRecipient Arrangement, “white peopleliveprotected environment,” becomes the Actor of a new ActorActionRecipient Arrangement, which reads “protected environmentinsulatesthem from learning about racial differences.”

One Final Note on Priorities: You may not have time to edit your work with the sentence-level rigor suggested above. With a limited editing window in mind, please consider the following clarity “hierarchy of needs” as a priority road map for this kind of grammatical ironing-out:

    1. Thesis and introductory paragraphs—if working on a dissertation length project, then your entire introduction should be as clear as possible (especially when making claims or an intervention). The claim that drives your essay, article, conference paper, thesis, or dissertation must be crystal clear.
    2. Topic sentences that establish the controlling idea of your paragraphs.
    3. Closing sentences of paragraphs.
    4. Your literature review.
    5. Any passage introducing or attending to evidence.
    6. All other sentences.
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