1. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    Raging against The Passive Voice

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by MJ Preston, May 8, 2010.

    After going through a chapter of my book and trying to correct the errors I think are obvious, I usually run a spell and grammar check to see if word can find something.

    One of the grammar complaints I get from the word program is passive voice consider revising. Now, I understand that computer programs aren't exactly English Professors, but I decided to do a little investigation and reviewed a bit of literature on the passive voice.

    According to some of what I have read the passive voice is only used when we want to put focus on something without the use of the active voice. The active voice being the voice we use all the time.

    Active voice: Cats eat fish.
    Passive voice: Fish are eaten by Cats.

    So that is the basic structure, in its simplest terms, but that is not the end of the story, or the dilema I find myself in as a writer. You see, for me it is all about flow and not sounding mechanical. We are, after all, storytellers, are we not?

    So, if you are writing a story you have to ask yourself this. "How do I tell my story and hold the attention of my audience?"

    Ah yes, the age old question. Well I think that we need to focus on the story and giving a credible inviting voice and if that means bending the rules of grammar a bit to entice our reader then it is a necessary evil. One piece of literature stated that we should not become hung up on the mechanics of writing to a point that it sounds more like an IKEA INSTRUCTION MANUAL than a story.

    That is the approach I am taking and though the Grammar Czars will take umbridge with this approach I believe that delivering a good story to the reader outweighs the sometimes anal retentiveness of English Language Structure.

    Granted, I am no Ernest Hemingway, but I think I'd rather be a Quentin Tarantino and have fun with my writing than come to look upon it as a tedius chore.

    Anyways, what do you folks think.
     
  2. Halcyon
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    Halcyon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi MJ

    I've never read a compelling story yet which was created by a computer program.

    I wonder how annoying Emily Bronte would have found "Word" if it had been around while she was writing Wuthering Heights, for example? The English language is a wonderful tool, but if we all used it in the exact same way, we'd lose much of that rich variety that we encounter as we move from writer to writer.

    So, I definitely agree with bending it your way, and a good post, my friend. :)
     
  3. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    deleted
     
  4. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Using the passive voice isn’t bending the rules of grammar anyway...
     
  5. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    Fully agree with Humour Whiffet.

    That is the approach I am taking and though the Grammar Czars will take umbridge with this approach I believe that delivering a good story to the reader outweighs the sometimes anal retentiveness of English Language Structure.


    Exactly! Active voice is concise and clear, hence avoid passive. Even in the simple example you gave, the passive sentence sounds wordy. Of course, sometimes you can't avoid it when the subject is not known. Example: My car was stolen.

    I get what you said about 'bending the rules' but, in order to successfully do that you have to first master the traditional rules IMO. So, a beginner should stick to the rules before attempting to 'bend' any rules.
     
  6. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    Thanks Halcyon. I still use word to run proof reads on my work and my guess is that English Professor's might jump from high places when they read my stuff, but I am not targeting them.

    I have learned alot just by coming to this forum and I think I am finding a writing voice I am comfortable with. At 45 years old, that's good enough for me.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You have to ask yourself: If passive voice is so terrible, then why does it even exist?

    The answer is that it fits well in some circumstances. But it is highly overused.

    Oops. I should rephrase that. Many writers overuse passive voice.

    Passive voice comes in where you want to de-emphasize the subject, or when the subject isn't clearly identifiable. Active voice puts the focus back on who performs the action, and also makes the verb more assertive and dynamic.

    Therefore, you should write primary action in active voice.

    It used to be standard practice to write essays and reports in passive voice, to remove the author or investigator from the text:
    Such descriptions were extremely dry and stilted sounding. Most publications now prefer active voice even for the most technical write-ups.

    But that does not mean you should abandon passive voice completely. A passage written in passive voice leading up to high action written in active voice may make the action stand out even more in contrast. Also, as I mentioned earlier, you may want to de-emphasize the action or the person performing it. You may not even know who or what performed the action.

    As with anything in writing, blindly following the guideline may serve you well enough, and is good for establishing good habits so you can make the better choice most of the time without having to ponder the choice for every sentence. But you're far better off understanding the reason behind a guideline, which also tells you when you should consider going against the guideline.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I feel as if the spirit of your argument doesn't altogether match the spirit of your conclusion.

    Your argument sounds like a modern assertion of your right to free yourself from old-fashioned rules designed to make your writing buttoned-up and prissy.

    But to me, the extensive use of passive voice _is_ an old-fashioned type of writing that often (not always) makes the writing sound buttoned-up and prissy.

    So, sure, use it when you judge that it's right. It was never grammatically _in_correct, it's just a more roundabout and complicated way of saying what you want to say. But roundabout and complicated are rarely good things, especially when your goal is to hold the attention of your audience, so I think that it is worthwhile to figure out what that added complication is buying for you.

    ChickenFreak
     
  9. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    Proof is in the pudding I suppose. The Passive Voice is only part of what this op was really about. My point is that I think every writer regardless of rules finds their voice. I believe in in structure, but above and beyond structure you must be a good storyteller. Reading a story should be like looking across a campfire and listening to the soothing words of a tale told without a faltering moment. Whether the language of that story breaks traditional rules with slang or applies what a computer program deems overuse of a passive voice is irrellevant when: Your audience is captivated with the story you tell.

    I am not sying that we should throw out conventional English, but I am saying that writing is 90% art and 10% mechanics. Something I have learned upon completing my first novel is that the art has to come first or the novel is simply a laundry list.

    So as I bumble along now and proof read my novel and revise and polish and continue this run on sentence I am left to work on the 10% of my story that is important, although not the key to the story's success.

    During the creation process we can certainly deviate and find that voice, whether it is slang, passive, active, present tense, or past. The key is to find your rythm and your voice so that the recipient of your story keeps coming back for more.

    For me this is a journey of discovery. I am just telling you about some of the sights I'm seeing along the way.
     
  10. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The key word is "consider". As Cog says, passive exists for a reason, but it's overused. You say you're no Hemingway? Well, Hemingway wrote "A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer." Passive. He could have written "One should not confound a serious writer with a solemn writer", or even "Do not confound a serious writer with a solemn writer", but they sound different, they feel different.

    Like so many things, active v. passive is a tool for controlling the relationships between the narrator, the reader and the story. Passive disengages the reader and slows the pace. Generally you don't want the reader disengaged or the pace slow, but nor to you want the reader distance and the pace to be constant. Moving from passive to active can ramp up the excitement. Dropping to passive for a short while in the middle of an action passage can be a sort of sudden pause, the eye of a storm before something hits: pow.

    Of course, the other important use of passive is in dialogue. The classic progression is from active to passive to passive with suppressed agent:
    "I made a mistake."
    "A mistake was made by me."
    "A mistake was made."
    If a character is being evasive, passive is one way to show it.

    So passive is a useful tool in the writers toolkit. Learn to use it well!
     
  11. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    That all makes sense. But I wanted to emphasize that passive voice has never been grammatically incorrect - it _is_ conventional English. It's not like the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, for example, where some people would argue incorrectness and others would roll their eyes. The argument against passive voice is about style, not correctness.

    On the general issue of rules, sure, there are times when any rule should be violated. I don't disagree with you there.

    ChickenFreak
     
  12. Fallen
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    *chuckles*

    just look at the thriller genre:

    'a murder was committed' (short passive)

    use active or even by-phrase (for long passive) in there and it kind of defeats the whole basis of keeping the murderer 'unknown'.

    Go passives, go passives.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would avoid passive for an opening paragraph pf a story, though. For your example:

    A man died tonight, his life stolen.

    Not overly dramatic, but not passive.
     
  14. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    Yes, you are absolutely right. Or should I say. On on the subject of passive voice you're quite correct. LOL

    It is all about style and though the passive voice is the source of my woes in Microsoft Word's grammar check, the real issue is with style.
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    :D

    But there's always
    "Someone has killed Lady Maelstrom", screamed the maid as she ran into the library.​
    Ok, maybe whodunnits aren't my genre.
     
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    For that matter, I agree with having extremely limited faith in Word's grammar check, too. If a _human being_ suggests that a specific passive construction would be better if it were active, that might be worth looking at.

    Word's grammar check is, IMO, mainly useful for finding essentially typo-level errors. Their programmers' energy would be best spent on improving that capability, rather than on trying to advise on style matters.
     
  17. MJ Preston
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    MJ Preston Banned

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    Amen Brother. Errrrr Chicken!
     
  18. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Word's grammar check is another set of eyes looking over your manuscript. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Examine each highlighted passage, and determine for yourself whether you agree with the suggestion.

    Before or after that, go over the manuscript yourself without the grammar checking, and find everything you can find.

    Treat spelling checks exactly the same way.

    In both cases, you have to know what is correct. The idea is to overlook as few mistakes as possible. In both cases, the software will fail to diagnose some problems, will incorrectly flag some things that are correct, and will pick up some things for whicjh you will slap your forehead and exclaim, "Why didn't I notice that?"
     
  19. Lynch
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    King advises against it in On Writing, that's all I know.
     
  20. Fallen
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    But not something I could picture a copper saying, not unless he was reciting it under yonder window, wearing Shakespeare tights in a moonlit setting (then I'd just be concerned -- damn concerned)

    It wasn't an opening line, Cog, just a point to say that passives are used for a reason anywhere in the novel, and they're used for a reason.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe, but the scriptwriters imagined DC Gene Hunt saying "Blimey, if that skirt was hitched any higher I could see what you had for breakfast", which includes a passive.
     
  22. Fallen
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    Hah. I love the 'You riding the cotton pole?' (not passive). And 'Have you got a heart?' 'Yeah, two -- Mine and the Bast****'s I ate this morning.' (Definitely not passive, just damn funny)

    Hmmmm. Gene Hunt. Now there's a guy worth getting into a verbal conflict with...
     
  23. Brandon_Trotter
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    Brandon_Trotter Senior Member

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    I think that a way to make something interesting is short chopy senteces, this helps catch the readers attention. I know for a fact that when I write these kind of sentences in word they are underlined as inncorect fragmented senteces. I think that a writer should listen to his or her instinct when writting something, if it sounds good to you it most likely is. Markus Zusak's Getting The Girl uses many writting techiques like, choppy sentences, that word would call him out on. His books however are much better than any word program could write with its limited programing. I think that best way to sound interesting to your audience is to be proud of your story/writting skills. When you write with confindence your readers will see that.
     
  24. Humour Whiffet
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    Humour Whiffet Banned

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    Word's spell checker is a handy tool though… ;)
     
  25. digitig
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    Only if the confidence is well-placed.

    There's been a separate thread on the question of fragments -- they do have their place (Dickens and Jon McGregor make good use of extended passages in fragments), but they can be hard work for the reader if overused. If you're depending on software to tell you when you're using them, and if you equate them with "short choppy sentences" then I think there's a real danger that you will alienate the reader rather than excite them. Fragments foreground the passage; if everything is foregrounded then nothing is. IT'S AS IF YOU WERE SHOUTING ALL THE TIME!
     

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