How to write clearly

8. Prefer active verbs to passive

Another easy step to clear writing is to use verbs in the active voice (‘the car hit a tree’) rather than the passive (‘a tree was hit.by the car’). Compare these:

Another easy step to clear writing is to use verbs in the active voice (‘the car hit a tree’) rather than the passive (‘a tree was hit.by the car’). Compare these:

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New guidelines have been laid down by the President in the hope that the length of documents submitted by DGs will be-, restricted to 15 pages. The President has laid down new guidelines in the hope that DGs will restrict the length of documents to 15 pages.


Look how we can make a sentence clearer by cutting out passives...:

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unclear: A recommendation was made by the European Parliament that consideration be given by the Member States to a simplification of the procedure. a bit better: The European Parliament made a recommendation that the Member States give consideration to a simplification of the procedure.


and finally by using verbs instead of abstract nouns:

sun.png much better: The European Parliament recommended that the Member States consider simplifying the procedure.


Name the agent

If you change passive verb forms into active ones, your writing will become clearer because you will be forced to name the agent — the person, organisa­tion or thing that is carrying out the action.

It’s easy to identify the agent here ...


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This project was rejected at Commission level The Commission rejected this project.


... but impossible here:

It is considered that tobacco advertising should be banned in the EU.

Who considers? The writer, the Commission, the public, the medical profession?

But you don’t have to avoid passives at all costs. They can be useful, for example when there’s no need to say who is responsible for the action because it’s obvious (‘All staff are encouraged to write clearly’).


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