Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Passive voice-- just some thoughts

I just had a couple thoughts about passive construction. First, I see it often when students are trying to avoid using "I": Wild food is cooked at the annual Wild Food Picnic." But why not go ahead and say, "We cook wild food at the annual Wild Food Picnic." Passive is NOT better than using "I" or "we," as the subject should usually be the one that commits the action, and "we" did the cooking, so "we" should take credit for it. :)

Sometimes, writers assume "is and was" are markers of passive voice. But "is and was" have other roles, most of which have nothing to do with passive voice. For example:

I was once a champion tennis player.

That's a "predicate nominative," where the "was" just links the two nouns (I and tennis player) almost like an equal sign. There is no action (just "being"), so the sentence can't be active or passive.

The dress was red once. Now it is sort of pink.

That's a similar construction, just with an adjective (red) after the verb. That's a "predicate adjective" sentence.

Both of these use is/was to illustrate some aspect of the subject (I, the dress). Again, there's no action, so it can't be passive. It just "is".

"Is and was" can also turn a verb into a progressive verb --I am going (present progressive) rather than I go (present tense); I was going (past progressive) rather than I went (past tense). That's not passive voice, just another way the linking verb can be used (or, to be active! ... another way we can use the linking verb... see how "we" get in there!).

Those aren't passive construction. What is? It's when the ACTOR (the committer of the action) isn't in the subject position but the object position (where the object of the action should be). Or rather, the object (target of action) is in the subject position.


Passive voice is where the object is in the subject position:

Subject is usually what commits the action (the "agent" of the action)

Verb is usually the action

Object is usually what the action is committed on (the "patient or recipient" of the action).

So an active order is:

Paul (subject/agent) hit (verb) the ball (object/patient).

Passive order is:

The ball (object) was hit (verb) by Paul (subject).

The longer the sentence, I find, the more likely we trend into passive. Academic writing also often invites us to get all passive:

PASSIVEIn order to locate this paragraph, the cross reference feature was used.

ACTIVEIn order to locate this paragraph, the researchers used the cross reference feature.

What's wrong with passive construction? Well, for one reason, it allows us to avoid responsibility. "That $10 bill was stolen from your dresser" is sort of idle and guiltless. "I stole that $10 bill from your dresser" accepts responsibility (and even asserts pride, maybe).

Passive voice also leaches vividness and drama out of your sentences, because the subtext is that things just sort of happen. There's no real volition or intention in a passive construction.

"And then the car was just sort of dented."

"And I don't know how it happened, but the milk was spilled all over the floor."

And the famous Richard Nixon "admission of guilt:" "Mistakes were made."

Drama, power, conflict: Those are all in the active voice, and so you should default to active construction for livelier prose. Think about Churchill, trying to rally his country to resist occupation. He didn't use passive construction ("The battle shall be fought on the beaches") when he wanted to empower the British. Notice when he uses active and when he uses passive. (This is masterful manipulation of active/passive, by the way!). The highlighted parts are passive, and see how they are "the others in the past" (the other blue-highlighted line shows an unimaginable future for Britain, also passive), and notice how he will NOT give the Nazis the power (they are relegated to the object position, even though they are the ones subjugating!):

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight
in the hills;
we shall never surrender
, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Now Churchill was almost supernatural in his rhetorical command (notice that almost every word there is Anglo-Saxon or old English... very few "Norman" -- Romance language-- word). But when we decide to speak forcefully, we instinctively go into active mode and use strong, basic verbs and clear construction, don't we? Keep that in mind as you write!

However... passive voice is preferable in a few circumstances:

When the "actor" isn't known, or isn't relevant:

1) The general's house was broken into last night. (We don't know who "committed the action.")

2) Her grandfather's ashes were interred last weekend. (We don't care who actually dug the hole and put the box of ashes in there.)

That's pretty limited!

Passive voice is also used (ahem, that's passive-- who is using? The writer!) when the writer doesn't WANT to assign responsibility. (How would you revise that to make it active!!!?) Have you ever gotten a past-due notice from a utility company? The FIRST notice is usually quite polite and passive: "This bill has not been paid." Why? Because they don't want to be rude and alienate you as a customer by accusing you of being a deadbeat! But the THIRD notice isn't so passive: "You have neglected to pay this bill for 90 days!"

I don't think writers should give up any writing tool, and passive voice would never have developed if there wasn't some use for it. Here's a fascinating rhetorical theory: Politeness theory. It posits that the more dangerous the potential consequence of speech, the more careful, lengthy, and passive our speech becomes. During the Spanish Inquisition, or when we get stopped by the highway patrol, we want to make sure that we don't give offense or accept responsibility if the consequence of "speaking freely" means we will get punished. (Watch the wedding scene in The Godfather and see how polite and passive everyone is towards the Don.) Passive voice is a useful tool when you have to be polite!

However, we shouldn't be passive unless we have a good reason to be passive! This is especially important in the narrative of fiction. Don't evade responsibility or let your characters get away with it, and don't dodge away from action (unless, of course, you have a good reason, like to show how passive a character is).

UNC Online Writing Center: Passive Voice




Jordan said...

I was so freaking excited about this post.

And then you went and linked to Carolina.

*deep breath*deep breath*deep breath*

Trying to move on.

Calling a progressive aspect-active voice verb "passive" is one of my pet peeves. I took a class on dialogue a while ago where the instructor clearly had no grasp of passive voice—she complimented me on a passive sentence that worked (thank you, but that's past progressive) (and no, I didn't correct her, though I regret it). Then she instructed another writer to change a subordinate clause into the classic passive construct (even with a "by ACTOR" clause, if I remember correctly), saying that it would make the sentence "more active." (Intelligible, yes. Active, no. Not even close.)

Really undermined her credibility on grammar. But, then, I don't have that high of an opinion of the grammar judgment of someone who seriously believes a book with eleven grammatical principles is the definitive guide to the subject (and all fiction writing, even for non-native English speakers).

(Clearly I am somewhat grumpy. I blame my new baby.)

Stella Omega said...

I am reminded of Lorelei Lee's wonderful non-admission in "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds;"

"...And when I came to there was a a gun in my hand, and it seems the gun had shot Mister Johnson."

green_knight said...

In academic writing, the correct use of passive voice adds clarity and fulfills an important role.

When the actor is less important than the act of the means of it, it is entirely appropriate and necessary. 'The researchers located the information' misplaces the focus on the researcher, because I don't care how you feel about the data; give me the facts.

I'd rewrite your sentence to read 'The paragraph was located using the cross-reference feature.'

I also disagree with the first example; both examples are equally clumsy, though for different reasons.

If you want to spice up your writing, don't consider the world as a pasive receptacle of your character's actions. One thing that will do is create a narrative that goes 'she did this, she saw that, she did something else,' and you'll eliminate any stray 'there was' in the process:

Elevate the world to actor status.
There's nothing so passive that it cannot be the actor of a sentence.

At the Wild Food Picnic, tables groaned under the burden of offerings. A splendid roadkill pizza sought to entice passers-by to taste it; three people converted to vegetarianism on the spot.

Shalanna said...

Yes! *sob* I fight this battle constantly in workshops and critique groups day, because someone inevitably has circled all uses of "was," "were," and sometimes "do," and announces smugly to the group that "you NEVER use passive." (They don't know what "voice" means in this context.)

Maybe they'll listen to you. Thank you!

(The Dimbulbs argued with me for weeks about "The tire was flat." I asked them how the heck they could rephrase that to have an actor, and they said, "George Clooney's tire was flat.")

My verification word is "lessest."

Aislinn said...

When I was in high school we were taught (oops, make that our physics teacher asked us) to write all our lab reports in passive voice. To this day I still don't understand why, unless it was his notion to reinforce the concept of passive voice. But then that wasn't even his subject matter.

Anyway, I have the feeling I'll be saving this link, because I'm yet another person who gets peevish about the mis-attribution of passive voice to any form of the verb "to be." I've seen workshop instructors do it, too, and no, I didn't correct them, either.

Bernita said...

"because I'm yet another person who gets peevish about the mis-attribution of passive voice to any form of the verb "to be."

Me too.
Thank you.

Murphy said...

Hmm...how about: “The restaurant tab was paid by me.” A good one because, just as the utter probably tried to evade paying that tab ;) - he/she is also evasive about taking the active position in the sentence.

Murphy :D

Remus said...

The author should also avoid going too far in the other direction. It's possible to make many sentences active that should be passive:

Someone broke into the general's house last night.

They interred her grandfather's ashes last weekend.

There's nothing wrong with those sentences by themselves, but if you religiously convert all your passive sentences to active then your text will be full of 'someone's, 'something's, and 'they's. With too few passive constructions, the story will feel just as clunky as if you had too many.

It all comes down to knowing when to break the guidelines.

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, girl or boy?
And what's this Carolina hatred? I'm from SW Virginia, and we always had a bit of an inferiority complex about UNC, and it wasn't helped that they got M Jordan. But it's a lovely state. I bet you're a Terp. Or a Wahoo!

What do the Gamecocks call themselves? The Cocks? Of course, I grew up at V Tech, and they used to be the Gobblers. (Yes, the mascot was a big turkey.) Now they're the Hokies. Not sure that's an improvement.

Edittorrent said...

Well, yeah, GK, the point is exactly that-- finding the action.

But the reason I put in academic writing is because there is a concerted effort on the part especially of younger academics to get real, to acknowledge the human agency involved in research. While I'm the first to tell students to avoid "I" where they can, passive voice is not the only alternative, and in fact, it gets silly. I remember my mother, a biochemist, used to write in her lab reports, "The beaker was poured...." Sorry, but then and now, I think that's utterly absurd, and even pernicious, because it pretends that research has no human component.

Remus, think though about what GK was saying-- that if the action is there in the scene, the sentence won't have to default to passive, and that very many passive sentences might mean a lack of engagement on the part of the characters-- that is, it's a symptom. Hey, that's a good idea. Will blog about it! Thanks!

Oh, something that students do that would make you laugh, well, maybe not-- to avoid the passive, they use "people" or more often "one": "One interred the ashes Saturday. One broke into the general's house." One seems to have had quite a weekend. :) I guess "one" seems sort of classy or British, more so than "they?"


Leona said...

congrats Jordan. All hail Alicia. I have 19mnth baby in arms helping me type so, that's it.

Jordan McCollum said...

Thanks, Alicia and Leona! Girl (joining an older brother and sister, 4 yrs and 22 mo respectively).

(Side note: I feel odd typing "It's a girl," because my child is not an "it." But "she's a girl" seems to be a tautology. I wonder if this has more to do with the fact that we waited until birth to find out her gender, so we're having to break the habit of referring to her with a gender-neutral pronoun.)

While MD is a lovely place (VA is better, of course), I'm actually from North Carolina (= best). But I'm on the other side of Tobacco Road: Duke. (One of my deepest shames is having been born at Carolina's hospital.)

Hokies? Huh?

Jordan said...

Oh, and this suddenly reminds me: once I ran some text through some analysis software, and it highlighted a number of "passives" which were technically passive, but which are so common in that form that I'm not sure it "counts."

For example, the sentence "She was excited," (while obviously flat and boring) is technically passive, because we could say "The prospect/paper/person excited her" (though "person" there could get into some double-entendre).

That emphasizes whatever it is doing the exciting, but maybe we want/need the emphasis on the character instead—having her (re)act instead of being acted upon. (Even reacting is more active for a character than being the object of an action, non?)

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, did you see that My Team (Butler) almost beat Duke? :)

Coach K was very classy and generous. Of course, he could afford to be, having escaped a huge upset. It makes me remember the great Nova/Georgetown game, which Nova won... actually a bigger upset!

Jordan said...

Of course I saw! Butler played fantastic. One of the announcers (I fear I'm about to quote Dick Vitale, but I must) said that Duke won the game; Butler didn't lose it. I have to agree.

Sadly, I'm too young to remember the Nova/Gtown game. I'll take your word for it!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

This is absolutely brilliant, and I want to link to it from my blog. Shortest, most useful explanation I've seen on passive voice.

Ahem, this post was written well.