This is an overview of the second chapter of Writing in the Sciences offered by Stanford. This chapter focuses on writing with strong, active verbs. Lessons include how to:
- write in the active voice
- avoid turning verbs into nouns
- choose strong verbs
- get to the main verb of a sentence quickly
There are three advantages of using active voice:
- Emphasizes author responsibility
- Improves readability
- Reduces ambiguity
Here is an example sentence: ‘‘No attempt was made to contact non-responders because they were deemed unimportant to the analysis’’. When we put it in the active voice, we get ‘’We did not attempt to contact non-responders because we deemed them unimportant to the analysis’’. The active voice version places more emphasis on the role of the authors in the decision making, subtly indicating human judgement and potential fallibility.
Putting sentences into active voice often leads us to be more direct. For example, putting ‘‘a strong correlation was found between use of passive voice and other sins of writing’’ into active voice yields ‘‘We found a strong correlation between use of the passive voice and other sins of writing’’. Active voice tends to make sentences more direct.
The example sentence is: ‘‘General dysfunction of the immune system at the leukocyte level is suggested by both animal and human studies. Turning the sentence into active voice gives: ‘‘Both human and animal studies suggest that diabetics have general immune dysfunction at the leukocyte level’’. A sentence in form of agent - verb - recipient forces us to be more specific, thus reducing ambiguity of a sentence.
It is important to point out that passive voice may be appropriate in the methods section where what was done is more important than who did it.
After all, human agents are responsible for designing experiments, and they are present in the laboratory. Writing awkward phrases to avoid admitting their responsibility and their presence is an odd way of being objective.
– Jane J. Robinson, Science 7 June 1957: 1160.
Write with Verbs
Verbs with Embedded Meaning
For example, phrases like ‘‘reports that approximately’’ can be shortened to ‘’estimates’’ with ‘‘approximately’’ as its embedded meaning. They can make a big difference in sentences.
Avoid ‘’to be’’ verbs
There verbs are rather boring. Substituting ‘’to be’’ verbs can lead to exciting contents.
Don’t Turn Verbs into Nouns
Nouns slow readers down by the lack of action. Turning nouns into verbs gives a clearer picture of what is going. It has a bonus of avoiding ambiguity.
Turning verbs into nouns sometimes leads to the use of weaker verbs. For example, ‘‘decide’’ can be transformed into ‘‘make a decision’’, where ‘‘make’’ is a much weaker verb than ‘‘decide’’.
Don’t Bury the Main Verb
The principle is to keep the predicate close to the subject. Here is a sentence:
‘’one study of 930 adults with multiple sclerosis (MS) receiving care and one of two managed care settings or in a fee-for-service setting found that only two-thirds of those needing to contact a neurologist for an MS-related problem in the prior 6 months had done so’’
Readers struggle to understand the sentence due the clutter between the subject and the predicate. Moving ‘‘found’’ to the front of the sentence gives us ‘‘One study found that…’’. The reader are less bothered by the descriptive stuff as long as he/she has gotten the verb.
Here is a great example provided in the course:
Important studies to examine the descriptive epidemiology of autism, including the prevalence and changes in the characteristics of the population over time, have begun.
There are multiple problems in this sentence. 1) the main verb appears at the very end of the sentence while the main subject ‘‘studies’’ is placed at the beginning.; 2) fluff words like ‘‘important’’. 3) redundant phrases: ‘‘changes’’ almost always happen ‘‘over time’’; 4) ‘‘of the population’’ sounds vague. After addressing those issues, the sentence becomes:
Studies have begun to describe the epidemiology of autism, including recent changes in the disorder’s prevalence and characteristics.
- ‘‘Data’’ is plural.
- Compared to: used to point out similarities between two objects.
- Compared with: (used more often in science) used to pointed our differences between similar things.
- ‘‘That’’ is the restrictive (defining) pronoun (doesn’t have comma). Eliminating essential clause changes the meaning of the sentence.
- ‘‘Which’’ is the nonrestrictive (non-defining) pronoun. Eliminating the non-essential clause alters the basic meaning of the sentence. (must be set off by commas).
Careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go witch-hunting, remove the defining which-es, and by doing so improve their work.
– Strunk and White
- Do not use ‘’they’’ or ‘’their’’ when the subject is singular. To avoid gender choice, turn to a plural.
Other notes including Cut the Clutter, Structure, and Writing Process are also available.