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EU Translation Guide: Prefer active verbs to passive

EU Translation GuideAnother easy step to dear writing is to useverbs in the active voice (‘the car hit a tree’) rather than the passive (‘a tree was hit by the car‘). Compare these:

  • BAD: New guidelines have been laid downbythe President in the hope that the lengthof documents submitted by DGs will berestricted to 15 pages.
  • GOOD: The president has laid down newguidelines in the hope that DGs willrestrict the length of documents to 15 pages.

Look how we con make a sentence clearer by cutting out passives…:

  • Unclear:A recommendation was made by theEuropean Parliament that considerationbe given by the Member States to asimplification of the procedure.
  • A bit better: The European Parliament made arecommendation that the Member Statesgive consideration to a simplification ofthe procedure.

and finally by using verbs instead ofabstract nouns:

  • Much better: The European Parliament recommended that the Member States considersimplifying the procedure.

Name the agent

If you change passive verb forms into active ones, your writing will become clearer because you will be forced to name the agent the person, organisationor thing that is carrying out the action.

It’s easy to identify the agenthere

  • BAD: This project was rejected at Commissionlevel.
  • GOOD: The Commission rejected this project.

… but impossible here:

It is considered that tobacco advertising should be banned in the EU.

Who considers? The writer, the Commission, the public, the medical profession?

Remember that EU documents have to be translated into several languages. If your original documentis unclear, you may end up with non-matching translations, as each translator tries to guess what you might have meant and comes up with a different solution.

But you don’t have to avoid passives atall costs. They can be useful, for example when there’s no need to say who is responsible for the action because it’s obvious (‘All staff are encouraged to write clearly’).

Source: European Commission

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