1. Acton
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    Acton Member

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    Passive vs Active

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Acton, Sep 10, 2009.

    So, I've been using my sister as my second pair of eyes for editing. Now, she had a lecturer in college that insisted that the passive voice is evil beyond evil and it kind of got stuck deep into her brain. Every time she notices it in my work, there's a little note left beside it.

    Now, I always thought it was a good tool that, if used in moderation, could help the writing sound more natural.

    Thoughts? Was her lecturer just a psycho that had a grudge against the passive, or is there some merit to like.. NEVER... using it. ????
     
  2. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Passive voice is evil beyond evil.

    Actually, it's usually not good, and should only be used after carefully considering the reasons for using it.

    There are times it is acceptable or preferable, but more often than not, it's used when it shouldn't be.

    (From the University of North Carolina's writing center website):

    So when is it OK to use the passive?

    Sometimes the passive voice is the best choice. Here are a few instances when the passive voice is quite useful:

    1. To emphasize an object.Take a look at this example:

    100 votes are required to pass the bill.

    This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence ("The bill requires 100 votes to pass") would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.

    2. To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor. Consider this example:

    Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river.

    If you don't know who the actor is—in this case, if you don't actually know who dumped all of those contaminants in the river—then you may need to write in the passive. But remember, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use an active construction. Yet consider the third case.

    3. If your readers don't need to know who's responsible for the action.

    Here's where your choice can be difficult; some instances are less clear than others. Try to put yourself in your reader's position to anticipate how he/she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts. Here are two examples:

    Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(passive)
    and

    Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(active)
    The first sentence might be more appropriate in a birth announcement sent to family and friends—they are not likely to know Dr. Jones and are much more interested in the "object"(the baby) than in the actor (the doctor). A hospital report of yesterday's events might be more likely to focus on Dr. Jones' role.

    PS.

    Off-topic side-note:

    Your objection to your sister's reaction to passive voice reminds me of a quote from a book I read recently. The author had a teacher who objected to anyone ending sentences with preposition. He wrote:

    Ending sentences with a preposition was something up with which she would not put.

    Charlie
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Of course passive voice has a place in writing. That's why it exists in the language.

    One area that teachers see excessive use of passive voice is in papers and reports.
    instead of
    These writers use the passive voice in a misguided attempt to remove the researchers from the procedure.

    In fiction, you don't generally want to remove or deemphasize the characters, so you usually want to use the active verb. Also, passive voice is called that because the verb usage is less active, so the action is diluted by the use of passive voice.

    But passive voice works well when you do want to pull back emphasis of the actor (character) or the action (verb). You may want to use it to take unwanted emphasis away from specific activity in the scene, or to emphasize other activity instead. If you surround an active event with several passive ones, the active event becomes intensified by the contrast.

    Just make sure your use of passive voice is an active choice.
     
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    *sigh*

    The passive voice is a tool like any other in the syntactical tool box. The problem with it, like any other tool, is overuse. It also happens to fall into the list of those tools that seem to attract the rookie/newbie writer like moths to a flame.

    The detached, floaty, things-happen-without-cause feeling that it lends to a piece of writing is a perfect fit for the angst ridden years during which many a writer first lays pen to paper.

    Think of the warning against the passive as akin to when mothers warn their young children to never, ever, ever, go near the road. At the time, the warning makes perfect sense because the young child is unaware of all the things that can happen on the road. The dynamic of road is still a mystery. Fifteen years later, that same child will be driving one of the automobiles that gave mommy such a fright all those years ago. Now road is an understood concept. The rules have been explained and hopefully learned.
     
  5. Acton
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    Acton Member

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    Thanks guys. :) It helps to get some perspective on it. When I asked my sister why it was a problem, she couldn't seem to really tell me anything other than the fact that her lecturer hated it.

    The sentence that got this all started was:

    "There was nothing great about being an adult that Arrie could see."

    Reading the comments here, I feel that its a completely justified use as the emphasis falls on adulthood being generally sucky. (The book is written from the perspective of the child). Don't bite my head off if you disagree. :p Gentle wrist slaps will be fine.

    It's not like I've used passive eccesively. But I'll go back and check through them carefully again to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing.
     
  6. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Actually, I think the active voice would be far preferable in that sentence.

    Arrie could see nothing great about being an adult.

    I don't see how the passive construction shifts emphasis as you suggest. For a passive voice sentence with the emphasis you suggest, you might have:

    Adulthood was something about which Arrie could see nothing great.

    Still not a great sentence. I don't see it as good use of the passive voice.

    Some possible alternatives:

    Adulthood wasn't so great. Arrie could see that.

    "Adulthood isn't so great," Arrie thought.

    Depending on Arrie's age, "adult" might not even be the most appropriate. "Grown up" might be better. Also, being part of an actual thought, as the last example, takes some of the sting out of passive voice, as it's a thought and not a narrated sentence.

    "There's nothing great about being a grown up," Arrie thought.

    "It's not so great to be a grown up," Arrie thought.

    "Growing up isn't so great," Arrie thought.

    Charlie
     
  7. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    I fear that this is also a weak point for me - though I think I naturally write in the active voice.

    I have an example here I would like to ask a question about:

    The first part, 'Rob looked at Kate," is in active, yet what he said was passive, as if responding to a question. Is this acceptable? Also, did I get the grammar right?
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Rob looked at Kate is not a dialogue tag. It is a separate sentence that should emd with a period. But as for independent clauses in the same sentence, ys, one could be active and the other passive, I make no guarantees that it would be good writing, though.
     
  9. seta
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    seta Contributing Member

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    Wow, I'm actually relieved - In most cases I would have made "Rob looked at Kate" it's own sentence. For some reason my brain kept saying "No, that's wrong, it should be linked with a comma" as if it were a dialogue tag.

    Dialogue tags are my biggest weakness - as I'm sure you've noticed by some of my questions in the past.
     
  10. sapphire_chan
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    sapphire_chan Member

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    I'm a firm believer in both splitting infinitives and finishing with prepositions if that's what needs to happen.
     
  11. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    Never start a sentence with "there was" in an essay writing. Never. Same with "in my opinion" or "I think."

    Now, let's look at your sentence you provided.

    "There was nothing great about being an adult that Arrie could see."

    Now, let's switch it up with a slight reversal.

    "Arrie could see nothing great about being an adult."

    Now, let's compare the two:

    1.) "There was nothing great about being an adult that Arrie could see."
    2.) "Arrie could see nothing great about being an adult."

    Now which is easier to read? Which do you understand? Which is more clear, simple, strong and effective? Do you see why your sister's teacher would call passive voice evil? Clarity is what you should strive for, not ambiguity. The same goes for fiction writing.
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    ^ That example only proves that clumsy sentences are a problem, not that the passive voice is inherently weaker.
    As others have said, it has a place in your 'toolbox' as do all other parts of language. If you feel that a sentence reads better/is more effective in passive voice, use it. As long as there are no problems with the way it reads and it is correctly punctuated and things, then there's no reason not to. Mostly its a style thing--people want action, speed and clarity, traits the active voice has in spades. But sometimes a different touch is needed.
     
  13. Acton
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    Acton Member

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    Hmm... hmmm... hmmmmmmm. I'm going to have to play a bit aren't I? And Arrie is a 12-year old girl, but she's young for her age.



    Lol.. I'm going to go play in my own time now :p
     
  14. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Ah, the split infinitive... as in the Star Trek theme...

    "To boldly go where no man has gone before," should be, "To go boldly where no man has gone before."

    Actually, if written without the split infinitive in that example, that might have been a better sentence, but we can't tell because we're so used to the way we've always heard it!

    Charlie
     
  15. DragonGrim
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    DragonGrim Contributing Member

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    There’s nothing wrong with “to boldly go,” and if you were “to go boldly,” the emphases would be on “to go” instead of “boldly.”

    I thought I’d add this next to the discussion because it can confuse new writers. I had a professor that made us correct every sentence in our essays that had any form of “to be” in it. Was, had, were, all had to go. She said they were passive sentences.

    She taught us badly. Take for example this sentence: the ball was black with swirls of silver. Not a passive sentence.
     
  16. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    I've heard opinions on both sides. Some hate split infinitives.

    I don't necessarily think the first word has more emphasis. Since we're used to hearing it out loud, I think the emphasis comes with the way the words are said. If one says aloud, "to go boldly," one can emphasize the word by saying it a little more forcefully, rather than to say, without spoken emphasis (as there was no voice moderation in the Star Trek theme,) "to boldy go."

    One might even make the opposite argument on emphasis, that the last word you hear is the one you'll remember. I point that out, not because I believe that argument, but only because one may see it that way. I personally think, in this case, it's intended to be spoken, and it's entirely up to the speaker to place emphasis verbally. I honestly don't want to debate it, as my preference for one over the other is only slight. The only argument that I would strongly make regarding that particular sentence is that there are no definitive right or wrong answers. Really, it's a matter of preference. It's certainly no longer a matter of grammatical accuracy, although historically, it was.

    Certainly, there are times when split infinitives are more or less appropriate.
    (Some examples from Wiki):

    You certainly wouldn't want to boldly say, "I decided to on Wednesday by bus go."

    (Edit, I added "boldly" to the above sentence, because I'm trying to be funny.)

    Sure, you could argue, "I wanted to emphasize Wednesday and by bus," but it's still an awkward sentence, and few would argue in favor of it.

    "I expect him to completely and utterly fail," might seem acceptable to some, not acceptable to others.

    This is worse: "We are seeking a plan to gradually, systematically, and economically relieve the burden."

    Wiki also provides this, from the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

    "In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before - and thus was the Empire forged."

    You are right. The professor was wrong.

    I actually read about that yesterday, reading about passive verses active, as one of the myths. A sentence may indeed contain forms of "to be" without being passive.

    I was never taught that, so was unaware of the myth. As long as I've known about passive vs. active, I've understood it as, the subject receives the action from the verb.

    The dog bit the boy. Active.
    The boy was bitten by the dog. Passive.

    The ball was black. Active, you are correct.
     
  17. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll confess, I never have been able to understand the split infinitive issue. Could someone please explain it to me in little words?
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your teacher was right, althouigh perhaps a touch overzealous. Your sentence:
    accomplishes nothing other than description. There is no action. It is indeed passive; not passive voice, but passive.

    The description above could be incorporated into an action:
    You can then go ahead and expand on why it caught his eye, and what he did about it.

    But I did mention overzealous. Sometimes you want to slow the pace. If someone is methodically evaluating one or more objects, your static description works well. This is what the ball looks like. Next we will move to the gold blob with the indecipherable black script.

    The point is to make sure that your sentences are only passive when passivity is your intent.
     
  19. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    So the key here is the difference between "passive" and "passive voice"?

    "I think, therefore, I am."

    That contains a form of "to be." (am)
    Is that also, passive sentence but in active voice?

    Charlie
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There is nothing horrible about splitting an infinitive. A split infinitive inserts an adverb or adverbial phrase between the to and the base verb. It became so prevalent in literature that some purists decided it was a literary fashion tat needed to be squashed.

    Really, the only issue I have with split infinitives is the presence of the adverb in the firsat place. Adverbs are overused, so it is always worthwhile to ask, "Is this adverb necessary? Does it add to the sentence, or is it frosting?"

    Charlie: The sentence
    is indeed active voice. The first clause is also active, and the second is arguably active as well, because the sense of the verb "to be" in this context is an affirmative act of existence. It isn't simply used to connect a subject with a description or equivalant noun.

    If I wrote:
    the second clause would be passive, but still active voice.
     
  21. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    A "to" form of a verb, broken up with other words.

    I am going to quickly run to the store.

    "To run" has been split by "quickly."
     
  22. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, ok. Thanks.
     
  23. DragonGrim
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    DragonGrim Contributing Member

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    I don’t know how someone who speaks English as a second language could know how "to properly use" split infinitives. It depends on how it sounds to the ear.
     
  24. CharlieVer
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    CharlieVer New Member Contributor

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    Thanks, Cog! That clarified "active/passive" verses "active voice/passive voice" for me. For "active/passive" it depends on how "to be" is used, whether active (to exist) or as a connector (to be this, or to be that.) Active/passive voice remains as I've always understood.

    Good comments on split infinitives as well. The only thing I'd add is, as with the examples (taken from Wiki) in my post, sometimes, the sentence is just fine and sometimes it's just plain awkward. That's where the "art" side of it comes in. Does the sentence sound right? One needs to judge.

    Charlie
     
  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    is a good example of my point. Why is it necessary to add "quickly" at all? Does anyone run slowly to the store? It's a redundant adverb. It isn't wrong, but it isn't necessary, and adds nothing to the sentence.

    Anyway, split infinitives are off topic for this thread.
     

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