Precision Plain English - LucidProse

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Here's to the passive voice

In his book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams explains one way to choose between active and passive voice. Consider these two sentences:
  1. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole.

  2. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

If you reflexively followed Strunk and White’s rule — Use the active voice — you’d go with 1. To show why that isn't necessarily the better choice, Williams poses this little puzzle: "From a reader’s point of view, which of those two sentences … fits between these next two sentences better?"

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. [ 1 or 2 ] So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

Try each one in turn:

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. 1The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. 2 A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

Most readers find that the second passage has a smoother "flow." The passive voice is why. The rule of thumb Williams offers is not about voice but about cohesion. Successive sentences are cohesive when they begin with material already familiar to the reader and end with new or unfamiliar material. "Something old, something new, in that order." If things aren't in that order, you can reverse them by changing voice.

In the second paragraph above, each sentence ends with an idea that is picked up at the beginning of the sentence that follows it. This helps readers because it places them on familiar ground at the start of each sentence and then leads them to the new information in the predicate. That structure — old-new, old-new — makes sentences cohesive.

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

This principle is one several that Williams presents in Style. I highly recommend the book.


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