writing help

Originally written for the blog of Light Creative.

 

We’ve touched on active and passive voice before, but it can be a complicated decision, so we thought we’d provide a bit more clarity.

First of all, let’s recap:

Active voice means the subject is doing the action.

Passive voice means the subject is being acted upon.

Here are some examples, using the eternally beloved Inspector Gubbins (a crime-solving dog who follows his nose and his heart) as the subject:

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins ate an old shoe.

Passive voice: The old shoe was eaten by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins is investigating the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: The case of the missing old shoe is being investigated by Inspector Gubbins.

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins received a medal for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

Passive voice: A medal was awarded to Inspector Gubbins for his work on the case of the missing old shoe.

It’s generally a safer bet to use the active voice, because it usually leads to clearer, simpler sentences and makes for easier reading. Clear, unambiguous copy conveys a sense of authority and integrity, and readers love it!

 

Why you should avoid the passive voice whenever possible:

When used incorrectly, the passive voice can lead you into an impenetrable jungle of prepositional phrases – ate becomes was eaten by, investigating becomes being investigated by, and before you know it you have no idea where the subject of your sentence went and why you cared in the first place.

Active voice: The Mayor gave Inspector Gubbins the keys to the city in a shiny box with a lovely ribbon on top.

Passive voice: The keys to the city were given to Inspector Gubbins in a shiny box with a lovely ribbon on top by the Mayor.

If your reader can’t follow the meaning of your copy through the Preposition Jungle, they might become frustrated and lose interest – no one likes to be confused. Plus there are spiders in jungles, dangling from trees like gross, eight-legged participles.

 

When to use the passive voice:

Having said all that, the passive voice exists for a reason, and sometimes it’s the best voice for the job (we still love you, Passive Voice – take us back?). The passive voice adjusts the sentence so that it emphasises the thing that is being acted upon, rather than the thing that is doing the acting:

Active voice: Inspector Gubbins ate an old shoe.

Passive voice: The old shoe was eaten by Inspector Gubbins.

Essentially, the passive voice takes the focus away from the actor. Depending on what you want out of your copy, this makes the passive voice a powerful tool for a couple of situations.

 

When you want to emphasise something other than the actor:

If the actor is not the most important part of your sentence, the passive voice allows you to emphasise the action or the acted-upon, rather than the actor:

Passive voice: The man suspected of stealing the old shoe was questioned by police for many hours.

Active voice: The police questioned the man suspected of stealing the old shoe for many hours.

Sometimes this is dictated by the context of your sentence:

Passive voice: The Department of Shoes were horrified by the case of the missing shoe, and wrote an extensive proposal to the Mayor’s office to amend the city’s footwear-protection laws. The proposal was endorsed by Inspector Gubbins and the rest of the police force.

Active voice: The Department of Shoes were horrified by the case of the missing shoe, and wrote an extensive proposal to the Mayor’s office to amend the city’s footwear-protection laws. Inspector Gubbins and the rest of the police force endorsed the proposal.

 

When you want to keep the actor out of the sentence altogether:

Sometimes you don’t want the actor to appear in your sentence at all. For example, if the actor is unknown, the passive voice allows you to construct the sentence without the actor:

Passive voice: The old shoe has been eaten.

Active voice: ? has eaten the old shoe.

Passive voice: The spoons have gone missing.

Active voice: ? took all the spoons.

Or perhaps the actor is known, but you want to be tactful and avoid naming names. Passive voice has got you covered:

Passive voice: We think that the old shoe has been eaten. [Everybody gasps in astonishment and agrees that something must be done. Inspector Gubbins raises his sweet paw and volunteers to sniff out the perpetrator!]

Active voice: We think that Inspector Gubbins ate the old shoe. Bad Inspector! [Inspector Gubbins hangs his adorable head in shame, and everybody feels very awkward indeed!]

Passive voice: All the spoons have gone missing from the kitchen.

Active voice: Ethelbert took all the spoons from the kitchen, and now everyone must stir their tea with knives. Thanks a lot, Ethelbert.

You can catch a lot of politicians using the passive voice this way, especially when something’s gone wrong and they want to shift focus away from the person responsible – mistakes were made, rather than I made a mistake.

 

All in all, the passive voice is a bit like a loose pair of earphones – great to have around, and often very useful, but likely to become impossibly tangled and incredibly frustrating if appropriate care isn’t taken. Don’t put the passive voice in your pocket, is basically what we’re saying.

Originally published at the blog of Light Creative: https://lightcreative.com.au/journal/common-mistakes-homophone-edition/

 

English is a wonderful, complicated, inconsistent, beautiful mess of a language, and there are an awful lot of rules to follow. It doesn’t help that we have a whole bunch of homophones – words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Occasionally the wrong word can sneak into a sentence, and that’s understandable (homophones are famously sneaky), but using the wrong word can really mangle a perfectly innocent sentence, and do serious damage to your credibility. Here are a couple of the most common homophone mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

 

You’re and Your

Use you’re when you mean you are.

Use your when you mean belonging to you.

For example:

Correct: Inspector Gubbins, your nose [the nose belonging to you] has solved the case yet again! You’re [you are] the best detective we’ve ever had!

Incorrect: Inspector Gubbins, you’re nose has solved the case yet again! Your the best detective we’ve ever had!

Tip: If you’re unsure about your and you’re, play the substitution game! Replace the your/you’re in your sentence with you are. If your sentence still makes sense, it’s you’re. If it doesn’t make sense anymore, it’s your.

 

To, Too and Two

Use to when you’re describing a destination, a recipient or an action.

Use too when you mean as well or when you’re describing an extreme.

Use two when you mean 2.

For example:

Correct: Awww! Look at Inspector Gubbins with his tail between his legs! He doesn’t want to go [action] to the meeting room [destination], he wants to stay [action] here and play with his tennis ball! I don’t blame him – those meetings always take far too long [extreme]! Last week we spent two [2] hours talking about the correct way to send [action] reports to the Chief [recipient]. That room is always freezing cold, too [as well]!

Incorrect: Awww! Look at Inspector Gubbins with his tail between his legs! He doesn’t want too go two the meeting room, he wants two stay here and play with his tennis ball! I don’t blame him – those meetings always take far to long! Last week we spent to hours talking about the correct way two send reports too the Chief. That room is always freezing cold, to!

Tip: Stick with the substitution game if you’re uncertain. Replace the to/too/two in your sentence with 2 – if it still makes sense, use two. If not, try replacing it with as well or extremely – if that makes sense, use too. To is a little bit trickier. If your to/too/two is in front of a verb (a ‘doing word’), it should be to. If you can replace it with towards, and the sentence still makes sense, use to. If you can replace it with as a gift for, and the sentence still makes sense, use to.

 

There, They’re and Their

Use there when you’re describing a destination.

Use they’re when you mean they are.

Use their when you mean belonging to them.

For example:

Correct: Oh no! Don’t look now, Inspector Gubbins, but those three men over there [destination] are members of the infamous criminal gang, the Very Naughty Boys! They’re [they are] wanted for questioning about some stolen peanut butter! We mustn’t let them get away! Can you pick up the scent of their bags [the bags belonging to them] from here?

Incorrect: Oh no! Don’t look now, Inspector Gubbins, but those three men over they’re are members of the infamous criminal gang, the Very Naughty Boys! Their wanted for questioning about some stolen peanut butter! We mustn’t let them get away! Can you pick up the scent of there bags from here?

Tip: If you can replace the there/they’re/their in your sentence with they are, use they’re. If you’re talking about something that belongs to a group, use their. For there, try replacing it in your sentence with where and turning your sentence into a question. For example, ‘those men over there!’ would become ‘those men over where?’, or ‘my cookie was right there a second ago!’ would become ‘my cookie was right where a second ago?’. If your sentence makes sense (and sounds a bit like something out of a pantomime), use there.

 

It’s and Its

Use it’s when you mean it is or it has.

Use its when you mean belonging to it.

For example:

Correct: Goodness me, look at Inspector Gubbins gnawing at that tennis ball – it’s [it is] covered in slobber! He must be stressed about a difficult case. He’s been chewing that ball for days, and now it’s [it has] lost most of its yellow fuzz [the yellow fuzz belonging to it].

Incorrect: Goodness me, look at Inspector Gubbins gnawing at that tennis ball – its covered in slobber! He must be stressed about a difficult case. He’s been chewing that ball for days, and now its lost most of it’s yellow fuzz.

Tip: This one can be a bit confusing, but just remember that when used with it, ‘s is ALWAYS a contraction of it is or it has. If you cannot replace the its/it’s in your sentence with it is or it has, use its. Don’t worry, we’ll go into apostrophes in greater detail in a separate article – they’re tricksy little hobbitses!

 

Who’s and Whose

Use who’s when you mean who is or who has.

Use whose when you mean belonging to someone.

For example:

Correct: Whose slobbery tennis ball [the slobbery tennis ball belonging to someone] is this? Who’s [who is] always leaving slobbery tennis balls in the interrogation room? Is it Ethelbert, the lab technician whose shoelaces [the shoelaces belonging to Ethelbert] are always untied, and who’s [who has] had mung beans for lunch every day this week? I’ll bet it is Ethelbert! Thanks a lot, Ethelbert!

Incorrect: Who’s slobbery tennis ball is this? Whose always leaving slobbery tennis balls in the interrogation room? Is it Ethelbert, the lab technician who’s shoelaces are always untied, and whose had mung beans for lunch every day this week? I’ll bet it is Ethelbert! Thanks a lot, Ethelbert!

Tip: The substitution game works for this one as well – if you can replace the who’s/whose in your sentence with who is or who has, and your sentence still makes sense, use who’s. If you’re talking about something that belongs to someone, use whose.

 

Hopefully this list will help you find your way through the hidden twists and turns of the Homophone House of Mirrors – good luck to you!