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Passive Voice Exercises for Business Writers
Passive voice is often misunderstood. While it is not necessarily incorrect to use passive voice, sometimes you can change passive to active voice, creating a clearer and more concise piece of writing.
Finding the Subject and Verb
To understand passive voice, you must first understand how to find the subject and verb of a sentence. The subject of the sentence is the person, place or thing that the sentence is about. Often the subject of the sentence is completing some type of action.
For example: Cynthia climbed the mountain yesterday.
In this sentence, Cynthia is the subject and she is the one that is completing the action of climbing the mountain. So the verb is climbed.
The subject of the sentence can also be linked by a verb to something in a different part of the sentence, usually the predicate.
For example: Bob is happy about his raise.
In this sentence, the subject, Bob, is linked to the word happy. In this sentence, happy is used to describe how Bob feels. In this case the verb is the linking verb is.
Here are some sentences where you can practice finding the subject and the verb. The answers are at the bottom of the article (Answer Box 1)
1. The cat on the roof ran from the firefighter.
2. Even though it was raining, Tony and Luigi went to work
3. Butterflies in their natural habitat are fun to watch.
4. She wears glasses when she is reading.
5. Open the car door so I can get inside.
Were you able to find the subject and verbs of these sentences? Good! Now it is time to move on to finding and eliminating passive voice.
First here is a bit about passive voice and why you should avoid it most of the time. Passive voice can make a sentence harder to read. It makes your reader work harder to locate the subject and connect the subject to the action or linking verb within the sentence.
If you want your writing to be clear and concise, choose active voice. Active voice is important for how-to-articles, business documents and most academic papers.
Finding Passive Voice
So let’s take our first sentence about Cynthia.
Cynthia climbed the mountain yesterday.
The sentence about Cynthia was written in active voice. However, this next sentence ( The sentence about Cynthia was written in active voice.) is actually not in active voice.
The action of the sentence (writing) is not being performed by the subject.
Is the sentence writing itself? No. That’s not possible. Someone else is writing the sentence because the sentence can’t write itself.
So the true subject of the sentence is subverted, making it harder for the reader to grasp your meaning.
Fixing Passive Voice
It is easy to fix the sentence. Think about who is truly performing the action and make them the subject. So in this case we could write the sentence this way: The teacher wrote the sentence in active voice. Here the teacher is the subject and he is performing the action of writing.
Passive voice is not incorrect and it is not always a bad choice for your writing. But when nearly every sentence of a piece of writing is passive voice, your reader may have a hard time understanding what you mean and your writing may be overburdened with unnecessary words. If you can say it in five words instead of ten, you should.
Passive Voice Exercises
Exam the following passive voice sentences. Can you change them to active voice? (Answer Box 2)
1. The cat was taken to the vet’s yesterday.
2. The closing documents to the house were signed by the couple in February.
3. The grade given to the student was an F.
4. The book was written by an unknown author.
5. The soccer game was cancelled because we could not find the coach.
Passive Voice Is Not Always Bad
There are times when passive voice is the best choice. If you are delivering bad news, for example, it may be best to soften the blow. For example: The writing is not able to be accepted for publication at this time. The sentence lets the author know that she will not be published but it softens the message, making it appear to be less harsh.
Sometimes the logical flow of your writing calls for passive voice. But if you find that your meaning and message are obscured or hard to understand, examine your sentence structure for passive voice. Rewriting a few of those sentences may make a big difference in clarity and conciseness.
Answer Box 2
1. The woman took the cat to the vet’s office yesterday.
In order to fix this sentence, the reader needs to know who is doing the action of taking the cat to the vet.
2. The couple signed the closing document to the house in February. In this case, we need to know who is signing. The documents can’t sign themselves. Changing this sentence makes it more concise, clear and easy to read.
3. The teacher gave the student an F. Here you will rearrange the sentence so the reader can understand who is giving the grade and who is receiving the grade.
4. An unknown author wrote the book. Again, rearranging the subject of the sentence makes it concise and clear. We know the subject, and we know the action.
5. The school cancelled the soccer game because we could not find the coach. The first sentence was harder to understand. Who cancelled the soccer game? This might be important information if you need to know if the person or group cancelling actually had the authority to cancel it. By putting the organization completing the action, the school, first, the sentence has a stronger and clearer meaning.
Answer Box 1
1. Cat is the subject. The verb is ran because it tells what action the cat is performing
2. Tony and Luigi is the compound subject. The verb is went and explains where they are going.
3. The subject of the sentence, butterflies, is linked to the word fun in the predicate of the sentence, describing the butterflies
4. She is the subject of the sentence. The action that she is performing is wearing glasses. So the verb is wear.
5. This is a tricky one. There is an implied subject of You in the sentence. (Imagine saying it with the subject: You open the car door.) The action of this command is the ever open so that is the verb in this sentence.