Monday, September 14, 2009

Pass Up Passive?

Joan swept George away => George was swept away (by Joan)?

George:  As a linguist, I'm always curious about the negative press that passive voice gets.  In genres of non-ficition writing, especially in technical or legal writing, it certainly has a place. In fiction, it's not as clear an issue to me. Why do you think it's so unacceptable in fiction writing, Joan, or is it true just for certain genres of fiction writing?

Joan: In legal writing, passive voice has a place. Sometimes an event is more important than the subject. But in fiction, the passive voice should only be used in rare occasions, IMO. The biggest part of the problem is that writers aren't always in control of their writing and use passive "to be" forms way too often. If you use passive voice it needs to be intentional. Here is an example of an intentional use of passive voice: The wedding gown was thrown across the floor with great force. I am stressing that the wedding gown was thrown rather than who threw it.

George:  Well, I'm sorry that someone was unhappy with her (or his) wedding gown—was this a reject from Project Runway?

Joan:  No, I was thinking about a friend who recently divorced. She had a divorce party. The wedding gown toss was part of the amusement.

George and I have argued about passives because I call "to be" forms that precede description "passive description." Here are some examples: It was a nice day, There were trees on the hill, There was a problem. First, this form is wordy, and if you're writing fiction, you don't want to slow your reader down with words that don't add anything and that make your prose slower and sloggy. A sentence with an active verb is more powerful and concise.

George: "Passive description" is confusing because it's not necessarily passive voice grammatically, but you're right that what they all have in common is using some form of the verb "to be." In fiction writing, especially modern fast-paced fiction, action verbs have a higher value than static verbs. The problem is that real "passive voice" sentences are not of the same category as sentences such as It was a nice day. A passive voice sentence like The bank was robbed is not static in the same way as the non-passive voice sentence There were trees on the hill.  For one thing, the main verb "robbed" is still an action. Nor is the passive voice sentence shorter than its active version Someone robbed the bank.

The difference between active and passive is focusing and emphasis, as Joan points out. Since many writers don't understand that, I suppose that it's easier to say "Don't Use Passive Voice." Still, I think the prohibition is a bit obsessive.  Anyway, how else do you say It was raining without using a so-called expletive subject ("it") and a form of BE?

Joan: You don't, in your fast paced, cliche-free fiction. Expletive deleted.


1 comment:

  1. The blog entry was read by Dan. It is believed by him that thrown across the floor the wedding gown was with great force by Yoda.