Expletives and Agents

By Mark Nichol

Readers are more likely to engage with writing when it is active, direct, and vivid. To that end, avoid expletives and passive construction and emphasize agents, as described in the discussion and demonstrated in the revision following each example.

1. There are several ways to achieve the desired balance.

This sentence begins with an expletive, a filler word such as there (or it) followed by a verb that—for better or worse—enables a writer to get started on a sentence without really saying anything other than supporting the notion that something exists. “The desired balance can be achieved in several ways” is an improvement because it states the proposition more directly and immediately introduces “desired balance,” the central concept. However, it is still passive, with no reference to who or what can accomplish the action. Better yet, introduce the agent: “We can achieve this desired balance in several ways.”

2. There should be increasing rigor applied. 

A better rendering of this idea is “Increasing rigor should be applied,” but although the expletive has been eliminated, the sentence is still passive. One solution is to strip the wording down to an imperative, as in “Apply increasing rigor,” but this sentence, devoid of context, is likely too severe.

Better yet, apply context—who should apply rigor? If the text pertains to management, say so: “Management should apply increasing rigor.” Simplifying the adjective and inserting an adverb renders the sentence less concise but perhaps more accurate: “Management should continuously apply more rigor.”

3. Over the last few years, there has been an increasing concern over the protection of individuals’ personal data in relation to lawfulness, security, and transparency of the data processing taking place.

The modifying phrase that begins this sentence is appropriate, but the presence of that phrase and an expletive delays any substantive wording until about one-third of the way into this thirty-plus-word sentence. Placing a concept immediately after the introductory phrase improves the flow of the sentence: “Over the last few years, concern has increased over the protection of individuals’ personal data in relation to lawfulness, security, and transparency of the data processing taking place.” (Or “Over the last few years, concern over the protection of individuals’ personal data in relation to lawfulness, security, and transparency of the data processing taking place has increased.”

Even better, begin with protection, rather than concern about protection, as the central concept: “Over the last few years, protection of individuals’ personal data in relation to lawfulness, security, and transparency of the data processing taking place has increasingly concerned government officials.”

However, again, to make the sentence more direct, consider opening the main clause with a word or phrase describing the concerned entity: “Over the last few years, government officials have become increasingly concerned about protection of individuals’ personal data in relation to lawfulness, security, and transparency of the data processing taking place.”

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1 Response to “Expletives and Agents”

  • Agua Caliente

    Careful with this sort of thing. (Zinsser reference follows.)
    “A goat kicked him” OR “He was kicked by a goat.”
    The latter, says Bill, has a real kick to it.

    I’d like to take just a moment to address the common use of “should” to replace a true imperative, such as “must.” This ubiquitous weakling of a word should not be used when the reader has no choice but to obey. Be forceful. Your meaning should be clear.

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