Writing 101: Reducing Usage of Passive Verbs

Guest writer Cassaundra Cohrs recommends reducing your usage of passive sentence structures.

By Cassaundra Cohrs (Guest Writer)

Do you want to improve your writing, excite your readers, and get your point across clearly? Consider reducing your usage of passive verbs. Most often passive verbs include a form of “to be”, as listed in the conjugation table below.

To Be

The forms of the verb 'to be'
The Forms of the Verb TO BE

The problem with “to be”

Using the verb “to be” and using the passive voice is correct grammatically, but passive sentence structures present style and flow issues. Using them too often can create readability problems and can make your writing less interesting.

While “to be” is not always passive, it behaves that way often. “To be” verbs present a problem because they do not provide any imagery. What do you think of when you read the verb “is”? Hard, huh. Now, what do you think of when you read the words “walk” “swim” or “sing”? Unlike “is”, these verbs are active. You can picture someone doing them.  When you hear the verb “walk”, you might imagine two friends on a stroll through a field on a spring day or a group of children making their way to school or someone taking a boisterous retriever out for exercise. The word “walk” provides images from life experiences associated with that word.

 What do you see when you read the verb “is”? If you are like me, you are drawing a blank. Imagine if every sentence in a book used “to be” verbs rather than action-oriented verbs. Sure, you could be reading the same story, but it might be harder to imagine what is happening. While using “to be” verbs is fine in moderation, using them too often can leave your writing feeling lifeless.

Times to Consider Using “To Be”

For Progressive Action

When a form of “to be” attaches itself to a verb ending in –ing, “to be” is a helping verb indicating progressive action. Sentences such as “I am going to the store” and “I am playing the piano” are active because an action is occurring in the sentence.

Form of “to be” + -ing= active sentence structure

When Absolutely Necessary

“To be”, as a verb, can sometimes be necessary. It can indicate an existential state of being. It can also work as a predicate modifying a subject as in “The floor is wet.” It also can indicate equality, such as in “This girl is Maria”. Sometimes you need to use “to be”.  A standard introductory sentence such as “My name is George,” sounds a bit awkward in the active form of “ I call myself George.” Even so, writers should try not to litter their writings with excessive “to be” verbs.

The Problem with Passive Sentence Construction

Passive structure can present problems because it hides the subject of the sentence. This can make your writing clunky and hard to understand. If you talk this way in real life, it could appear as though you are avoiding saying something.

Consider this scenario: a man returns home with a cake. He leaves it on the table while he gathers everyone else in the house.  Everyone returns to find the man’s six-year-old and his dog standing over the remains of the cake on the floor. If the child says, “The cake was eaten”. Everyone could easily assume the child has eaten the cake. Alternatively, if the child says, “The dog jumped up and pulled the cake off of the table and ate it”, everyone gets a clearer idea of what happened.

Red Flags of Passive Sentence Construction

Subject and Object Switch Places

In passive sentence construction, the writer flips the subject and the object so that the object of a sentence becomes the subject.

Subject –> Object

Subject <– Object

Consider a common active sentence, such as:

“We ate a meal in a restaurant.”

That same information becomes much wordier in its passive form:

“A meal in a restaurant was eaten by us.”

Often Contains Prepositions

If you notice, the previous example also contains the preposition “by”.  Though not always the case, passive sentences often contain prepositions. In passive sentence construction, writers often remove the subject. To put the subject back into the sentence, they add a prepositional phrase. Though this returns the subject to the sentence, it moves the subject away from being the focus of the sentence.

Often Uses a Form of “To Be” + Past Participle Verb

Past participle verbs are verbs in the past tense. They become passive when “to be” verbs attach themselves to them. In this, they hide the doer of whatever action is occurring.

For example, sentences using this structure might include:

 “The gelato was eaten by Nancy.”

“The hotel bill was paid.”

 “The girl’s hair was dyed brown.”

These sentences in the active tense become:

“Nancy ate the gelato.”

“Someone paid for the hotel bill.”

 “The girl dyed her hair brown.”

Can be existential

Existential sentences such as “I am the boss” and “Lily is my friend” do not actually include any action. When identifying passive sentences, remember that, if no action is happening, it is probably passive.

Times to Consider Using Passive Construction

When You Do Not Want to Disclose the Identity of the Subject

Remember that example of the cake. In that example, if the child had eaten the cake and did not want to admit to it, using passive sentence construction would make sense. The rest of the household could still wonder if the dog had eaten it.

When You Do Not Know the Identity of the Subject

Often newspapers will use passive construction for crime stories or for other cases when no one knows the identity of the doer of the action. In such cases, writers could use the passive tense to avoid filling their articles with “the assailant” or “the perpetrator”.  In these cases, it can improve clarity to remove the subject.

When the Subject of the Sentence is Unimportant

In some cases, the identity of the doer does not matter. In those cases, the object could have greater importance and should be the focus.  

When You Want to Project Objectivity in Scientific and Technical Writing

Oftentimes, those evaluating scientific reports want the focus to be on the process and not on the individual performing that process. In such cases, writers may need to use passive construction to remove themselves from focus. Though to improve readability, they might consider using active construction where they can.

How to Reduce Usage of Passive Sentence Construction and “To Be” Verbs

 If all this makes you feel just a little bit overwhelmed, no need to worry. With just a few tweaks, you can transform your writing from bland to brilliant.

Flip the structure back

Consider this sentence: “It is the road that was travelled on by the bandits.“

In this sentence, the doer of the action is hiding. Who travelled on the road? The bandits did, right? So, if you move the subject of the sentence back to the front where it belongs, the sentence becomes active again.

Consider this active version of the sentence: “The bandits travelled on that road.”

Both sentences mean the same thing; however, one uses active language and the other passive. The active version also removes the unnecessary instances of “to be”.

Change the Verb

Many times other verbs can provide better imagery for the reader than “to be” does. Whenever you notice a version of “to be” in your writing, you might want to take a moment to consider its necessity and whether you could replace it with an active verb.

For example:

You could rewrite a sentence such as “My cat is from the animal shelter” using the active verb “adopt”. With that change, you could write, “We adopted my cat from the animal shelter”. This would present a much clearer image in the reader’s mind than the word “is” does.

Combine Sentences

Looking out for unnecessary sentences and seeing where you can condense your information can add clarity to your writing. Sometimes combining sentences can improve flow and remove unnecessary passive verbs all in one go. Consider this string of sentences on the same cat theme:

“My cat’s name is Zooey. She is nine. She is a calico. She is from the animal shelter.”

Instead, you might write:

“We adopted my nine-year-old calico cat Zooey from the animal shelter.”

This flows much better and removes several unnecessary words.

Final Thoughts

So, by now, you should all have the tools necessary to identify passive verbs and activate your writing. By adopting a more action-oriented vocabulary, you can better engage your readers and help them to immerse themselves in the content of your writing.  Just remember to note where the subject performing the action is in a sentence and consider whether the subject should stay there or move to a more prominent position.  Happy writing.

Talk, Play and Learn: Recommendations of an Outgoing Education Secretary

The outgoing Education Secretary was pledging to halve the number of children starting school without the early speaking or reading skills they need by 2028. He made several interventions. Will Mr Hinds’ interventions inspire ways to support multilingual children’s literacy skills in the English language?

Benefits of Creative Story Writing with Play

Creative Story Writing with Play sessions offer amazing opportunities for parents and carers to talk, play and learn with their children. Parents and carers usually say that at home they get very little free time to sit down and play with kids.

Lego building or modelling clay provides a wonderful opportunity to be creative together with kids because chatting together while making things and telling stories is a great way to bond. Our team provides simple templates to capture the results in writing. Photographs of the beautiful artefacts created by parents, carers and children capture the moment.

What are the benefits of talking? According to research, talking with children in the first three years of life builds the brain structure that is required to support literacy and thinking skills later in life. Talking with play builds trust and teaches how to deal with emotional and physical needs and interacting with others positively. These skills are important for success at school and in life.

Creative Story Writing with Play benefits kids and their parents and carers. Children feel valued, loved and connected. Talking and listening is beneficial for adults, too, because it helps in building close relationship.

Education Secretary’s Literacy Interventions

The Daily Mail newspaper reported recently – in July 2019 – that the Education Secretary Damian Hinds was urging “parents to put down their smartphone and talk to their children to help youngsters develop literary skills”.

Mr Hinds had said:

“There’s more distraction for everybody. People are on their phones, they’re on their tablets – that is no substitute for good old-fashioned building games and reading together.”

The online article goes on to point out that research by Oxford University Press has found that half of five-year-olds in some schools are behind in their language skills, with disadvantaged children disproportionately affected.

The researchers found that when pupils arrive unable to understand basic phrases, they find it much harder to follow commands, make friends and learn to read. In the long term, weakness in English communication skills can lead to low confidence, underachievement and poor behaviour.

Furthermore, a study by the National Literary Trust found one in eight of the most disadvantaged children did not own a book.

Talking is vital for the development of healthy and successful children. By calling attention to this point obviously the Education Secretary is making a valid point. This was not the first time he commented on children’s literacy skills.

Almost a year ago, DfE tweeted on July 31, 2018 that Damian Hinds was giving a keynote speech on social mobility at the Resolution Foundation headquarters in Westminster. CCHQ had prepared a press release on Damian Hinds’ ‘home learning environment’:

TTLCIC - CCHQ Press Release July 2018

The secretary would be saying that he was “pledging to halve the number of children starting school without the early speaking or reading skills they need by 2028”:

TTLCIC - Edu. Secretary Damian Hinds July 2018

News outlets reported that the government was pledging to halve the number of children starting school without the early speaking or reading skills they need by 2028. The speech was reported in the press and covered on social media by various stakeholders:

TTLCIC - Save The Children tweet July 2018

The government web site where the speech was posted provides the context for the quotations cited by the media. In fact, there was interesting detail packed into the Education Secretary’s speech:

“Because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up, because, of course, your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens and this has a huge impact on social mobility.

On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind at age five. That grows by an additional six months by the age of 11, and a further nine months by the age of 16.

So, by the time they take their GCSEs they are, on average, 19 months behind their peers.”

(Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/education-secretary-sets-vision-for-boosting-social-mobility)

The Guardian wrote that the Education Secretary wanted “to harness technology so parents can do more to help their children’s early language development”.

The Telegraph added that Damian Hinds’ “comments follow research that shows that more than a quarter of four-and-five-year-olds lack the early communication and literacy skills expected by the end of reception year”. They also linked the Education Secretary’s speech to an Ofsted statement regarding children who start school without being able to communicate properly or even use the toilet.

In June of that year the head of Ofsted had stated that “aged four some children have less than a third of the English vocabulary of their peers”.

Both The Telegraph and the Guardian newspapers pointed out that children with a poor vocabulary aged five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed at age 34 as children with good vocabulary.

Relevance of the Interventions to Community Learning

If the Education Secretary’s calculations are correct, there exist 19 months of difference among students who are in the same classroom during their GCSE year at school.

A school year is about 36 weeks, not counting the holidays and term breaks. And 36 weeks is equal to 9 months. So, these children that the secretary of state was referring to are more than 2 school years behind their peers, since 19 months would make 2.1 years according to this calculation.

If you were a school teacher, you would be teaching children whose understanding of the subjects they are studying is so varied that you would have to provide them with completely different resources on the same subject. These children would be sitting in the same classroom, but the level of their contribution would be so varied that any discussion would have to be moderated to ensure that all points of view are understood.

And, what happens to the children who were left behind and what about their families? Would they understand what happened, that these GCSE students had been left behind?

In his speech Mr Hinds added the following:

“It’s command of language, being able to express ourselves effectively, that is the gateway to success in school – and later on into later life.”

According to a 2008 survey, reported in Multilingual Britain published in 2013 by the British Academy and Cumberland Lodge, a language other than English was the language spoken at home with nearly 45% of the primary school population and over 35% in secondary education in London. The average in England was 15% in primary education and 11% in secondary. Over 40 languages were spoken by more than 1000 pupils in London schools.

Multilingual Britain highlights the following points:

  • The UK’s multilingualism is an asset and a resource, but is not fully valued
  • More data is needed to understand fully the nature and extent of multilingualism in the UK
  • Businesses and public service providers would benefit if community languages were harnessed in a systematic and constructive way
  • Multilingualism has direct implications for social cohesion.

Does Mr Hinds’ social mobility speech take into consideration multilingualism as ‘an asset and a resource’? Will Mr Hinds’ interventions inspire ways to support multilingual children’s literacy skills in the English language? Is he silent about the fact that the UK education system may be failing children who are multilingual or come from multilingual families? Is he offering ways of supporting children who may be falling behind because they and their families are multilingual?

He is offering facts and educational statistics that the public and families need to know. Multilingual families especially need to become aware of the risk that their children may fall behind their peers because of their English language skills.

And, technology is an important part of life. There are countless services that can only be accessed by using the internet. On the one hand parents and carers are encouraged to become computer and internet literate and on the other hand they are being warned about using technology instead of talking with their kids.

The Soul of Numbers

One of the questions investigated on a higher education or university course is: What are numbers? It is an interesting question because, if you think about it, we do not ever touch, feel, hear, see or smell numbers. Yes, we touch and see, feel, hear and smell things and may count or measure them, but that’s about it!

Numbers happen to be pretty mysterious things because, apart from counting or measuring, they are not met through the five senses. Students in higher education may study theories about what numbers are. There are different kinds of numbers such as rational numbers and irrational numbers. And, there may be various different theories attempting to explain what these numbers are.

Students and their lecturers may argue and write essays on the subject of number theory or theories, but rarely would we read about these conversations in the newspapers. The daily papers are all about things, places, events and people. Has anyone ever seen the picture of a number, unless we are talking about the numerals themselves?

The numbers four and six

The teacher who teaches our children at school in the twenty first century would be acquainted with set theory and probably think of numbers as sets. For example, the number 1 is a set which has one member, the number 2 is a set that has 2 members and so on. The number 0 would be a set that doesn’t have any members. When we add 1 and 2, we are then putting the set of 1 and the set of 2 together and getting a set with 3 members. And, so on.

A set is an abstract concept. So, it is likely that school teachers think that numbers are abstract concepts, whether they have studied number theory courses at university level or not. Thinking of numbers would then be, in a way, like thinking of equality, justice and beauty. We can come up with many examples, but we do not, like numbers, touch or feel or hear or see or smell equality as such, or justice as such or beauty as such. But, we may touch and see, feel, hear and smell objects and people who are beautiful or communities that are just and practice equality.

‘What is a number?’ is hardly going to be a question raised before children reach the age of attending higher education. Before that time arrives, they work with numbers: in other words, they do mathematics. And, neither they nor their teachers get the time or opportunity to ponder what mathematics is about.

And, doing mathematics involves learning rules and manipulating rules. Children learn how to add and subtract; how to multiply and divide. And, once a rule is learned, they feel that if they apply the rule incorrectly they will get a wrong answer. They start fearing the possiblity of making mistakes. In addition to this fear of failing, there is the problem that the rules parents and carers were taught when they were in school may be different from the rules their children are learning at school now.

Some schools are inviting parents and carers to learn their schools’ methods in teaching and learning mathematics. They are printing booklets with examples of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division strategies so that parents and carers are aware of how the school is teaching their children to do mathematics.

Bridging the generation gap

Why? Because it is important to understand how the rules work. The rules parents use for doing long multiplication or long division may be different from the rules their children are learning. If we can try to understand what makes the rules work, then we can bridge the gap between the generations and also enjoy doing mathematics together.

The challenge is finding ways to develop learners’ understanding of mathematics while they are solving problems in primary or secondary education, before they get to attend university courses, while at the same time empowering parents and carers so that they can learn new methods of doing mathematics.

 

 

 

We’ve Become Experts!

 

Parents and carers usually remember their own school days when their children start attending school. Some parents and carers are able to help their children with their homework. Others feel that they have done their duty if they can offer a good desk and a quiet environment for their child to study in.

 

Are you going back to school with your child?

 

On the one hand, if helping your child with homework brings back these memories, it is natural to feel some hesitation. On the other hand, our intuition tells us that, just like anything else in life, this shall also pass: the child will grow up and move on from school. In other words, we resolve to tolerate school for a few more years!

But, let’s be honest: how many of us like recalling the mathematics that we learned in school or the grammar drills that we may have been subjected to? Not many, in our opinion. And, we forget that, as teachers or parents/carers, our learning did not stop when we became adults. Indeed, we are still learning every day!

For example, nowadays everybody is using computer technology without even knowing it: we are all engrossed with our phones, aren’t we? We are typing our lives away, sending and receiving photos and being submerged with images and sounds and information coming from every corner of the universe.

Are we aware that the ability to manipulate the software on our phones is a skill? That, what makes these programmes and apps work is software and coding? Of course, not! If we were, we would probably have felt overwhelmed and stopped using these things altogether.

 

We’ve all become technology experts!

 

But, we don’t stop using technology and, like it or not, we keep learning how to use new apps and new gadgets every day. Science, mathematics and humanities, like technology, are not static subjects: they keep developing and changing, too. For example, take the mathematics parents and carers learned in school: it is not the same anymore; it, too, has changed and is being taught in a different way.

Science is changing, psychology is changing and, most important of all, pedagogy – the ‘science’ of teaching learners – is changing. The teachers at your children’s schools today are using different methods than the ones used by the teachers at the schools you attended.

 

Learning happens everywhere, whether we like it or not!

 

Whether we accept it or not, we are all learners, and, as parents, carers and teachers, from to time we need to take a new look at the subjects we were taught and we learned at school and update ourselves. These pages describe experiences in after school activities that offer new perspectives and approaches in teaching and learning. We hope that our efforts are worthwhile if we can help a little everyone looking for inspiration.

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