1. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Passive voice?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by GuardianWynn, Oct 3, 2015.

    So a grammar software thing told me this

    "From this location, finding it was probably done by memory. "

    Was a passive voice.

    My question is why? And is it bad?

    Context is a girl following someone and having some internal introspection on how he finds the location.

    Thanks :D

    @jannert
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think that's passive voice. Grammar software isn't always very good at spotting issues, or identifying them correctly. It'll flag "to be" verbs as passive, but they're not always passive.
     
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  3. Jeff Countryman
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    Jeff Countryman Living the dream Supporter

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    That grammar software sounds like my 84-year-old mother talking. SCARY!! Run . . . .
     
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  4. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    lol
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's not passive voice. The grammar software is just wrong--as grammar software often is.

    Edited to add: Hmm. Or is it? In either case, passive voice isn't a grammar error, it's an excessively feared style choice.

    Edited to add: Hmm again. OK, now I think it is passive voice.

    Edited yet again to add: I think that my confusion is that the subject of the sentence is a verb phrase. I think. If you wanted to make it active voice, you would change

    ...finding it was done by memory...

    to

    ....Jane found it by memory...

    But you may have a perfectly good reason for passive voice. It's not, again, an error.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2015
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  6. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually have no clue what passive voice even is. lol.

    The grammar software is neat. I think it iss helping me learn comma, semi-colons and words that sound similar but are spelled different. You know, the their or there, then, than type stuff.

    I think it just is overly formal and hates certain things. It hates when I use the word really or elipses.
     
  7. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    You can identify passive voice by adding "by zombies" at the end of a sentence.

    Example:

    Zombies killed Mary. <-- Active voice.
    Mary was killed by zombies. <-- Passive voice.

    I'm tired, so here is the article I'm drawing from:

    http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2014/a-scary-easy-way-to-help-you-find-passive-voice/

    It has to do with your subjects and verbs and the tone of your narrative in general. :sleepy: Boring technical stuff, but knowing how to use passive vs. active can immensely help the impact your writing has.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2015
  8. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, it is in the passive voice.

    The core of that sentence is:

    "Finding it was done."

    The phrase "finding it" is the subject of the sentence. It functions as a noun. It refers to the abstract idea of an action. Consider these sentences:

    "Someone did the action."
    "The action was done."

    The first is in the active voice; the second is in the passive voice. In the second sentence, you can replace "the action" with "finding it". And you can modify "done" with the adverb "probably", the prepositional phrase "by memory", and the prepositional phrase "from this location". What does not change is that the core grammatical structure is the passive "<action> was done".

    English constructs its passive voice with an auxiliary verb (usually "to be") and the past participle of the verb that represents the action. In your sentence, "was" is the auxiliary verb and "done" is the past participle of "to do".
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2015
  9. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Now I feel stupid. I only understand about half of what you said. lol.
    Auxiliary Verb? I have no idea what means or is. Damn. I guess I fail as a writer don't I?

    The phrasing didn't seem bad to me. Is the passive voice acceptable in the context of the scene?
     
  10. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    You will pick up the grammatical vocabulary as you go along. I learned this stuff by reading things that went over my head, Googling unfamiliar terms, and rereading the inaccessible material (often several times) until I got it.
    The sentence is grammatically valid, but awkward. I might phrase it as:

    "From here, he probably found it by memory."

    The passive voice is not bad per se (it is often the best way to say something). It just happens that the active voice makes this sentence easier to read.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that passive voice is most easily understood by examples:

    Active: The dog ate the kibble.
    The subject of the sentence is the dog, and the dog is doing something. It's active.

    Passive: The kibble was eaten by the dog.
    The subject of the sentence is the kibble, and the kibble is having something done to it. It's passive.

    Active: Joe cleaned the floor.
    Passive: The floor was cleaned by Joe.

    Active: The wind is blowing the leaves.
    Passive: The leaves are being blown by the wind.
     
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  12. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    So when would you say is a good time to use a passive voice in writing?
     
  13. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Our language is modeled after our thought patterns. One of the most common thought patterns is what I call the "arrow from A to B" pattern.

    Picture (or draw) a circle labeled "John", a circle labeled "apple", and an arrow labeled "the act of eating" from John to apple.
    Now picture a circle labeled "Jane", a circle labeled "house", and an arrow labeled "the act of buying" from Jane to house.

    Although "John eats an apple" and "Jane buys a house" are very different types of events with little in common, they fit into the same thought pattern. John and Jane are sources. They cause something to happen. They are active participants in the event. The apple and the house are targets. They receive some kind of effect. They are passive participants in the event. "eats" and "buys" are the actions themselves.

    (Which should help you appreciate our brains' amazing ability to take such extremely different experiences and categorize them so easily into such simple patterns -- without us even realizing it.)

    The subject-verb-object construction is modeled after this source-action-target thought pattern. It is very easy to express a source-target-action thought when you know the source, the target, and the action. Just have a subject that represents the source, a verb that represents the action, and an object that represents the target. "John [subject] eats [verb] an apple [object]." We say "eats" is in the active voice because its subject is an active participant in the action.

    But what if the source is unknown? You could write "_____ eats an apple" or "_____ buys a house", but for whatever reason, that never caught on. You could write "someone eats an apple", but the word "someone" calls too much attention to itself, and therefore, it calls the reader's attention to the question of who eats the apple.

    Instead, English does something relatively convoluted. First, it puts the target of the action, rather than the source, in the grammatical position of the subject. Second, it uses an auxiliary verb with a past participle (e.g. "is eaten") instead of a simple verb (e.g. "eats"). So, "_____ eats an apple" becomes "an apple [subject] is eaten [passive verb construction]." We say the "is eaten" construction is in the passive voice because its grammatical subject is a passive participant in the action.
     
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  14. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    After you tried to use the active voice and it did not work. (Usually because you do not know or do not want to specify the source of the action, e.g. in the infamous "mistakes were made" example.)
     
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  15. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    This post deserves more likes!

    Sounds like you are saying passive is only for when active is not valid?
    Is that what you believe? Or do you think there are moments when it makes more sense to write a sentence in a passive voice in spite of a valid active voice being possible?
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    My view: Passive voice is just a little more convoluted than active voice, a little harder to understand. So it needs to earn its keep--there should usually be a good reason for using it. However, IMO you don't have to be all that careful to avoid it, because it's really not that natural to use--if you've used it, there's a moderate chance that you used it for a good reason, even though you didn't actually realize it was passive voice.

    One time might be when the passive recipient of the action is the most important part of the sentence. "A hurricane is predicted" (passive) gets to the exciting part a lot sooner than "Meteorologists have predicted a hurricane." (active)

    Another time is when the actor is unknown or unimportant. "Important Person was murdered!" is easier reading than, "Someone murdered Important Person!" "Mom was fired!" gets to the heart of the situation quicker than, "Mom's boss fired her!"
     
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  17. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    There are times when the passive voice works better even though you know the source, action, and target and you could write a valid sentence in the active voice. When I said "after you tried to use the active voice and it did not work", I did not mean "it was grammatically invalid"; I meant "it did not sound quite how you wanted it to sound" or "it did not express quite the same thing you wanted to express."

    I would follow @ChickenFreak's advice to use the passive voice when the sentence is about the target of the action and the source is merely an afterthought. When you are unsure, err on the side of the active voice.

    In "a hurricane was predicted by meteorologists", the sentence is about the hurricane; the meteorologists are an afterthought. This raises the issue of topic and comment: the hurricane is the topic and the fact that meteorologists predicted it is a comment about that topic. (I recommend reading the linked Wikipedia article; it has some examples that make it very clear how the active or passive voice subtly affects the thrust of a sentence.)
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2015
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  18. Acidveins
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    Acidveins Member

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    I grasp the general idea... I think.

    But to me, the two sentences, for example,

    The committee voted the motion into law.

    And

    The motion was voted into law by the committee.

    Mean exactly the same thing. I don't understand the difference, besides the phrasing of cousre.

    From what I am gathering, It seems the intent is to shift blame or intent away from the committee. Am I grasping this correctly?

    Am I hearing what words actually say, and not reading into what they want me to hear? Or am I misunderstanding? (This entire idea smacks of political slant in my opinion)
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    They do mean precisely the same thing. Passive versus active voice is primarily about phrasing; the message generally doesn't change.

    Not necessarily. You CAN use passive voice to avoid assigning responsibility for something, but that's not mainly what it's about. It's mainly a style question, and one that is given far, FAR too much importance. There are dozens of much more valuable ways to improve your writing.
     
  20. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find passive voice to be most common and useful in business emails, when the goal is to absolve oneself of all responsibility of negative outcomes by removing oneself from the sentence entirely.

    Compare:
    I made changes to the production environment. Those changes locked out users for an hour.

    with:
    Changes were made to the production environment. Users were locked out for an hour.

    </snark>

    In fiction, active voice is generally preferred simply due to its clarity. We often want to give strong, clear images to the reader, and active voice helps that by providing a definite subject. However, sometimes we do want to add that layer of mystery--sometimes the character doesn't know who was responsible for the thing that happened, he/she just knows that it happened. But the above also holds true, especially in dialog or character thought: if the character is trying to absolve himself/someone else of responsibility, he will potentially use passive voice to drop himself out of the sentence.

    Of course, there are other complexities and uses involved, which have been outlined in above posts. It's often a "feel" thing, and chances are it's not worth worrying about too much. You'll write what sounds more natural because it sounds more natural, right? I find this to be one of the more unhelpful rules tossed around by those "in the know" that is usually misinterpreted by newer writers. And yes, I'm aware that last bit was in passive voice :)
     
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  21. Acidveins
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    Acidveins Member

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    Ah, it is much clearer now. Thank you.
     
  22. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There are certain formal uses for passive voice. For example, scientific papers are usually written like this: "A phenomenon was observed. A theory was formulated to explain the phenomenon. An experiment was devised to test the theory. The experiment was performed and the resulting data analyzed." Etc. etc. It's very turgid and boring to read, but it removes the scientists from the sequence of events, and hence, as far as possible, removes their egos. The scientists want to keep the focus on the research itself and not on the fact that they did it.

    Another example is when a disaster of some kind happens, and nobody steps up to take responsibility. If a company goes bankrupt, they often issue a statement saying, "Mistakes were made." They never want to say, "John Smith, our CEO, made mistakes" because they are loathe to point fingers inside their own tent. Same with white police officers shooting black teens dead for no reason. A statement comes out saying, "Mistakes were made. An extensive review of our procedures is ongoing."

    In fiction, too, passive voice can be useful if you want that kind of impersonality for a moment or two. I wouldn't overdo it, but I certainly wouldn't be pedantic about avoiding it. It's a tool in the writer's toolbox, and, while it might not be used often, sometimes it's exactly the right tool.
     
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  23. Burnistine
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    Burnistine Active Member

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    Please don't ignore ChickenFreak's admonishment. You will get a host of rejection letters if you continue writing in this way. There are times that passive voice is needed. But in order to make that determination, you MUST study what it means to write in passive and active voice. It's not that hard. You just have to be diligent about it. I, too, had to cross this bridge. It was confusing at first, but I got the hang of it. You can too.
     

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