Use the Right Verb Forms
Other guidelines also have to be used flexibly. For example, the
campaign encourages the use of active verbs in order to make letters
sound ‘crisp and professional’ (Plain English Campaign 2008).
However it is sometimes necessary to use passive verbs in order to
take the harsh edge off the active equivalent.
Cutts (1995:48) attributes the active voice with making the writing
“tighter, more personal, and introduces action earlier in
sentences”. Similarly, The Oxford University Press (2009) believe
that in most sentences, actions should be expressed through verbs;
however the reality is that in many sentences the verbs are
‘smothered and all their vitality is trapped beneath heavy noun
phrases based on the verbs themselves’ (The Oxford University Press
An example of this would be
If you decide to cancel your application, a cheque for the amount of
your investment (subject to a deduction of the amount (if any) by
which the value of your investment has fallen at the date at which
your cancellation form is received by us) will be sent to you
(Cutts 1995: 53).
By reinstating the verb and removing the various clutter, i.e. the
brackets and asides, the text can be cut significantly i.e.
If you decide to cancel your application, we will send you a cheque
for the amount of your investment less any fall in its value at the
date we receive your cancellation form
(Cutts 1995: 53).
However, as previously
mentioned, the use of passive verbs cannot be discounted
altogether. Passive verbs are useful to defuse hostility, for
example, 'this bill has not been paid’ is softer than 'you have not
paid this bill'(Plain English Campaign 2008).
It can also be used to avoid
identifying the person who performed the action, for example, 'a
mistake was made' evades the blame, whereas 'we made a mistake'
admits to it (Plain English Campaign 2008).
Conversely, The Plain English Campaign (2008) advocates that it is
affable to bring the writer closer to the reader by referring to
them as ‘you’ as opposed to, for example, ‘the applicant’ or ‘the
supplier’. Similarly, the Campaign’s advice recommends that the
writer should refer to their self as ‘I’ or ‘we’. While this
element of friendliness is not necessarily a requirement of clear
communication, it may make the reader more receptive to the message
because it is reminiscent of a face to face conversation.
Hyland (2002) argues for this principle of writer identity in
academic writing. He argues that students are conditioned to remove
themselves from their writing in order to produce ‘a kind of
impersonal, faceless discourse’ (Hyland 2002: 351). He believes
that writers can gain a better control over their writing if they
are aware of the positive effects of self-mention i.e. a deeper
engagement with language (Hyland 2002: 357).