Verbs and voice

The verb is the most vital part of any sentence – look after your verbs, and your sentences will look after themselves. To write well, use dynamic verbs in the active voice.

Prefer the active voice

To understand voice, you need to understand sentence structure. Sentences are made up of one or more clauses. Most (but not all) clauses have three parts:

  • subject: the, person, group or thing doing the action
  • verb: the action
  • object: the person, group or thing that the action is done to.

Active clauses structure follows a 'subject → verb → object' pattern. For example:

Maria returned the book.

Subject

Verb

Object

Maria

returned

the book.

The passive voice reverses the order, so that the object comes before the verb. The subject sometimes appears after the verb.

Object

Verb

Subject

The book

was returned

by Maria.

And sometimes the subject is omitted altogether:

Object

Verb

The book

was returned.

Note that the passive voice introduces the word 'was', which is the past tense of the verb 'to be'. This always occurs with the passive voice, and makes it easier to spot.

Avoid the passive voice. It sounds dull, can introduce ambiguity, and prevents the reader from understand who is doing what to whom. Using the active voice makes writing clear, direct and dynamic. It can also help reduce sentence length.

To convert the passive to the active, place the subject in front of the verb.

All applications must be received by 1 January.

can become:

You must apply by 1 January.

or

Students must apply by 1 January.

That's not to say you must never use the passive voice. It has its uses. Sometimes you don't know who the subject is ('The man was murdered') or it's completely obvious ('The woman was arrested'). When you know how to wield the passive voice, it becomes a tool rather than a habit.

Prefer strong verbs

Use verbs with energy about them. Avoid verbs like 'to be', 'to have' and 'to do'.

Monash has a presence on four continents and close education and research partnerships with many of the world's leading universities, giving students access to a large number of potential study and research locations.

This sentence has only one verb in the active voice: 'to have'.

Monash has a presence on four continents and close education and research partnerships with many of the world's leading universities, giving students access to a large number of potential study and research locations.

Instead, try something like:

You can find Monash on four continents. We've joined forces with many of the world's leading universities, so our students can study and research in different institutions all over the world.

Note that the sentence not only sounds more dynamic, but is also shorter.

Use verbs to indicate action

Nominalisation means turning a verb (or sometimes an adjective) into an abstract noun. It usually means describing a simple action with a cumbersome phrase. For example:

Nominalisation

Verb

to attend a meeting

to meet

we conducted an investigation

we investigated

to undertake research

to research

a comparison was made

we compared

Nominalisation is a great way to squeeze the life out of your writing, add extraneous words and create a heavy, dull tone.

Our students are taught the development and the application of the technology.

When we reviewed the context, we found this actually meant:

Our students learn to develop and apply the technology.