The sentence construction “(noun) (verb phrase) by (noun)” is known as passive voice or passive construction, because the true subject is relegated to the end of the sentence and is thus acted on, rather than acting, which often weakens the statement.
The solution is simple: Give the focal point of the sentence its due—”(noun) (verb) (noun),” and demote the false subject to the back of the line. Note that not every passive construction is evil — sometimes what seems to be the false subject is worthy of prominence—but a preponderance of passive constructions leads to a wearying read.
1. “There is a considerable range of expertise demonstrated by the spam senders.”
The actors in this little drama are the spam spenders—or, to be more active, the spam senders are the actors in this little drama. Direct them center stage, and send the weak “there is” opening packing to the provinces: “The spam senders demonstrate a considerable range of expertise.”
2. “It was determined by the committee that the report was inconclusive.”
Again, the subject is weak and indeterminate. Two actors, the committee and the report, are vying for the lead role here, but committee is the bearer of the news about the report, and to place the report the head of the sentence would be to replace one passive sentence with another. Attend to the actors: “The committee determined that the report was inconclusive.”
3. “We were invited by our neighbors to attend their party.”
We is stronger than it as a sentence opener, but “our neighbors” is stronger still: “Our neighbors invited us to attend their party.”
4. “Groups help participants realize that most of their problems and secrets are shared by others in the group.”
This sentence starts off actively but then turns and bellies up in the middle; emphasizing “others in the group” over “most of their problems and secrets” makes the sentence more active: “Groups help participants realize that others in the group share most of their problems and secrets.”
5. “The proposed initiative will be bitterly opposed by abortion-rights groups.”
The content may be about the proposed initiative, but that doesn’t preclude given a sentence about it a more dynamic structure: “Abortion-rights groups will bitterly oppose the proposed initiative.”
6. “Minor keys, modal movement, and arpeggios are shared by both musical traditions.”
The writer is detailing key information at the head of this sentence, but starting off with the context is stronger: “Both musical traditions share minor keys, modal movement, and arpeggios.”
7. “In this way, the old religion was able to survive the onslaught of new ideas until the old gods were finally displaced by Christianity.”
Remember when I wrote that not every passive voice should be targeted for reconstruction? This sentence is more active, but no more correct: “In this way, the old religion was able to survive the onslaught of new ideas until Christianity finally displaced the old gods.” Perhaps the newcomer, Christianity, should also come later in the sentence.
Again, don’t indiscriminately exterminate passive construction at the expense of the writer’s voice or intent, but do exercise judicial revision to rejuvenate pallid prose.
The original article ran on DailyWritingTips.com.