Just Do It: Use active verbs as part of your plain language regime

Caryn Gootkin marks International Plain Language Day (IPLD – 13 October) with some tips on how to put life back into your writing.

Many people think plain language involves little more than using simpler words in shorter sentences. But, this is only one aspect of the style of writing the plain language movement advocates. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking plain means boring. Plain language should be vibrant, direct and engaging.

You may recall that I produced a guide to writing in plain language for last year’s special IPLD edition of The Media Online. The second part of this guide dealt with the function of various parts of speech and their role in clearer writing. As that was a general overview, I couldn’t go into too much detail about any one aspect of plain language.

When deciding what to write about to commemorate IPLD this year, I chose the aspect of style that most influences the tone of writing. As no sentence is complete without a (finite) verb, I settled on how the way we use (and abuse) verbs can make the difference between a vibrant piece of writing and a dry collection of words.

Let your verbs Just Do It

Such is the power of Nike’s marketing slogan that you will all have thought of this brand when you read these words, even though I omitted the swoosh. Despite the fact that the inspiration for this campaign came from the last words of a convicted murderer, its success lies in both its simplicity and the directness of the message.

If you use strong, active verbs, your writing will draw the reader in and hold their attention, communicating your message effectively.

Get active

The easiest way to energise your writing is to use the active voice unless the passive voice better suits the context. Passive writing distances your reader from the action of the sentence and, usually, adds unnecessary words to your prose.

Two simple examples highlight the difference between the two voices.

Active voice: “I made a mistake.” (Kitty Walker in a 2008 episode of Brothers and Sisters called ‘Mistakes were made’.)

Passive voice: “Mistakes were made.” (Ronald Reagan in a 1987 State of the Union Address.)

The second example shows how passive sentences conceal the doer of the action, promoting the subject to the head of the sentence despite the fact that it hasn’t in fact done anything. While admitting there were mistakes, Reagan purposefully distances himself and his administration from their making.

Do as I say not as I do

George Orwell was a vocal anti-passive crusader. He recommended Passive Avoidance in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘, in which he criticised the state of the English language in 1946.  (Can you imagine what he would think about its state today?)

The ironic thing about his essay, and the aspect that later critics pounced on, is that he wrote most of it in the passive. Here are two examples:

“To begin with it has nothing to do with … the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from.”

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases… can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

“An understanding has been reached”

Orwell often criticised the language politicians use to avoid direct admissions.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (Spot the passives.)

I came across a useful site, Inside Politics, while researching this aspect of political speech. Run by Gareth Van Onselen, this site quotes some of our president’s public pronouncements on controversial topics. While the contents are troubling enough, the style of speech is telling.  (In case you have troubling spotting the passive, I’ve highlighted it for you in bold.)

“God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed.

“So, insofar as Zimbabwe is concerned, we are certain that perceptions will be dealt with or addressed very soon.”

“The negotiating team ensured that every aspect of the negotiations (of the arms deal) was carried out in a responsible and accountable manner.”

Some guidelines

Changing a sentence from passive to active reduces the number of words used, fulfilling the plain language principles of using shorter sentences and the fewest words possible to convey meaning. Passive verbs also distance the reader from the action, often introducing vagueness and imprecision into a text.  If you don’t have a compelling reason to use the passive voice, don’t.

Only use the passive voice if it’s necessary to the context or your intended meaning e.g.

1. You want to promote or emphasise the object rather than the subject;

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

 –American Declaration of Independence

1.you don’t know the actor or don’t want your readers to know;

 A body was found in the field.

My car was stolen.

1. The actor is irrelevant;

The law came into force in October.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

1. You’re being evasive or avoiding blame;

Mistakes were made.

See also JZ’s statements on Zimbabwe and the arms deal.

1.you want to soften the blow or be vague to avoid making a direct accusation.

The account remains unpaid.

Our intentions were misunderstood.

You are loved

I’d love to read your favourite examples of lazy or calculated use of the passive. To inspire you, my contender for most blatant abuser of the passive voice is Josh Groban. The American music sensation had a hit in 2006 with “You are loved”. Call me old-fashioned, but if you want her to take your declaration seriously, I suggest you start the sentence with “I”. 

My work here is done.