Use the active voice

In document LearningExpress s EXAM SUCCESS GMAT. In Only 4 Steps! (Page 141-149)

What to Expect on the GMAT

4. Use the active voice

5. Use variety in sentence structure.

6. Avoid jargon and pretentious language.

You will certainly see sentences that violate guidelines 1—4 on the GMAT sentence correction questions.

You will probably not see many sentences violating guidelines 5—6, but these style guidelines are nonetheless important and can help you write a better essay on the AWA section.

Be Concise

On the sentence level, in general, less is more. The fewer words you use to get your point across, the better.

Unnecessary words frustrate readers—they waste time and often cloud meaning. Notice, for example, how cluttered and confusing the following sentence from the pretest is:

Creating a fundamental shift in American foreign policy was the Truman Doctrine, which was put forth in 1947, and which established a “policy of containment” that framed our foreign policy as a battle between the forces of good (America, along with other democratic societies) and the forces of evil (the Soviet Union, along with other communist nations).

Notice the difference in length and clarity after wordiness and redundancy have been eliminated:

The 1947 Truman Doctrine created a fundamental shift in American foreign policy, establishing a “policy of containment” that framed our foreign policy as a battle between the forces of good (America and other democratic societies) and evil (the Soviet Union and other communist nations).

To eliminate wordiness, eliminate clutter and unnecessary repetition in your sentences.

Rule #19: Be concise. Avoid unnecessary repetition or wordiness.


Avoid the following words, phrases, and constructions that add clutter to your writing.

Because of the fact that is an unnecessary and bulky phrase. Because is all you really need:

Because of the fact that my answering machine is broken, I didn’t get her message. (15 words) Because my answering machine is broken, I didn’t get her message. (11 words)

That, who, and which phrases often needlessly clutter sentences and can usually be rephrased more concisely. Try turning the that, who, or which phrase into an adjective:

It was an experience that was very rewarding. (8 words) It was a very rewarding experience. (6 words)

There is, it is. The there is and it is constructions avoid directly approaching the subject and use unnec-essary words in the process. Instead, use a clear agent of action:

It was with much regret that I had to postpone my education. (12 words) I greatly regretted having to postpone my education. (8 words)

Regrettably, I had to postpone my education. (7 words) There is one more thing I should tell you. (9 words) I should tell you one more thing. (7 words)

The word that often clutters sentences unnecessarily. Sentences will often read more smoothly without it:

I wish that I had taken the opportunity that I was given more seriously. (14 words) I wish I had taken the opportunity I was given more seriously. (12 words)

I wish I had taken the opportunity more seriously. (9 words)

I am of the opinion that, I believe, I feel, and other similar phrases are unnecessary unless you are dis-tinguishing between what you think and what someone else thinks.

I am of the opinion that the flat tax is a good idea. (13 words) I feel that the flat tax is a good idea. (10 words)

I believe the flat tax is a good idea. (9 words) The flat tax is a good idea. (7 words)


When writers are not sure they have been clear, or when they are simply not being attentive to the need for concise writing, they often repeat themselves unnecessarily by saying the same thing in two different ways.

This happens in the following example:

The willow beetle is red in color and large in size. (11 words)

Red is a color, so it is not necessary to say “in color.” Likewise, large is a size—so “in size” is a waste of words. Here is the sentence revised:

The willow beetle is red and large. (7 words)

Here’s another example of unnecessary repetition:

The Bill of Rights guarantees certain freedoms and liberties to all citizens, rights that cannot be taken away. (18 words)


If it’s a guarantee, then those rights cannot be taken away—so the whole second half of the sentence repeats unnecessarily. Similarly, “freedom” and “liberties” are essentially the same thing, so only one of those words is necessary. Here is the revised sentence:

The Bill of Rights guarantees certain freedoms to all citizens. (10 words)

Be Precise

Writing has more impact when it is filled with exact words and phrases. This means substituting a strong, specific word or phrase for a weak or 2 modified word or phrase. (A modifier is a word that describes, such as red balloon or very juicy apple.) A lot of wordiness can be trimmed by using exact words and phrases, too.

Notice how attention to word choice cuts back on wordiness and creates much more powerful sentences in the following example:

He walked quickly into the room.

He rushed into the room.

He raced into the room.

He dashed into the room.

He burst into the room.

Each of these verbs has much more impact than the phrase walked quickly. These exact verbs create a vivid picture; they tell us exactly how he came into the room.

Exact nouns will improve your sentences, too. Here’s an example:

The dog escaped down the street.

The pit bull escaped down Elm Street.

Again, the specific nouns help us see what the writer is describing—they bring the sentence to life.

Adjectives, too, should be precise. Instead of writing

I am very frightened.

Try using an exact adjective:

I am petrified.

“Petrified” means “very frightened”—and it is a much more powerful word.

Rule #20: Be precise. Use exact words.


Ambiguous means having two or more possible meanings, so, of course, ambiguous words and phrases inter-fere with clarity. Ambiguity can be caused by poor word choice, misplaced modifiers, and unclear pronoun references. Take a look at this sentence, for example:

The photographer shot the model.

This sentence can be read in two ways: that the photographer took (“shot”) pictures of the model with his camera, or that he shot the model with a gun. You can eliminate this ambiguity by addressing the word choice and revising the sentence as follows:

The photographer took pictures of the model.

Took pictures is not as powerful a phrase as the verb shot, but at least no ambiguity appears.

Another type of ambiguity happens when a phrase is in the wrong place in a sentence. For example, look at the following sentence:

The woman ate the sandwich with the blue hat.

Here, the word order, not an ambiguous word, causes the confusion; the modifier with the blue hat is in the wrong place (a misplaced modifier). Did the woman eat her sandwich with her hat? Or was the woman wearing a blue hat as she ate the sandwich? Because the phrase with a blue hat is in the wrong place, the sen-tence becomes unclear. The sensen-tence should be revised to read:

The woman with the blue hat ate the sandwich.

Ambiguity can also result from unclear pronoun references. Pronouns are used to replace nouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they). Here is an example of an unclear pronoun reference:

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad has Kurtz tell Marlow his revelation right before he dies on the steamboat.

He appears twice in this sentence and could be referring to three different people: Conrad, Kurtz, and Marlow. Clearly, this sentence needs to be revised:

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz tells Marlow his revelation right before he dies on the steamboat.

Here is another kind of unclear pronoun reference:

It has been years since they tore down that old building.


This is an example of a common pronoun error: using a vague they when specific people are behind the action. You may not know exactly who those people are, but you know enough to say something like the following:

It has been years since a demolition crew tore down that building.

People are always behind actions, and your sentences should indicate this.

Rule #21: Avoid ambiguity. Make sure word choice and pronoun references are clear and modifiers are properly placed.

Active and Passive Voice

In most cases, effective writing will use the active voice as much as possible. In an active sentence, the sub-ject directly performs the action:

James filed the papers yesterday.

Jin Lee sang the song beautifully.

In a passive sentence, on the other hand, the person or thing who actually completes the action of the sentence is put into a prepositional phrase. Rather than performing the action, the true subject is acted upon:

The papers were filed by James yesterday.

The song was sung beautifully by Jin Lee.

Active sentences are more direct, powerful, and clear. They often use fewer words and have less room for confusion. However, sometimes the passive voice is preferable, such as when the source of the action is not known or when the writer wants to emphasize the recipient of the action rather than the performer of the action:

Protective gear must be worn by everyone entering this building.

As a general rule, however, sentences should be active whenever possible.

Using the active voice means making sure a sentence has a clear agent of action and a direct approach.

For example, compare the following sentences:

Passive: The patient was given the wrong prescription.

Active: Someone gave the patient the wrong prescription.

Notice how the active sentence gives readers an agent of action—a person, place or thing that performs the action in the sentence. In the passive sentence, you do not know who gave the patient the wrong prescription; you just know that somehow it happened. The active sentence may not name the someone, but it is a much more direct sentence. The active voice also makes a sentence sound more authoritative and pow-erful —someone is doing something. In a passive sentence, someone or something has something done to it.

Sometimes using the passive voice makes more sense than trying to write an active sentence—like when you do not know the agent of action or when you want to emphasize the action, not the agent. It is also use-ful when you desire anonymity or objectivity. The following are two examples:

The location was deemed suitable by the commission. (Here, the passive voice emphasizes the action of the commission rather than the commission itself.)

He was fired. (The passive voice provides anonymity by not giving an agent of action. Thus, no one has to take the blame for firing him.)

Rule #22: In general, use the active voice.

Sentence Variety

Although sentence correction passages are only one sentence long, issues of variety in sentence structure may come into play as you consider the various versions of the sentence. Sentence variety means that a text uses a combination of sentence structures and patterns, an important element in keeping the writing interesting and effective.

When writers consciously repeat a specific sentence pattern to create rhythm in their writing, this is called parallelism (see page 118). Here is an example:

She tried begging. She tried pleading. She even tried bribing. But Anuj would not change his mind.

Notice the pattern in the first three sentences: she tried  participle. This pattern is repeated three times, and the result is a certain controlled rhythm to the passage. Thus, parallelism consciously repeats a sen-tence pattern to create a positive effect. However, that is not always the case, as you can see from the follow-ing example:

The plasma membrane is the outermost part of the cell. It isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cytoplasm. It also allows interaction with other cells. The cytoplasm is the second layer of the cell. It contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins. It also contains organelles like mitochondria.

The sentences have a certain rhythm, but instead of creating energy, it creates monotony. Because the sentence structure has no variety—the sentences are all very simple (no compound or complex sentences) and all start with the subject—the paragraph’s rhythm is more like a drone than a conversation. The same paragraph, revised to create sentence variety, is found on the next page.


The plasma membrane, the outermost part of the cell, isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cell and allows interaction with other cells. The second layer, the cytoplasm, contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins as well as organelles like mitochondria.

This revised version combines sentences and uses introduction phrases and appositives (descriptive words and phrases set off by commas) to vary the sentence structure. The result is a much more engaging paragraph.

Rule #23: Use variety in sentence structure.

Avoid Jargon and Pretentious Language

Two other problems that can interfere with clear, effective writing are jargon and pretentious language.

Good writers make sure they write in a way that is appropriate for their intended audience. That means they do not use jargon—technical or specialized language—unless they are sure their audience will be famil-iar with that terminology. For example, you may know what a T-cell count is, but unless your readers have had some experience with physiology, AIDS, or other infectious diseases, chances are they don’t know. If you are writing for a general audience, then you should not assume your readers know what you are talking about.

The texts you will see on the GMAT exam (and the kind of essay you should write on the AWA) are written for the general reader with a college-level education. These texts (and the essays you write on the AWA) should therefore avoid jargon.

Jargon includes abbreviations and acronyms that are not common knowledge. For example, you may know what RAM is, but you cannot assume your readers do. Always write out what the abbreviation or acronym stands for the first time you use it. Then, going forward, you can use the abbreviation or acronym.

Here is an example:

When buying a home computer, you need to consider how much Random Access Memory (RAM) you need. The amount of RAM you should have depends upon what kind of programs your machine will be running.

If you find a sentence with jargon in it, choose a version that replaces the jargon with a general word or phrase that general readers will know or a version that keeps the technical term but defines it, as shown in the following example:

Bobby’s T-cell count (the number of infection-fighting white blood cells) has risen dramatically, and he will soon be able to come home.

Pretentious language is another matter. Pretentious means showy or pompous. Some people are impressed with big words, as if using more syllables in your sentences makes you seem more intelligent. Some-times a big, multisyllabic word is the one that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey, and that is

fine. But too often, five-syllable words are misused and end up clouding meaning instead of clarifying it.

Clear writing makes a much bigger impression than big words. In any case, sentences like the following are unnecessary:

Utilizing my cognitive facilities, I ruminated upon the matter.

Humankind is able to avail itself of a plethora of opportunities it heretofore was unable to take advantage of.

Instead of sounding impressive, these sentences sound rather foolish. Simple, more direct sentences such as the following do the trick much more effectively:

I thought about it.

People can take advantage of many opportunities that were not available to them before.

If you come across a sentence that sounds like it’s trying to impress but doesn’t quite make sense, it prob-ably isn’t the best version. But don’t mistake a sentence with pretentious language for a sentence that uses sophisticated vocabulary. If the sentence is unclear to you because you don’t know the meaning of a word, that is one thing. If the sentence seems to misuse a vocabulary word, however, or if it just sounds like it is showing off, then it’s probably a matter of pretentious language. As a general rule, don’t use a word if you do not know what it means.

Rule #24: Avoid jargon and pretentious language.

By following the 24 rules, you will increase your grammar knowledge along with your GMAT Verbal score.


The following section offers specific tips and strategies to use on the Verbal section during the exam. Prac-tice these strategies as you complete the pracPrac-tice exercises in the next chapter.

Remember that the different types of questions will be interspersed throughout the Verbal section. For example, you may start with a set of reading comprehension questions based on a passage, then have a sen-tence correction question, then have two critical reasoning questions, and then have another reading com-prehension passage. Try not to let this distract you. Be prepared to shift gears frequently throughout the exam.

To help you focus on each type of question, jot a few notes about key things to remember for each type of question on a piece of scrap paper.

It is important to keep moving, but at the same time, don’t sacrifice too much for the sake of speed. If you need to reread a reading comprehension passage in order to answer the questions about it correctly, do so. The extra minute you spend rereading will increase your chance of answering those questions correctly and, therefore, of setting the level of difficulty of your exam at a higher level. Even if you answer fewer ques-tions in the end, the quesques-tions that you did answer correctly will carry more weight.

In document LearningExpress s EXAM SUCCESS GMAT. In Only 4 Steps! (Page 141-149)