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Avoiding Wordiness and Active vs. Passive Voice

Downloadable version: Avoiding Wordiness / Active and Passive Voice

Overview: Although some students believe that using many words to express an idea makes their writing more sophisticated or poetic, that is usually untrue. Actually, the ability to write concisely is highly valued in most disciplines because conciseness usually increases clarity. You can make your writing more concise by cutting redundancies, unnecessary words and phrases, and the passive voice. While proofreading, remove any words or phrases that do not add necessary information. Removing extra words allows the reader to more easily understand what the writer is saying.

A. Eliminating Redundancy

Example 1

Wordy sentence: John hoped that his fellow classmates would collaborate together on the group project.

The word “fellow” is not adding anything to the sentence, since “classmates” makes it clear that they are members of the same group. Using both “collaborate” and “together” is also redundant since the definition of collaborate is “work together.”

Revised version: John hoped that his classmates would collaborate on the group project.


Example 2

Wordy sentence: Because of the fact that Corey wore a shirt that was green in color, no one saw the grass stains.

The phrase “green in color” is unnecessarily wordy since “green” is obviously a color. To simplify this sentence, we can remove “in color” and place the word “green” before shirt where it will function as a modifier describing Corey’s shirt.

Revised version: Because Corey wore a green shirt, no one saw the grass stains.


 B. Eliminating Unnecessary Words and Phrases

Example 1

Reread Example 2 above; we removed the phrase “of the fact” from the wordy sentence because the color of Corey’s shirt is not up for debate.


Example 2

Wordy sentence: Immediately, if not sooner, all CSULB students in the beginning of their junior year who have not already taken the Writing Proficiency Exam must all become informed about the fact that they need to take the CSULB Writing Proficiency Exam right away.

This sentence contains a lot of “filler” language. “Immediately, if not sooner,” doesn’t make sense.
“Immediately” and “right away” are redundant. The words “all,” “CSULB,” and “Writing Proficiency Exam” are repeated unnecessarily. Finally, the phrase “become informed about the fact” doesn’t add any helpful information; students are being informed about the WPE by reading the sentence—if they can understand it.

Revised version: CSULB students who have not taken the Writing Proficiency Exam by the beginning of their junior year must do so immediately.


C.  Eliminating the Passive Voice

To eliminate the passive voice, we need to understand how it differs from the active voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In the sentence “The boy washed the dog,” the subject (boy) performs the action (washed). The passive voice moves the recipient—or object—of the action ahead of the verb. In the sentence, “The dog was washed by the boy,” the object of the action (dog) is moved to the subject position ahead of the verb (washed).


Example 1

Passive voice:  It is advised by the board that we go forward with the deposition.

Revised version (Active voice): The board advises that we go forward with the deposition.

Uses of the Passive Voice: Most disciplines employ the active voice, but the passive voice tends to be valued

  • in scientific writing to remove the actions and opinions of scientists from the results, as in the sentence “When the chemicals were mixed, a color change was produced.”
  • when the agent of the action is not clear. In the sentence, “The tree was hit by a car,” the passive voice suggests that the identity of the driver is unknown.
  • when speakers or writers want to downplay or even hide the identity of the person(s) responsible for an action, as in the sentence “Mistakes were made” or “Six families may be evicted.” After reading each of those sentences, we may ask “by whom?” The passive voice allows speakers or writers to entirely remove the agent of the action.

Problems with the Passive Voice:

  • The passive voice often leads to wordiness. In the revised example above, placing the subject (the board) ahead of the verb (advises) puts the sentence into the active voice, eliminates the need for “It is” at the beginning of the sentence, and makes the sentence more clear and concise.
  • Passive sentences can be vague (as explained in “Uses of the Passive Voice”); too many of them can confuse your readers.

Identifying the Passive Voice: You may be reading a sentence in the passive voice if

  • the agent of the action comes after the verb (often signaled by the word “by,” as in “washed by the boy” or “advised by the board”)
  • you need to ask “by whom?” because the agent of the action is missing (as in “Mistakes were made”)


Example 2

Passive voice: [Capital punishment is believed in strongly by some young people] while [a wide variety of different opinions are held by others].

This sentence contains two passive constructions [in brackets] that can be reduced to one active construction. If we look for who or what is doing the action, we can find the subject and verb to reconstruct this sentence in active voice.

Revised version (Active voice): Young people differ widely in their opinions about capital punishment.


Practice: Because getting started is often the most difficult part of writing, sometimes we “jumpstart” our writing by using wordy filler language. Mark sentences that you struggled to produce. Then, use the tools modeled above to help you cut redundancies, unnecessary words and phrases, and the passive voice. When revising passive sentences, look for who or what is doing the action and put those two together to make an active construction.

Copyright (C) 2016. All rights reserved. This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.

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