Multiple Choice Writing Tips–Avoid Passive Voice

Don't let your sentences be passive couch potatoes!

Don’t let your sentences be passive couch potatoes!

Perhaps you’re familiar with this scenario: finally, after you’d forgotten you’d even turned it in, your teacher passes back the paper you slaved over (maybe for weeks, maybe until 4:57 the night before), and there, at the top of the page, is a score ONE POINT below the letter grade that wanted. What could she possibly have found wrong? The thesis? BRILLIANT. The organization? MASTERFUL. Citations? CLEAN AND CORRECT. But there, as you flip through, just one or two sentences are underlined in red accompanied by teacher scrawl in the margins that reads, “Passive Voice!”

WHAT voice?

Perhaps, if you aren’t quite as concerned with an extra point or two off of your English paper, it doesn’t bother you when things like this happen. We are, many of us, guilty of brushing off these little errors and not using them as an opportunity to improve our writing, but as far as the SAT is concerned, this is a mistake!

There are a couple of ways to spot the passive voice. For one, passive voice sentences contain a specific verb construction: a linking verb followed by a past participle (an -ed or -en verb). E.g. The test was aced by Kendra (awkward, but you get the idea).

Another way to think about it is that in an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is also the agent of action. For example, “Wanda stole the money,” is an active sentence because Wanda, who is the subject of the sentence, is doing the stealing. In a passive voice sentence, the object being acted upon becomes the subject, e.g. “The money was stolen by Wanda!” Since English sentences generally follow a Subject-Verb-Object pattern, active voice sentences are easier to process for our brains; English speakers are most familiar with processing information when received as “this person/thing performed this action on this other person/thing.”

Stylistically, there are reasons why one might use passive voice. Perhaps if I’ve just solved an ongoing mystery and I wan’t to be dramatic I might emphasize that “the money was stolen… by Wanda!” maintaining an element of suspense right up until that shocking revelation (because really we all thought Wanda had finally turned a corner). Or perhaps if I stole the money I would want to leave out the agent of action all together: I couldn’t say “____ stole the money,” rather I would have to just concede that “The money was stolen.” But the SAT and ACT are not concerned with stylistic choices such as these and would prefer that the sentence follow the subject-verb-object pattern that is preferred in Standard Written English.

So next time you proofread your paper (if you’re not frantically printing it out six minutes before class) take a second to skim through for passive voice. It might surprise you how much clearer and more effective your writing can be. And don’t forget to keep it ACTIVE on the SAT and ACT, too!

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