Opting for Active Voice and E-Prime

by Nicole Cook

Writing in active voice and eliminating
"to be" verbs confuses technical communicators almost as much as it confuses everybody else. Writing in active voice adds clarity to sentence structure. Therefore, writers try to eliminate verbs such as am, is, are, was, and were in order to give precise meaning to their sentences. Choosing active voice means using e-prime.

Vague and wordy sentences often confuse readers, making them more apt to misunderstand the messages they read. If the message concerns a procedure or policy, serious problems may result.

Passive sentence structure and overuse of to be verbs adds to this problem. However, the remedy often lies within the sentence. Using active voice and e-prime theory makes readability easier and aids understanding, clarifying who performs the action in a sentence.

Passive to Active: Passive voice refers to sentence structure where the subject receives rather than performs the action. In the sentence, "The dog was hit by the car," the subject (dog) receives the action (hit). Passive sentence structure describes something "being done" to the subject. Problems result when passive sentences mislead or confuse readers. Wordy indirectness often omits the doer of the action. Conversely, active voice names the subject performing the action. Notice the clarity of the sentence, "The car hit the dog." The subject (car) performs the action (hit). In this context passive or active voice does not seem important. Who really cares who hit the dog? But consider the importance of voice in legal or government documents where passive sentence construction hides or misrepresents the subject of the action.

Imagine receiving this statement in your mail: "Your tax work has been analyzed and deemed fraudulent. Serious consequences will be determined." Who claims responsibility for this statement? Who analyzed the tax work? Who determines the serious consequences? Would you even know whom to call to clarify this confusion? Obviously, passive voice in technical communication can contribute to confusion by hiding the source of the action.

Passive voice can be used in some cases. For instance, you know I referred to you in the previous sentence. Rewritten in active voice, the sentence looks like this: You can use passive voice in some cases. When the subject is obvious and easily understood, passive construction works well. Sentences written in passive voice tend to have more nouns than verbs. Verbs show action. In technical communication, active voice clarifies understaning by helping the reader recognize who performs the action.

Weak to Dynamic: Writing in e-prime helps keep passive voice to a minimum. Instead of writing, rereading, then replacing to be verbs, simply omit them from the first draft. Replace to be verbs with action verbs. Overuse of the to be verbs, including am, is, are, was, and were foster wordy and indirect sentences. Sometimes using to be verbs is unavoidable and, occasionally, the clearest way to express an idea. However, almost exclusive use of to be verbs causes weak, tedious, and confusing writing.

Using e-prime facilitates active voice and user-orientated language. This simple change in style adds energy and action to sentence structure.

User-orientated language in the guise of active voice and e-prime makes written messages clear for the reader. Technical communicators must know how to write clearly for the sake of their documents and their users. In documents like policies and procedures, active voice specifies the doer of the action so the user easily finds the doer of the sentence. E-prime contributes to active voice by using verbs to show movement, behavior, and animation so the writer names the doer of the action in the subject. The reader benefits from such clear and efficient language.

Changing writing styles to e-prime takes time and practice because most people are used to writing in passive voice. E-prime and active voice means learning a new form of communication, but clarity, conciseness, and precision results from writing with the audience in mind.


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