1. waitingforzion
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    waitingforzion Active Member

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    Passive Voice and Rhythm

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by waitingforzion, Mar 15, 2014.

    I read that you should avoid the passive voice whenever you can, because the active voice is more forceful. But what if in a certain situation the passive voice creates a better rhythm? Wouldn't the passive voice in that time then be more forceful than the active voice?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There are pros and cons to both active voice and passive voice. If you think one works better than the other in a certain situation, then go ahead and write it that way.
     
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  3. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Remember, there is a time and a place for everything. Active voice and passive voice are two writing styles. One is only deemed better out of preference and convention. In every situation, you must make a choice which is the most appropriate for the overall narrative voice/style of the language. Often times passive voice is called for by language convention due to rhythm or natural speech, even when active voice would work. Conversely, active voice often strengthens a sentence and elevates it a bit by enhancing clarity and conciseness.

    As a rule of thumb, consider what you're trying to say, and consider the voice of the narrator. How would the speaker say something? If one mood is too elevated or convoluted for the narrator at the time (or too mundane), try using the other. If it breaks the rhythm, consider how he sentences around it can be reworked to generate smoother reading. That's part of editing. ;)
     
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  4. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    The passive voice is often preferable to the active voice, but it isn't a question of rhythm. If you want to learn how to use the passive voice effectively, this is the book to study. It's worth every penny of the cost.
     
  5. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    I don't know where you learned, but active voice is much more preferred and taught in most writing classes and guides (fiction and nonfiction alike)... even in my editing class. They both have their place, but when in doubt, the safest bet is to use active.
     
  6. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Care to elaborate on where you heard passive is preferable to active?
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd love to see examples of the passive voice and the rhythm issue, in large part because people very often believe that something is passive voice, when it isn't.

    Edited to add: For example, the following are not passive voice:

    The dog was running.
    The dog was dirty.
    The students were busy filling out their exam sheets.

    If your response is, "Well, of course they're not," then there may not be any confusion, but if your response is, "Wait--they're using 'was'; they must be passive!" then there is confusion.
     
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  8. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I learned from the book by George Gopen that I linked to in my previous post. Another excellent book is by Joseph Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (any of the earlier editions will do). Williams and Gopen once worked together, and their books teach the same basic principles.
    "When in doubt" is the giveaway. When you have doubts about whether to use active or passive, it isn't always the safest bet to simply go with active voice. If you study Gopen or Williams, you'll learn how to remove most doubts about which to use in which cases. Take this example from Williams.

    A.
    Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

    B.
    Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.​

    For the middle sentence, many writers and editors would follow your advice and choose the active in A. But Williams argues (and I agree) that the passive voice in B is preferable. The trick is to understand why. He says a bit earlier in the book:

    Unreflective critics of style relentlessly urge us to avoid the passive, because it requires an extra word and because it encourages impersonality. In general that's not bad advice, but like so many other bits of standard advice, it is often wrong: Often the passive voice is the better choice.
    He then lists and explains in detail three question you need to ask when making that choice. When writers don't understand these questions, they sometimes find themselves in doubt about active vs. passive, and they choose active as the safest bet. And, as Williams notes, that's often a poor bet. He and Gopen teach writers how to make better decisions that result in clearer and stronger writing. Their books are worth careful study.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2014
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  9. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Thanks for taking the time to share this with me. I appreciate it. As it turns out, this is nothing I haven't said already. In my first post I explained there is a time and place for both and that you must understand it stylistically and in context. There are many instances in which passive is preferable; however, as a general rule of thumb (which is how your previous post seemed to be presented) active voice is stronger and more widely accepted.

    I'm not a fan of teaching generic "rules" like never use passive or even always use active. That is cheap and lazy. I was mainly referring to the fact that most people will say use active, while it seemed like you were saying most people would say use passive. I misinterpreted your post. Sorry. :p Anyway, like you, I'd go on to advise learning to recognize when each is used, and why, so that my last advice ("when in doubt, use active") becomes null.

    In short, I agree with you. I just misunderstood you the first time. Silly me. :rolleyes:
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2014
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  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    We must also consider emphasis. The sentence
    places an emphasis on the ball. This can be desirable in certain circumstances (i.e., when publishing science articles).
     
  11. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Just to see where we stand now, in my A/B example above, do you agree that the passive in B is preferable to the active? If so, why is it preferable? How would you explain it to one of your students?

    Make it an open question for anyone. Whichever you prefer in that example, how would you explain your preference -- apart from just saying you like the active voice.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2014
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Certainly, your specific passive voice example is better than your specific active voice example. I played with trying to find an active phrasing that was better than the passive voice example, but so far I've failed.

    The purpose of the passive voice sentence is immediately clear: You know those black hole things? Here's how they're made. The active voice sentence is backwards: Here's some physical phenomena. Oh, by the way, they cause black holes. The active voice sentence buries the "real" subject by choosing something else as the grammatical subject.

    Ah, I've got an active phrasing:

    A black hole comes into existence when a dead star collapses into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

    I don't think it's horrible, but I also don't think it's better than your passive example. And it leaves cause and effect implied, rather than stating it directly. There's no real doubt about the implication, but that feels like an issue all the same.
     
  13. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Yes, that's the idea. As Gopen and Williams put it, move from "old information" to "new information" and not the other way around. The first sentence in the example introduces black holes, so that become "old" (familiar) information for the reader when he begins the second sentence. So present that first, then finish with the new stuff -- what causes black holes.

    Connecting sentences with this old-new/old-new pattern is called cohesion. But that's not the only way to make sentences flow easily from one to another. A second way involves coherence rather than cohesion. These books go into lots of detail about both, and they really require and reward study. Can't present this stuff effectively in a forum post.

    I highly recommend both books. And when you think about it, getting out for under $100 is pretty cheap tuition for lessons that can dramatically improve the quality of your writing. After years of writing for a living, I was amazed by how much I learned from these teachers, especially Gopen.
     

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