Language and grammar tips for writing grammar

Verbs

One of the most common writing pitfalls writers is the use of passive versus active verbs. When speaking, most people tend to use active verbs without thinking, but when writing, many revert to a passive approach. This is a more formal style, which although suitable for some types of writing, can be boring and lifeless to the reader.

To keep your writing lively and interesting, you should look to use active verbs in the majority of your writing.

Technical writing also favours the use of active verbs, sometimes called ‘the active voice’ as it removes ambiguity from the writing and assists with a reader’s understanding of the content.

You can generally spot a passive verb in a sentence by the other words used. The sentence will probably contain words like ‘were’, ‘was’, ‘been’ or ‘being’. For example:

  • Your letter has been filed. (passive)
  • I have filed your letter. (active)
  • The customer will be informed. (passive)
  • We will inform the customer. (active)

Use your thesaurus mercilessly. Many verbs are overused or don’t convey the subtlety of what you, as the writer, may be trying to get across. The English language is rich in vocabulary and you should exploit it. Most verbs will have alternatives that convey a subtly different shade of the action you are describing. For example:

This is fine, but is relatively lifeless and uninteresting for the reader. Try:

  • He mumbled…
  • He shouted…
  • He whispered…
  • He boomed…
  • He stuttered…
  • He sobbed…

In all of these variations, it is still clear that something was said, but the manner in which it was expressed is also now evident.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Many experienced writers believe that adjectives and adverbs are overused, especially by inexperienced writers. In general, you should monitor your use of adjectives and ensure that they are kept to a minimum. Use adjectives only where you believe they are necessary and where they add definite detail to your work. Some rules to try and remember as you write:

  • A descriptive verb will usually be more effective than an adverb.
  • Lengthy use of adjectives and adverbs makes reading difficult for the reader.

Analyse your sentences and descriptions. If you are using more than one adjective or adverb in each, try removing all but the most vital one, and see whether the sentence reads better. In some cases, you may wish to use a simile or a metaphor to convey an image of what you are trying to describe. This will help reduce the number of adjectives and adverbs but is not appropriate in all cases.

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