Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing Lesson: The Passive Voice

Warning!  Strong Opinions Follow!
Sometimes I edit.  One problem pops up again and again--a problem that drives me a little bit mad.  The Passive Voice.  My advice about the passive voice comes out easy to understand--don't use it.  Please.  For the sake of all readers everywhere, break this appalling habit.  One sentence in the passive voice makes for a single drop of genuine dullness.  A second sentence, especially right on top of the first, does not translate into a second drop.  No, the effect grows.  Two sentences using the passive voice might as well be a shot-glass full of boredom.  Add a third and you're looking at a wine bottle's worth.  One solid page of the passive voice translates into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of mind-numbing.

First, an explanation.  The Passive Voice is a mode of writing that presumes the subject of a sentence is acted upon rather than doing something.  Remember the three parts of the sentence?  You should.  Teachers spent twelve years of your life telling you:  Subject, Verb and Object.  Look at this sentence:  Cynthia kissed Nancy.  Cynthia is doing something, so she's the subject.  Kissing describes what she's doing, the verb.  Nancy is the object of that action.  My example sentence--Cynthia kissed Nancy--I wrote in the Active Voice.  Behold the same idea in the Passive:  Nancy was kissed by Cynthia.

More examples (of increasing complexity):
George followed Annette.  Annette was followed by George.
Captain Evil found the map.  The map was found by Captain Evil.
Elliott poisoned Anne, his wife.  Anne, Elliott's wife,ended up poisoned by him.
Owen achieved the rank of Grand Master.  Owen was given the rank of Grand Master. 
Sir Olaf landed in the giant's hand.  Sir Olaf was caught by the giant.
Some types of wasp hunt certain spiders.  Certain spiders become the prey of some types of wasp.
Renee Smith climbed the summit of Apex Mountain.  Renee Smith was the one who climbed the summit of Apex Mountain.
Cyan marks the passive voice sentences.  Look at the difference.  Individually they barely disrupt anything.  Put them all together and reading it feels like driving a car without releasing the park brake.

Most of us learn to use the passive voice by example.  Read any inter-office memo.  Better than ninety-nine times out of a hundred the writer uses the passive voice throughout.  History books, newspaper articles, most editorials, etc. all avoid the active voice like the plague.  One understands why.  Passive voice seems simpler, even technically more accurate.  More insidiously, in many a documentary or public speech as well as film or t.v. show actors or professional speakers make the passive voice sound interesting.  Always a trap, that--because we don't read in someone else's voice, most especially not in a voice that already knows the material and can use verbal skills to make to sound interesting.

On the written page, the passive voice drones on and on, rendering virtually any subject dull.

Personally, I urge most writers as an exercise to avoid it altogether--make the effort to expunge any passive voice without exception.  Not because the passive voice is never appropriate, but because its overuse pervades so much writing.  A simple rule of thumb to aid in this sounds odd, but works:  Try to avoid the verb "to be."  Not all sentences using that verb end up in the passive voice.  But here's a brutal truth--hardly any passive voice sentences lack it.  I firmly believe in breaking bad habits, in life and in art.  The passive voice makes most writing so inherently flat it qualifies as one of the worst (and commonplace) habits among writers today.  Possibly ever.  Do your readers a favor.


Daniel Hicken said...

Well said, David. I sense a great need to edit my own work with your suggestions in mind...

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