Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to Effectively Use Passive Sentences (Part I)

When it comes to English, I love exploring the rules that are meant to be broken. If done right, breaking a grammar rule catches readers by surprise, mixes things up, and can guide the reader's attention to what you really wanted emphasized.

The rule we're going to break today is to never use a passive sentence when you can use an active one. I am a huge supporter of active sentences—they almost always are more engaging than passive sentences—but sometimes a passive sentence serves your purpose so much better. When is that? I've explained below.

The Doer Is Not Important
If you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence, and it doesn't really matter who acted, consider using a passive sentence:

Chloe glanced around. Someone had fitted the bed with sheets of Egyptian cotton and had placed on top pillows that looked like sheathed clouds.

vs.

Chloe glanced around. The bed was fitted with sheets of Egyptian cotton and covered with pillows that looked like sheathed clouds.


Notice how the meaning of the sentence changes slightly—in the first, the doer seems important (and ominous) because they are the subject of the sentence. In the second, the emphasis is on the bed, which is where I wanted it to be (because in this case, nobody did anything ominously).


Other examples of this:
The building was built in 1975. (Emphasis on the building; in this case, it doesn't matter who built it.)
Our book can be purchased at Amazon.com (Emphasis on the book; it doesn't matter who buys it.)
The Grand Canyon is enjoyed year-round. (Emphasis on the Grand Canyon; it doesn't matter who enjoys it.)

Part II can be explored here!

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