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  1. Gloria Sythe
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    Gloria Sythe Member

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    Confusion over passive voice, is it personal choice?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Gloria Sythe, Jul 26, 2014.

    At our writers club last night, we had our, seemingly never ending, ongoing panel discussion about passive voice in manuscripts or in essays.

    I can understand some of the rules of the use of passive voice, however, it seems that the rules are full of gray areas. We used several examples of suggested passive voice usage from our club member's writings; however, the interpretations of what is or what is not passive voice seemed to be how each interpreted the rules. It was most certainly obvious that the more we discussed what was/is passive voice vrs what was/is not passive voice, the more the disagreements surface.

    Is the use of passive voice a writer's dilemma that we have piled upon ourselves or is it a written in stone rule that everyone should know? Does the public actually care if passive voice is used or not?

    Gloria
     
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  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most of the things that people say are passive voice, are not. Passive voice is not a natural way of forming a sentence, and therefore you're really not that likely to form a lot of passive voice sentences. They do tend to happen when writing news-type stories, but they're really not that likely to come up in other forms of writing.

    The problem is that somebody, at some point, woke up and said:

    1) "Passive voice is bad."
    2) "Passive voice often uses the word 'was'."
    3) "Therefore, if you're using 'was' you're using passive voice."
    4) "Therefore, all forms of the verb 'to be' are baaaaaaad!"

    They communicated this line of logic and, unfortunately, people believed them.

    My response to this line of logic is, "Pfft."

    Was, is, are, will be--all the forms of the verb 'to be', are essential tools in forming sentence. The fear of 'was' is not a good way to avoid passive voice.

    If you have any examples from your discussion, we could tell you if they really are passive voice.

    And, passive voice is not grammatically incorrect--avoiding it or using it is a style choice. I do agree that using real, genuine passive voice usually is a bad style choice. But it's still not grammatically incorrect.
     
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  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find it really strange when people say they aren't sure what passive voice is. Surely, it's the type of sentence in which something is being done to the subject, rather than subject doing something, which is active voice.
    These are clumsy examples, and active voice is usually much more frequent in storytelling, but when passive voice is needed, it is a perfect choice. Like
    Maybe I'm missing something, can you give us some examples of these 'grey areas'?
     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2014
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  4. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    Well, you could do one of two things. You could directly say what's on your mind. Or, what's on your mind could be indirectly said.
     
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  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not the OP, but I've seen people mistakenly think that almost any sentence using the word "was" or any "to be" verb is using passive voice. As in:

    The house was green.
    The dog was tired.
    The potato chips will be arriving on Friday.
    John is my father.

    Sometimes they call it "passive" rather than "passive voice" but it seems to be the same misunderstanding.
     
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  6. Charisma
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    Charisma Transposon Contributor

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    I'm not an expert, but that's one horrible fast food chain.
     
  7. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    JMO, but like most "rules" for writing, this is given way too much importance. Use whatever form makes the strongest sentence for your purposes. Too many writers worry about these things instead of the story itself. Most readers won't know the difference anyway - unless they also happen to be a writer. :rolleyes:
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes, it's purely a personal/stylistic choice. Word order is important because it can emphasize certain parts of the sentence over others.
    is different from
    How you decide to write a sentence depends on context, style, intuition, and imagination. Don't let anyone tell you that certain things are forbidden in creative writing.
     
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  9. JamesBrown
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    JamesBrown Active Member

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    I used to teach English so look at it purely from a grammatical points of view.

    The standard word order in English is Subject-Verb-Object.

    I.E.

    David (S) loves (V) Mary(O)

    My company (S) has been building (V) the bridge (O) for two years.

    In a Passive voice the Object comes first.

    I.E.

    Mary (O) is loved (V) by David (S)
    the bridge (O) has been being built (V) by my company (S) for two years.

    The issues with writing is that, as seen above, this construction in English can have quite an "ugly" sound to it. So you should generally try and avoid it, as people generally do. But there is no absolute rule about not using it. Sometimes you have to and sometimes you need to.
     
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2014
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  10. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The passive voice is used very often in scientific papers and the like. I'm not exactly sure why, but it seems that the idea is to remove the personal agency from the work. In scientific research, you don't want to be seen to be taking credit for discovering things, so you phrase your papers in a way that removes yourself. For example, instead of saying, "I performed the experiment", you say "The experiment was performed." This kind of formality results in very dry prose, like this:

    It was observed that existing theories did not explain the new phenomenon. Therefore, a new hypothesis was formulated. An experiment was designed to test the hypothesis. The experiment was performed and the resulting data were collected and analyzed....

    This kind of thing removes the agency from the research, so that it says "Here are the facts" instead of "I discovered these facts." I guess it's not considered good form for scientists to be taking credit, to be patting themselves on the back, for their discoveries.

    So passive voice, to me anyway, always reads like a research paper, and it's almost striving for dullness. Active voice is usually better. This does not mean that passive voice has no place in fiction - of course it does - but the writer has to be aware of its effect.
     
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  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    This is a very good thread, in my opinion. Some of the posters have made it clear that people sometimes think they're using passive voice when they're not. Other posters illustrate why passive voice can sound clumsy or dull in the wrong place.

    Like lots of other 'rules' invented by authors who write wannabe writer books, this 'rule' about 'don't use passive voice'—and how to identify its existence (the word 'was')—is a shortcut to misunderstanding. Folks who try to eliminate 'was' from their writing are in danger of mixing up passive voice with all forms of past tense. You want to really cripple your writing? That's a great way to do it.
     
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  12. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Things like this make me wish English had a fourth person pronoun with an implied antecedent of "someone". Sorta like the impersonal se in Spanish, but more robust.

    "Existing theories did not explain the new phenomenon. Therefore, se formulated a new hypothesis. Se designed an experiment to test the hypothesis. Se performed it and collected and analyzed the resulting data."

    Or while we are at it, just redefine grammar so that "someone" is implied as the subject when a sentence has no subject.

    "Existing theories did not explain the new phenomenon. Therefore, formulated a new hypothesis. Designed an experiment to test the hypothesis. Performed it. Collected and analyzed the resulting data."

    I like sentences that begin with verbs. And I absolutely despise any language that makes a useful construction like the passive voice difficult to articulate without sounding clunky. English is bad at that, but do not even get me started on how difficult it is to express certain conditional thoughts in English, especially counterfactual conditional...
     
  13. Sheriff Woody
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    Sheriff Woody Active Member

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    Passive voice = about the thing being done.
    Active voice = about the doer.

    The grass was cut.
    This sentence is about the thing that was done.

    Ezekiel cut the grass.
    This sentence is about Ezekiel *doing something*.

    People like it when characters do things and stay active. It paints a picture of the action rather than passively referring to it.

    When in doubt, use the active voice. There's no harm in doing so, but there is harm in not engaging the reader by failing to paint a compelling picture of an interesting action.
     
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  14. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I noticed that learning English as a second language, and learning it well, most of the time avoids these types of issues. For some reason, learning it formally really helps at compartmentalising, grammatically, what goes where and why. While native English speakers obviously have a natural 'ear' for what sounds right, I find that lack of formal language teaching in schools causes a lot of confusion once they start to analyse sentences and think about language in formal sense. Grammar isn't all that complicated, but I say that having learned grammar of my language the entire primary school, then the grammar of two foreign languages and then Latin in secondary school. If one is in their twenties the first time they consider English grammar in any kind of detail, there's a lot to make sense of, and it can get really confusing, especially with all the terminology.
     
  15. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    When in grade and high school, I learned all that terminology. Thankfully, some 40 years later, I've forgotten most of it and just go with what sounds right.
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm a pantser in this respect myself, but damn. If you're trying to explain to somebody WHY something is correct or isn't, it's helpful to be able to reference the rule. So I'm busy re-learning many of them ...but from the perspective of creative writing.

    The rules creative writers work with are simpler, looser, and more direct than those of expository writers, or technical report writers. Technical report writers will use passive voice throughout their reports, as @minstrel pointed out. Do that in a novel, and you're dicing with boredom.

    Just a thought. How much more fun would it be, if technical writers learned their writing techniques from creative writers! Just think ...that scientific journal kept me up all night. I just couldn't put it down.

    Instead ...unfortunately, it happens the other way around.
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not always. In fact, many times I've gone to the trouble to look up the terminology and use it in my critique, and get a basic "HUH?" back from the writer. I find the quickest, simplest, and most effective way is to give an example.

    btw, I find it a blessing when I get that "HUH?" reaction. It means the writer most likely hasn't yet gotten bogged down in technical issues - ie, there's hope for them. lol
     
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  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    The reason this doesn't happen is because you want absolute clarity in a technical paper. There should be no room for interpretation. It's why most people find philosophy papers dry and boring. But that's the nature of such pieces.
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I find it helpful to reference the rule. Notice, I didn't say 'quote' the rule. Just know what it is yourself—even if you plan to break hell out of it. I do agree that examples are wonderful, and often cause the penny to drop quicker than anything else. But if somebody challenges you, you'd better have the rule handy! Just saying 'it sounds better'—even if it does—sometimes doesn't convince the doubters.
     
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  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I too tend to reference rules of syntax and grammar when helping in critique because I believe that if you understand the underlying why of the thing, you'll grok the thing in its many future guises, which won't always look the same. But, like @shadowwalker, I usually get a sense that my words fall on deaf ears because this stuff just isn't taught in school the way it was to you and I. The little white Warner Grammar books are a thing of the past. Sometimes I even feel like I am the one who is being thought the fool when I explain that "went" and "had gone" aren't just two different options to say the same thing. They each have their use and meaning, which are not to be confused, one with the other. But, alas, my opinion on that grows into a smaller and smaller minority each day. :(
     
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  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    So what do we do? Give up? Give in? Keep grinding away? Does this mean that sooner or later nobody is going to recognise good writing at all? That any old crap will do? Hard to say... Amazing that in an era where communication is easier than it's ever been, and more widespread and quicker to access than we ever imagined ...we're in danger of losing our ability to use coherent language at all.

    Certain people who used to frequent this forum (but who will remain nameless) will probably rejoice in the fact that 'your English teacher' isn't teaching you the wrong kind of writing any more. Apparently 'your English teacher' isn't teaching you squat. What a relief. Tabula rasa...
     
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  22. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I think it is hard to say. I try hard to be a descriptive grammarian, but I am lapsed as often as not. :) The question that started this discussion (passive voice, good or bad) would seem to be a concept that has lost some ground over time, especially given that what passive voice actually is has become a muddled argument through the over-reliance on expected surrounding structures to point to the passive. You can't just say to people passive voice is any complete clause lacking a grammatical subject, wherein the logical subject is modified by a verb or participle, thus subordinating it because that sentence may as well be in Aramaic for all the meaning it conveys to many people as of late. :confuzled: It's also further hampered by the fact that much of the argument against its usage seems to be very subjective. It's an ugly syntactic structure. It's weak. It fails. None of these arguments sound like they are based in objectivity at all. They use the language of opinion and belief to convey rightness and wrongness, and we all know where that ends up. ;)
     
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  23. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think it'll go that way, necessarily, although i'm just hypothesising. Anyone in higher education and professions that require good writing skills will still have to learn to write properly and correctly. Maybe a school teacher won't be the one to teach them, maybe the availability of information through digital sources will take place of basic education on some subjects. Bottom line, who wants to learn only needs to spend a year or so studying it in their spare time, and they'll get enough of a base to be able to take the studies further, either at University or in practice. Grammar isn't that cumbersome a subject,mor that hard, it's just a set of rules, and everyone already knows the examples.

    All the people who couldn't care less will still prefer well-written works over bad grammar, bad spelling, terrible syntax. Also, English is spoken by millions of people who learned it in school as a second language and all of them will have formal knowledge of English grammar. So the knowledge and ability won't be lost, it just may become differently distributed or more elitist, but that's evolution of language and society for you.
     
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  24. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This forum wherein we are having this discussion is proof positive of your hypothesis. We are doing the very thing of which you speak. ;)
     
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  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    You've lost me somewhere in there, bub....o_O Brain now leaking out ears...:)
     
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