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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Passive Voice: An Evil Whisper

** Image snatched from MistRaven at **

When I set out to write this post about one of my personal vices -- passive voice -- I thought of it like an evil whisper.  This little voice in my head that calls to me, saying, "Your writing will be more lyrical if you say it like this -- passively."  So I went looking for a picture that would represent an evil whisper and I found this lovely work of art, appropriately titled: A Whisper is Heard.  

The freakin' title is passive voice.

For those of you saying, what is passive voice anyway?, there are two ways to identify it: 
(1)  a sentence is passive when it has no actor.  Take the title again: A Whisper is Heard.  Were you to see that sentence in a book (and without a picture), you'd have no idea who heard the whisper.  The sentence is missing an actor.
(2) according to some UNC professors, you can always spot passive voice if you look for: form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice
For example:
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon's fiery breath.
When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.

But if you follow that up with, yeah so?, here's the reason passive voice will get you into trouble: it robs your writing of clarity.  Take the Penelope example above.  By changing the sentence to: After suitors invaded Penelope's house, she had to think of ways to fend them off., your reader now has no question about who did what.  

And here's another problem: passive voice is just... passive. We're in the business of telling stories. It's critical that our words convey the urgency of our tales in the most direct way possible.  By using active voice, you can up the tension and import of your words.  For example, The dragon's fiery breath scorched the metropolis

I'll leave you with this final thought from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993):
Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

Got it?  Do you find you struggle with passive voice in certain points of your writing more than others?


Beth said...

But it's so hard to get rid of!--It uses a lot of words too. I'm doing flash fiction death match tomorrow and I found taking out "was" and turning participles into action verbs helped get me under 1000 words.

Jessie said...

it's amazing how passive voice creeps in and we don't even realize it. I was reading a Disney story to my 5 year old tonight -- there it was! And now that I'm conscious of it, I can spot it much more easily in my own writing.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I don't want to be a "has been" :( I think I pulled all that out. But like you said, it creeps in and I haven't really checked for it either. Sigh. There's no end to editing is there?

caspernoty yaseen said...
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caspernoty yaseen said...

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