Like so many ineffective charitable organizations trying to come to a mutual decision, the “to be” verb can wring its hands and drain the life out of your writing.
Consider this example:
Our goal is to pave the way for sales to create and land opportunities. We will be delivering content for the next platform.
These two sentences have been robbed of their power by an overuse of the verb “to be”. Along with its only slightly more energetic mate, “to have”, “to be” is very passive.
As in life, sometimes “being” is perfectly acceptable. Other times, action is required. Being is important and is therefore important in writing, but only where appropriate. To improve passive writing, I check the vicinity to find other more powerful verbs stymied by the “to be” verb. In the example above, I found “pave”, “create”, “land”, and “deliver”—all excellent verbs that when set free, will transform your writing.
Here’s my revision:
Our goal paves the way for sales to create and land opportunities. We will deliver content for the next platform.
Aging and Accessibility Go Hand-In-Hand describes baby boomers create demand for universal design. September 23 to 29 is Active Aging Week, and Canada’s aging boomers are smoothing the path for people living with disabilities.
4 Healthy Ways to Reduce Engine Idle showcase idling and its affects on health. As parents idle in front of the school, important lessons are being learned—and lost. Why not introduce your family to a few new habits and skills?
I’m building a list of real-life grammar error examples, based on my writing, researching, and reading. These examples will all make titallating class materials at BCIT or when I publish my own version of Strunk & White. The examples below focus on confusion about pluralization.
As an insurer and issuer of driver licences, we make decisions which can have a significant impact on peoples’ lives.
Problem:People is already plural, so the apostrophe is misplaced. Also, the sentence should use that and not which as it’s restrictive. In editing, the lack of a comma is a giveaway that the writer was uncertain anyway—using which always requires a comma.
As an insurer and issuer of driver licences, we make decisions that can have a significant impact on people’s lives.
ABC Crane Service is an Oklahoma based crane rental company that provides crane service nationwide. Their fleet of cranes range from 80 to 660 tons and have been used in projects to solve challenges such as…
Problem: In the second sentence, the subject is fleet, which is a collective noun (therefore treated as singular). The confusion arises from the words cranes and tons (clearly plural) closer to the verb have, but the collective should prevail so it should be has. Other copy errors are indicated, (and corrected), in underscore.
ABC Crane Service is an Oklahoma-based crane rental company, which provides crane service nationwide. Its fleet of cranes rangesin size from 80 to 660 tons and has been used in projects to solve challenges such as…
Check Sentences for Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers
Let’s face it, misplaced and dangling modifiers are just plain fun (as long as it’s not you who writes them). A misplaced modifier usually just doesn’t make sense, because they appear to modify the wrong thing.
After our French lessons, we could understand the French spoken by our visitors from Québec easily. It’s misplaced because it sounds like the visitors spoke easily, when it’s our “understanding” that should be modified. “…we could easily understand…”
A dangling modifier often renders the sentence hilarious. The most famous example of a dangling modifier is by Groucho Marx:
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.
Here’s another example: “It wasn’t long before the two got engaged, lived in several Canadian cities, pursued their separate career paths and explored their new surroundings while weighing the pros and cons of each.”
The best way to avoid this kind of confusion (what kind of confusion? The confusion that results from ambiguous pronouns), is to read your copy carefully checking that you can identify the noun that belongs to the pronoun.
If more than one noun emerges as a possibility, replace the pronoun with its intended noun.
“There’s a high fly ball! Winfield goes back. His head hits the wall. It’s rolling toward second base.”
Unless you’re a time traveller (and therefore familiar with temporal paradoxes), you’ll be confused by sentences where the writer did not follow a logical progression in time (that skipped writing course at university would have helped now) and now covers too much temporal real estate in a single sentence—don’t you start doing this!
English has twelve tenses. Present tense is the only real tense—all the others are factors of our imagination. The best rule of thumb is to stick to the present tense as much as possible and make occasional forays to other tenses as needed. Don’t make time travellers of your readers by hiking them hither and yon through your temporal landscapes.
The phrase, “Mistakes were made” is attributed to US President, Richard Nixon, to acknowledge that the Watergate situation was mishandled. He could have spoken in active voice and said, “Mistakes were made by me” or better still, “I made mistakes”, but he evaded direct admission of responsibility and thereby went down to history as Tricky Dick.
There are three times when it’s appropriate to write in the passive voice:
When the doer is unimportant. “The lab rats were given a placebo.”
To protect the doer from embarrassment. “You were overcharged for your purchase.”
TIP: In technical writing, you can distinguish between general concepts and action-oriented procedures by writing the former in passive voice and the latter in active.
Using active voice in web writing adds interest and action to your writing. Good sentences begin with a clearly stated subject (the doer) and a strong verb (action). While it is a commonly used verb, “to be” is passive as it describes a state of being rather than doing. So the more you use “to be”, the more passive sounding your writing will be. Also, some verbs are weaker than others. The verb “to understand” is weaker, because it is harder to quantify and tends to get lumped with another verb that’s doing the real work.
EXAMPLE: To understand how to run for President of the United States, you must have friends in high places.
When writing a blog (or any type of web writing), you are writing for an audience that’s fickle and distracted. There’s just too much information, so they flit about and if they encounter a challenge (such as poor organization, rambling prose, padded sentences), they bail. Web readers will not read your writing, unless it is written to their needs.
Web readers read differently:
They don’t read screens as easily as pages.
They tend to scan and forage for the content they want.
They don’t read in a linear fashion—they follow links and move about.
The general rule for web writing is to write shorter sentences, but little information is ever provided on how to write shorter sentences. The maxim, “Ride the horse in the direction it’s headed” is appropriate here. If you organize your information in a way that follows how people read, your blog is more likely to be read.
Here’s a little tip from my technical editing and grammar class about why there’s so much accepted redundancy in English:
“It all goes back to that fateful Battle in Hastings in 1066. After the Anglo-Saxons lost, Norman rule was established in England and with it, a second language. In order to rule the country (and be understood), court officials, lawmakers, and judges had to repeat themselves in both official languages (sound familiar?). Commoners, anxious to put on airs and sound official, incorporated these redundancies into everyday language, bringing about some of the phrases we have today:
Null (Anglo) and Void (Norman)
Just (Anglo) and Proper (Norman)
This writing habit is now so widespread that writers often think they need to use the and/or construct to accommodate both words, when the best solution is to simply remove the offending redundant word or phrase.”
Thank you very much for your support of Turning Point’s efforts to be important contributor to BC’s and Canada’s artistic wealth. Your contribution both financially, and artistically, help us tremendously both fund our work and present ourselves clearly and with flair to the greater community.
-- Jeremy Berkman, Artistic Director, Turning Point Ensemble