Sentence Sense: Becoming an Active Writer | Duncan Koerber | Skillshare

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Sentence Sense: Becoming an Active Writer

teacher avatar Duncan Koerber, University Professor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (21m)
    • 1. Course Overview

    • 2. Introduction to the Course

    • 3. What is Active Voice?

    • 4. What is Passive Voice and Why is it so Bad?

    • 5. The Morality Problem of Passive Voice

    • 6. When it's Okay to Use Passive Voice

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About This Class

Writers have a tendency to fall into what's called Passive Voice. This is a word order that creates wordiness and awkwardness. Also, it can hide details, which raises morality questions. Simply put, passive voice often hides who is doing the action in a sentence. Are you hiding information from your readers? 

Great writers know that the alternative, Active Voice, is the best way to write. In this course, you'll learn how to identify Passive Voice and convert those sentences into the Active Voice word order.

If you can become an active writer 95% of the time, you'll write more clearly and directly. As a result, readers will enjoy your style. 

This course comes from the author of Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Meet Your Teacher

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Duncan Koerber

University Professor


Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 10 years at six Canadian universities to thousands of students.

Currently a full-time assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, Duncan Koerber worked for nearly 10 years in reporting and editing roles for the London Free Press, the Mississauga News, and the University of Toronto Medium. He has freelanced for magazines and newspapers, including the Toronto Star.

Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Available on Amazon, the book considers the seven most common errors (interfering factors) in writing and how to improve them (enhancing factors). His second book, Crisis Communication... See full profile

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1. Course Overview: Welcome to the becoming an active writer course on Skillshare. How do you become an active writer? It means writing in a clear and direct way that readers love. And all you need to become an active writer is a few key lessons. My name is Duncan Carver and I've been teaching, writing and editing and proofreading the university level for 11 years. Before that, I spent ten years as a newspaper journalist. Recently I published a book with Oxford University Press about effective writing. This course introduces a simple grammatical concept, active voice. And you want to use active voice as much as possible. And then I'll introduce another grammatical concepts, passive voice, which ruins your writing. If you apply these lessons, you'll write in a clear and direct way that readers love. And I also think you will think more clearly. So let's get started on your journey to becoming an active writer. 2. Introduction to the Course: it could be helpful to think of your sentences as icebergs. So that tip of the iceberg is semantic, meaning. So that is just the pure meaning of those words that you put on the page. So if you say something like Jacob through the baseball, while most readers will process that in a very simple way, and they'll get the meaning of the individual doing the action, which is the throwing and the receiver of that action is Theo the ball? That's as faras most readers process. But back to that iceberg example. As we know there's so much more under the water, so to speak, in an iceberg, there's just so much below that. And if we think of what's below the water line, metaphorically speaking as your underlying grammatical structure of your sentences, we can actually harness what's going on underneath that, the pure meaning of your sentences for clarity for more effective writing, writing the gets to the point writing that is direct writing that ultimately readers, editors quite enjoy. So in this set of lectures, we're gonna look at the difference between two word order. So that's the way you put the words in some sort of order. So the English language does allow us to move things around in a sentence. For example, adverbs can go in so many different locations. Adjectives usually go before now owns these kinds of things. Well, we can also see that there are two opposing you might call them. Structures of sentences, orders of sentences and those air called the active voice and the passive voice for these lectures. I'm particularly interested in helping you to get passive voice out of your writing most of the time. So I'm saying 95% of the time and as a result, when you do this, when you convert your passive voice sentences to active voice, you will write better, I promise you and readers will enjoy your writing. 3. What is Active Voice?: In the introduction of these lectures, I mentioned word order. So this awful awful thing that I'm going to describe in this set of lectures called Passive Voice is a certain kind of word order. So you're putting the words in a different and often long winded order compared to what's called active voice. Don't let the voice part confuse you. I think it should be called, and it's not in grammatical terms, but I think it should be called just active order. Passive order. Now, in passive voice, the order of the words becomes a little bit longer than an active voice. It can often be incomplete. It can be evasive. And I'm gonna show you what all these things are all about as we go through these lectures . And this is probably the only really in depth grammar knowledge that you really need to, right? Well, this is Aziz, deep as it needs to get to understand how to put interesting, direct, useful sentences together, if you can figure this out if you can get this, you don't really have to worry about all the other things in the grammar book. So let's begin with explaining what the's word orders are so I want to begin with. Active boys of active voice is the ideal word order sentence. So on the slide, you'll see a little bit of a diagram here on that equation of some sort is if we were doing mathematics and the Symbolist active voice sentence. And this is the simplest sentence you can produce. An English language simply is a subject and a verb, so that's the first simplest active voice sentence. So it could be things like Joe talked. Richie painted, Kylie Ran. Arianna sang very simple 1212 And those verbs that I mentioned in those four sentences, they all don't require anything else. So what is the subject of the sentence was you saw in these active voice sentences? The subject is essentially a do er. I mean, it's a very awkward word, but it's the best I can come up with. And that is the duer of whatever the action is in the verb that comes after. And that's the key thing. We get the verb after the person or thing that is doing the action has been mentioned, so we know who the individual or thing is first, and then we get the action. Now. The second type of active voice sentences a little bit more complicated, but still very simple. And you'll see on the slide another equation. And so another type of active voice sentence simply has a subject of herb, which you've already seen and what's called the direct object. So think of this is the direct receiver of whatever action you are describing in that verb . So we have a thing or a person doing in action on to something else that object in grammatical terms. Could be human. Could be a thing. It doesn't really matter. They're just receiving whatever that action is. Some examples of the second or longer type of active voice sentence include The dog broke the door. Kerry straddled the fence. Clouds blanket the sky. He grabs the suitcase. Cyclists circled the track. So in all these cases we have a Duer, which is the subject of the sentence. We have a nice action, very strong verb there and then something else, and that is the object. That's the receiver of the action in all those examples. So that's an active voice. Very straightforward, very simple. You can write 95% of your sentences in this way, but I think more importantly, you'll start to think more logically and more straightforward. You think more clearly when you are thinking about constructing your sentences with a duer right away, right at the head of the sentence and in the verb after. 4. What is Passive Voice and Why is it so Bad?: So I've already given you the equation for active voice. Well, what does the equation for passive voice look like? Well, it's much more complicated. And that really shows the problem with passive voice that to write in passive voice, you must introduce some new parts of speech, some new parts of grammar just to make the same meaning. So let's look at these parts. So first you got the direct object, so that's the receiver of the action. As we saw an active voice, the receiver usually comes at the end of a simple, active voice sentence. Well, here it's at the beginning. So that's the first strange thing about passive voice word order, and that is the receiver comes first. Then we've got what's called the dead verb to be. Some form of to be was, were is there are. This is a useless word that doesn't say anything. That is how many images. Then we need what's called a participle form of a verb. So if you remember back to your conjugation of verbs class in school, you'll know that verbs. They have different endings. They take on different forms based on the subject based on the whole number of factors, including a number itself plural or singular, past or present tense while the participle form of the verb is a strange, often irregular form. So if we think of words like broken or stolen or thrown or beaten thes air, not forms of those verbs that we use that often we are, we don't say I stole in the shoes. We say I stole the shoes she stole the shoes not stolen. So these ey're irregular and not often used, but they're required in passive voice. And then the fourth part of the equation for passive voice structure or word order is the optional proposition. And I say optional because in a lot of passive voice sends is this does not exist, so there is no proposition. A proposition here is obviously by and then finally, the optional subject. So an active voice is subject with the dew of the action came first in passive voice. It comes at the end of the sentence, and it can be optional. So that is a key point to remember as I go through these lectures that we do not have to say the do er of the action So what are some examples of passive voice sentences? While we could say something like the winner was named by the awards committee, the fence was straddled by Kerry. The message is sent by the computer. The CEO was chosen by the organization. The dog was bitten by William. So in all these cases, the receiver of the action, the naming straddling the sending, the choosing and the biting all come first. And we've had to introduce more words, so you'll notice. These sentences are longer than the typical active voice subject verb object sentence. So they inherently introduce wordiness, and they make us wait a suspenseful wait for the do of the action in English. This comes across as somewhat illogical to readers because we're getting the receiver of the action first. We don't even know the action till the second word, and we don't even know the do of the action till the end. As I said, those can be optional, so we could simply say the winner was named. The fence was straddled. The message is sent. The CEO was chosen, the dog was bitten. But if I say those things and and I have weighed the optional by Proposition and the door of the action. We as readers are missing information we want to know. We want to know who did the naming, straddling, sending the choosing, the biting we did. That's important information. But that could be left, though, and it's still a grammatical sentence. Having seen these equations, you might think that the difference between active and passive is a simple reversal of the sentences. Well, of course, the passive equation is not simply reversal because it's got additional elements that are required by the grammar to make meaning. And also, sometimes what is the passive part of a sentence is not the whole sentence. So just remember that not the whole sentence necessarily. I'll give you an example. Imagine in this sentence in active voice, we say Laura invited Nancy toe a party this Saturday night. Now the whole part of that sentence is not that important to us. We're only interested in a little bit of it. It would be incorrect to kind of flip it and say, Hey, I've got passive voice, For example, of somebody flipped the sentence and said to a party this Saturday night, Laura invited Nancy that is not passive voice because the do er of the action is still coming first. So Laura is still coming first, and then we're getting that verb invited and we're still getting the object of the receiver of the action. Nancy. She's being invited at the end of that sentence. That's still active voice. So if you want to convert this the passive, I don't know why you would want to. But if you want to convert this the passive just to see what's going on here, you would write something like. Nancy was invited by Laura to a party this Saturday night so that little construction Laura invited Nancy becomes converted to Nancy was invited by Laura. Five words when the original inactive voice was three. That's the inherent wordiness that comes with passive voice. Now it's important. Understand how this under the surface, this this bit of the iceberg under the surface works because when you're editing your work with the work of other people, you will want to in 95% of the cases, convert the passive voice examples into active voice. We call this conversion. So on the slide, I've got a number of passive voice sentences, and what I would like you to do is pause this video and sit down with a pen and paper. Write those passive sentences down and convert them to active voice. If you're having any trouble converting these or you're not sure about maybe other examples that you're coming across, please post questions to me in the forums of this set of lectures. 5. The Morality Problem of Passive Voice: so far, I have given you the grammar that's kind of under the surface of sentences. And I've given you an example of a very straightforward style of word order, which is active voice and then also ah, problematic kind because of worthiness and some unusual constructions. And that is passive voice or passive word order. But these are kind of technical points. What about greater issues of passive voice, and one I want to talk about is the idea of the morality of passive voice. So this is a greater issue that sometimes people use passive voice to avoid responsibility . Let me give you an example on the slide, this sentence says. The village was bombed and seven Children were killed. So these air reprehensible actions killing Children, bombing a village. But if you go through this sentence and it's a passive voice sentence, you'll realize what's missing. What is that? The duer of the actions of bombing and killing? We don't have the do er. This is passive voice. We've got the receivers of the actions, the village, the seven Children we've got. The to be forms of the verbs was and were We've got the participle form of the verb bombed and killed. So all the elements air there, the required elements of passive voice. But we're missing the optional by whoever by the do er of these actions, and this could be deliberate. So a lot of writers political writers will avoid doing this. Business writers will avoid writing an active voice so that they can just not have to take responsibility for this. Now, what would you do with this kind of a sentence? While you would say government planes bombed the village and killed seven Children? That's the active voice version because the door of the action comes first. Now another one. In this slide, you'll see an example of a business letter that tries to evade responsibility. This is a termination notice and notice that the writer says, Please, no, the your position in the company has been eliminated. That's passive voice because we don't know who did the eliminating. They say no other position has been found. Well, who was doing the finding? We don't know. And then also the severance package stuff will be sent to your home address. By whom? I don't know. So really, there's three senses. They're missing the three doers of these major actions is pretty serious stuff and business writing. People will right this way often to avoid having a target on their back for these actions. So if you know who did the firing, you can contact that person and lay into them about this firing or find out why. But if we write in the passive voice, we don't even have to do that. And that's a problem. In academia, you sometimes get passive voice because people want to seem objective. So in science they'll say something like this. In a report, a limited sample was taken and tentative conclusions were drawn, so scientists want to think they are objective. So they write in passive voice all the time. You see this and other kinds of academic writing across all kinds of fields, but really it's not human beings. Did those samples took those samples? The human beings drew the conclusions, and so they're trying to hide behind a kind of faux objectivity of pseudo objectivity using passive voice. And that's a problem. A final good example comes in politics, so politicians will say your taxes will be raised, but they'll never say in the active voice. I will raise your taxes for obvious reasons. Now they will speak in the active voice when it's something that they want to get credit for, such as I will lower your taxes. They would never say something in passive voice like your taxes will be lowered because that's not giving them the credit. We should recognize this morality of passive voice and make sure that we're not using these wordy constructions to hide our responsibility for actions. We should come out and be honest and be direct and state that we are the do er of these actions that respects the people on the receiving end of this kind of communication. 6. When it's Okay to Use Passive Voice: earlier in this set of lectures, I said that you should use active voice 95% of the time, and the reason I put that qualification on it is because there are times when passive voice is more suitable for what you're trying to say. And as long as you're not doing it to hide something or to avoid something, then it's totally fine to use that. So let me give you a few examples. Let's say you want to emphasize the receiver of inaction on purpose of the start of a sentence. You could write something like the Confederation Bridge was opened in 1997. What's the active voice version of that? Something like the government officials opened the Confederation Bridge in 1997. Is there the doers of the action? But really, we're focusing on the bridge. We don't need to know. I mean, there's some random officials were involved in this That's not important to the sentence. So we can use passive voice. Or we can avoid saying who the doers were. Another one if you remember this invention a few years ago, the Segway, a personal vehicle, was introduced in 2000 and one again. We want to emphasize the receiver of the action, the object that's the Segway. And it's perfectly fine to say that we don't have to say who introduced it, even though we do know who the inventor was. Dean Cayman invented it. You could say Dean came and introduced the Segway, a personal vehicle in 2001. That's the active voice version. But that would only be useful if you were trying to focus on Dean came in. If you're trying to focus on the Segway, there's no need to say who did the introducing. Another situation comes if you really don't know who did the action. So a lot of journalists face this problem in their writing. So, for example, remember when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The journalist on that day did not know who did it, and there have been movies since questioning just who was the shooter of JFK. So naturally, the person would need to write in passive voice and say something like American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated today in Dallas. And, of course, we want to emphasize the president at the start of the sentence. Now that does raise questions Who did it? And that was something the police had to find out. Another common passive voice sentences. Just one that we use all the time. And that is something like Sandra was born in 1983. So Nike Sandra is the receiver of the action of bearing. And really, the do er of the action is her mother. We wouldn't want to convert this to active voice. Who wouldn't want to say Sandra is Mother bore her in 1983 cause it sounds stupid. It sounds weird. It's just unusual to our ears. And certainly that is a test in all kinds of writing is, does it sound right to our ears? So we would always say Sandra was born in 1983 So those are a few examples of exceptions when you can break the rule. But I would say Be cautious. Test your passive cases, your passive sentences determined. Do they really need to be passive, or can I make them active voice and strengthen my writing and B'more direct