Tag Archives: Sentence structure

Replacing The Passive

Weight_lifterBecause active voice is stronger than passive, writing instructors generally encourage authors to avoid the latter. By way of review,

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship—a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather
    than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

(from “Clarifying What’s Passive”).

Understanding the passive construction is a good start, but writers also need to know how to revise those sentences and replace the passive verbs with active ones instead.

Writers utilize the passive construction for primarily three reasons: (1) they don’t know who the active agent is, (2) they want to emphasize the object, or (3) they don’t want to point fingers.

Consequently an author might write sentences like these:

The article was shared on both Facebook and Twitter. [The active agent is unknown.]

No one could verify if the film was seen by as many viewers as the theater reported. [The clause if the film was seem by as many viewers emphasizes the subject of that clause, film.]

The car was towed to a nearby garage. [The writer chooses not to point out what agent did the action.]

The key to constructing a sentence in the active voice is to make the subject of the sentence the active agent. The first step is to restructure the sentence so that the subject receiving the action (in the examples above, the subjects in question are article, film, and car respectively) becomes the object of the active verb.

To create the active verb, the writer must remove the form of the be helping verb (was in each of the examples above; other possibilities include were, is, are, been, and being) and any other accompanying helping verbs (such as have or had), then choose the appropriate tense of the action verb.

Finally, the writer must insert a new subject. Often times the agent in a passive sentence shows up as part of a prepositional phrase, usually introduced with by. Those sentences are the easiest to replace: . . . by my neighbors yields the subject neighbors; . . . by the publisher yields the subject publisher.

Putting the three steps together, the passive sentence The tree limbs were broken by the wind becomes the active sentence The wind broke the tree limbs.

The harder kinds of sentences to correct are those which do not name the agent at all. Sometimes context will yield the agent and sometimes an indefinite pronoun can do the job. The examples above which do not have agents might become one of the following:

    * Any number of blog visitors shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Many shared the article on both Facebook and Twitter. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]
    * The company associated with AAA towed the car to a nearby garage. [Subject determined by a context clue.]
    * Somebody towed the car to a nearby garage. [Indefinite pronoun used as the subject.]

If there is no context clue and an indefinite pronoun won’t work as the subject, or if the writer’s intent is to feature the receiver of the action, he may need an entirely different sentence structure, perhaps incorporating the information contained in the passive sentence with another sentence, perhaps adding details, or perhaps reordering the sentence and choosing a different verb:

    * After being towed to the nearest garage, the car sat unattended for three days. [Incorporated with another sentence.]
    * Both Facebook and Twitter became the perfect platform to share the article. [Detail added.]
    * The article received considerable attention on both Facebook and Twitter. [Reworded to maintain article as the subject since the writer wished to feature it.]

Unfortunately “the Passive Police” have mistakenly accused a few other sentence constructions of being passive, but they are innocent and therefore writers and/or editors do not need to replace them. For help determining which sentences are not passive despite the accusations, see “Clarifying What’s Passive”. 😉



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Construct Your Sentences; Don’t Let Them Grow Like Weeds

scaffold-770382-mIn my capacity as a contest judge, an editor, and a book reviewer, I do my fair share of reading fiction. Of late, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be a growing trend—less attention to sentence structure.

For instance, in a novel I’m currently reading, I saw one paragraph with four of its five sentences all starting with He. In another, the opening two sentences were constructed identically. In others, authors lean heavily on a favorite construction which appears with frequency.

Some writers might think, Nit-picky, nit-picky, nit-picky.

Once upon a time, I may have thought this as well. But what’s at stake is a reader’s attention. Most readers, perhaps without realizing it, are affected by sentence structure.

For example, structure that is repeated with frequency can become tedious. If that construction happens to be simple sentences, the effect is often so simplistic that readers may feel as if they’re back in first grade reading their primers:

Jack Silversteen unbuckled his gun belt. He let it slide to the floor. The belt landed with a bang. Jack stared at his enemy. He crossed his arms.

But even more complex sentence construction can become tedious, too, because it creates a distinct rhythm:

Martha poured a cup of coffee, being careful not to spill. She waited for Jack to sit down, tapping her finger on the edge of the saucer. She glanced out the window, humming a little tune. A bird landed on the sill, flapping its wings against the glass.

The lack of variety becomes tiresome, no matter how well constructed the sentences are.

The truth is, some sentence construction can be problematic even if it isn’t repeated too often. For example the use of present participles (verb forms ending in —ing) in the example above can easily go awry. The —ing form of a verb implies simultaneous action, but some writers use this construction as if the action carried by the participle follows the action carried by the verb:

EXAMPLE: He wolfed down his sandwich, burping with satisfaction.

Clearly the character couldn’t wolf down the sandwich and simultaneously burp with satisfaction, but the construction of the sentence says that’s what he did. The author’s intention was to show a sequence of events, but the present participle doesn’t accomplish that purpose.

Participles are also problematic when they introduce a sentence because they are easily misplaced.

The rule of thumb for phrases that describe is to place them in close proximity to what they describe.

EXAMPLE: The man wearing the baseball cap climbed to the top of the bleachers.

When a participial phrase (a group of words beginning with a verb form such as walking or written or talked) begins a sentence, therefore, it is positioned to describe the very next noun—the subject of the sentence.

Walking in the park, the little girl spotted her first squirrel.
Written before he had his coffee, the email didn’t make much sense.
Talked about as if she’d already won, the gymnast became careless.

When a modifier is misplaced, however, it is positioned before a noun which it is not describing.

Walking the last mile, her finish time was well above the goal she’d set for herself.
Written on a napkin, she cherished the poem as a spontaneous expression of his love for her.
Talked about for days, the reader looked forward to the release of the new book.

Inattention to sentence construction can also lead to redundancy, a lack of parallelism, and a host of other awkward or inerrant grammar issues which may confound readers. But it can also mean an author has missed an opportunity to communicate more effectively.

For example, sentence construction contributes to the pace of a story. In action scenes, when the pace should be fast, short sentences, even fragments, can be most effective. Nothing stalls action more than long, leisurely sentences that meander.

Sentences, like scenes and chapters and books have a “sweet spot,” a part that delivers the greatest punch. Consequently, a well constructed sentence will deliver the key piece of information in that sweet spot—the end of the sentence. Yes, the beginning is important, but the point here is, after the key bit of information, the sentence shouldn’t go on with less important detail.

Weak: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book that would help her finish her research paper on time.

Improved: Nothing was more important to her, and she’d spent all day looking for just the right one—the perfect book. Now she could finish her research paper on time.

In the first example above, the thing most important to the character was the book, but the sentence doesn’t stop with that important information. By breaking the long sentence up, the writer can create a second punch. The book, it turns out, is important because it is the key to a second goal—finishing the paper on time. The construction of two sentences instead of one allows the writer to escalate the importance rather than simply moving past the first important object—the one the character has spent all day looking for.

Finally sentence construction is key to the creation of voice, whether the author’s voice or the various characters’ voices. For instance, in the previous paragraph, I ended the last sentence with a preposition. While grammar rules now allow such, a more formal writing style would still require rewriting the sentence to read . . . the one for which the character has spent all day looking.

weed-plant-1161347-mThe choice to construct the sentence in a formal manner or in a more colloquial manner is not an issue of right or wrong but rather of effect—what effect does the author hope to create. If he prefers a more academic, precise tone and wishes his audience to see him as careful in his usage, he most likely will opt for the formal construction. If, on the other hand, the author is going for a more relaxed tone, the preposition at the end of the sentence will be just fine.

Much of the problem with sentence structure, as I see it, is that writers may not be aware of the importance of writing from the ground up—choosing words purposefully and building sentences with intention. Rather, sentences seem to be left on their own, to grow as they wish. Like weeds.


Filed under Pace, Sentence structure, Voice

Altering Sentence Structure, Part 3

Nearly a year ago I did a short series of posts on sentence structure. I want to revisit this subject because, quite frankly, I see in my editing, manuscripts heavily dependent upon one particular construction or the other, whatever the author favors.

I have my favorites, too, so I’m not faulting anyone for going back to their best-liked forms. The problem is when an author goes back too often or in a sequence.

My favorite construction is the compound verb. This one is sometimes hard to pick up on because each verb potentially has its own object and describing words or phrases. Here’s an example from book one of The Lore of Efrathah (and I didn’t have to look long to find this example—first page, first sentence of the second paragraph):

    He turned his back on the afternoon crowd milling about their parents’ beach-side condo and lowered his voice.

You might think that construction is nearly invisible. I’d agree. But five more like it become rhythmically similar and therefore noticeable.

Here’s a passage from Raven’s Ladder (WaterBrook) by Jeffrey Overstreet, the CSFF Blog Tour feature next week. In brackets after each sentence I’ve added a note about the structure.

    The urgent need for a hiding place was what had brought the two outcasts together. [complex – noun dependent clause] Krawg had been running to avoid arrest. [simple] Warney had run to escape his sisters. [simple] Seven sisters, in fact. [fragment] All grown, they had never left home or the parents who babied them, and they shared their mother’s loathing for Warney. [compound/begins with an adverb describing a participle]

    What was it exactly that had made his mother treat him as a curse? [complex – adjective dependent clause/question] Warney shuddered to think of the accusations. [simple] To comfort himself, he affirmed that it was crazy for a parent to hold a grudge for some damage done in childbirth. [complex – adverbial dependent clause/begins with an infinitive phrase]

Notice the variety. The passage contains three simple sentences and three complex sentences, but none of the latter are structured the same.

In addition, for the most part, the various constructions have been mixed together. In the first paragraph, however, two simple sentences are back to back.

The effect is to make those sentences stand out. They are shorter than the others, and they have parallel construction. That is, they both start with a proper noun, they both have a single action verb, and they both have infinitive phrases following that verb.

Here’s the take home: by varying sentence structure, an author can then intentionally and purposefully repeat a sentence structure for effect.

My suggestion is to save one manuscript revision specifically to look at your sentence structure. If nothing else, you’ll avoid getting stuck in a rut of favorites.


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Altering Sentence Structure, Part 2

Including fragments is only one way a writer can create sentence structure variety. Another is to begin sentences with something other than their subjects (or the attending adjectives). Possible sentence openers include prepositional phrases (e.g. in the house), participial (words that are verb forms) phrases (e.g. waving her hand), adverbs, and even conjunctions.

Here are some examples, taken from Stephen R. Lawhead’s latest novel, Tuck:

Prepositional phrases:

At the cookhouse, he begged a bite to eat and a cup of something to drink, and found the kitchener most obliging.

Participial phrases:

Stepping past the gaoler [jailer], Tuck pushed the door open farther and relieving the porter of his torch, entered the cell.

A series (and mixture) of phrases;

Upon reaching the foot of the fortress mound, Tuck worked his way along the rising, switchback path towards the entrance.

Single word adverb:

Again, a slight hint of a grimace crossed the earl’s face.

Adverbial phrase:

That night at supper, Bran baited and set the snare to catch Wolf Hugh.


And while he told himself that paying monks to pray souls from hell was a luxury he could ill afford, dep in his heart of hearts he knew only too well …

A key point to remember is that varying your sentence structure is something to do during revision, not something to worry about in your first draft, or even in your first rewrite. First get the story down, then work to pretty it up!


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Altering Sentence Structure, Part 1

You probably remember from high school English that there are three basic types of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. Of course, there is the hybrid, compound-complex, so I guess that makes four types. When I say writers should vary sentence structure, am I saying we need one of each of these basic types in every paragraph?

Not exactly.

A writer can utilize a healthy mixture of these basic types, of course, but there are other ways to create variety.

The fragment. In formal writing, the kind we learned to do for school, using fragments is a no-no. Not so in fiction, especially in dialogue. The fact is, we rarely speak in complete sentences in real life, so our fiction characters certainly should be allowed to use fragments, too.

But even in non-fiction and in the narrative parts of our fiction, fragments can be effective. I hope you already picked up on the fragments I used earlier in this post to illustrate the point. Fragments are a great change of pace, which means they are eye-catching, attention-arresting, thought-stirring.

They should be used judiciously, which means they should not be used too frequently or for no particular purpose. They are special because they are not the norm, and as such they should be reserved for special occasions.

When sprinkled into the text with thought, fragments can give needed refreshment to prose.


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Sentence Structure

Show, don’t tell. How many times does a writer hear that advice? And as a corollary, use the active voice, not the passive. The idea is, especially in this fast-paced society, readers want action—immediate, on-stage, before-your-eyes action.

The problem this can pose for the author is bland writing, created by an over-reliance upon the same old subject-verb sentence structure.

Here’s my suggestion. Take a look at a page from your work in progress and see how many sentences start with a noun or pronoun (the, a, an or possessive pronouns don’t count).

I pulled out one of my old, unpublished short stories and rewrote a bit to illustrate.

Cassie slammed the book shut and pitched it onto the coffee table. Her heroine didn’t have a clue what trapped really meant. Justin would undoubtedly be along to rescue poor stranded Debby in the next chapter. But who would rescue Cassie?

She checked her watch.

Except for the conjunction in the fourth sentence, each of these starts with a noun or pronoun (in bold type). Consequently, each sentence has the same basic construction. Granted, the first has two verbs and the second is complex, with a dependent clause embedded inside, but that’s not a lot of variety.

Now imagine this basic sentence-verb structure dominating a 1500 word story? Or an 85,000 word novel. Here’s the point, in an attempt to be clear, a writer can actually become tedious.

The solution is simple. Work to vary the kinds of sentences you use. Next time we’ll look at some ways to alter sentence construction.

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