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Passive voice

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Lisselle, May 15, 2017.

  1. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

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    My confidence in my writing took a big hit after buying the program. (It was suggested here, and I can never afford to seek out a professional editor [single mum] so I thought it might be a good idea, and it has been great in many ways.)

    I read everyone's posts here, and you all have an innate knowledge of Passive Voice, yet many of the examples you have all given do not cry out to me at all. I understand about clunky, long-winded writing, and I know the active voice, yet the passive voice often eludes me.

    What I need to do is hit the books, and I've taken notes from here. :)
     
  2. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    When I teach this in the military, I use the "by zombies" rule.

    If you can add the words "by zombies," and it makes sense, then it's passive voice.

    Jerry kicked Johnny's ass. Active voice.

    Johnny got his ass kicked . . . by zombies. Passive voice.

    The phone was red. Active voice use of was.

    The phone was answered . . . by zombies. Passive voice use of was.
     
  3. Aryth

    Aryth Minstrel

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    I'd never learned about or even considered passive voice before (newbie alert) and you all did a great job explaining it. I can see how a story would drag if passive voice were to be used a lot. I'll have to watch out for it in my own writing!
     
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  4. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

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    I have a creeping suspicion that there are two understandings of what passive voice is. One is the traditional, gramatically correct one where rather than a subject doing a verb to an object, a subject has verb done to it by an object. So the subject is the thing acted upon, not the thing acting. (John kicked the ball vs. the ball was kicked by John)

    The other interpretation of passive voice seems to be in the sense where passive means a lack of activity. I mention this because I suspect it is where more writers come a cropper; it's certainly more common, in my experience. It's where people use lots of "was" and "had" and verbs that convey the fact of something existing or possessing some properties, rather than that thing, or its properties, doing some action.

    Eg: "The ball sported tesselated geodesic forms. John swung his foot at it."

    There, we're basically saying "the ball was a ball. John kicked it."

    More preferable to say:

    "John kicked the ball, spinning its tesselated geodesic forms in the sun"

    There, we have vivid motion as well as the opportinity to shuffle actors around actively, rather than just having "be" and exist - passively. Any word that is a synonym, no matter how fancy, for "to be" or "to have" should be reviewed (eg: sported, possessed, contained, filled, sat, etc.) just to make sure they're earning their keep.
     
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  5. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

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    Is there much use for this stuff in the armed fores? :O Maybe for a rousing after-dinner speech in the officers' mess. :)
     
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  6. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

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    I do think that there is a bit of an argument for using such a passive construct as this. It's about what is being centre-staged. What's the main thing here - the city, or those who knew it by another name? If it is the city, it might throw readers off by then invoking some other group whose sole purpose, narratively, is to hang the city's old name on. Then suddenly we readers are out of the city and over with this other group. Now if your story focuses on that group shortly thereafter then ok, but if not, then I would say that this passivity is ok. It's not that obtrusive. Of course if your whole story was written like that, that would be an issue - but I have personally never seen that happen!
     
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  7. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

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    I feel this is what I do. I know I use the word 'had' way too much. I just have to re-write prettier sentences.

    It's a funny word, " the dinner he had had, had had no impact on his hunger." Ha!



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    Last edited: May 17, 2017
  8. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    An almost completely unrelated piece of advice on the topic of figuring things out: I've found that one of the best way of increasing my understanding of something is to try and explain it as if to someone who knows even less. It forces me to approach the topic from a different angle, which helps me increase my own understanding of it.

    As for active vs passive...
    I try and think of it as if active is when something is doing something itself, and passive is when something is having something done to it. As explained in several comments above, it's a bit more complicated than that, but I like to simplify things for the general case and then just assume there are exceptions.

    Another piece of advice I heard on the usage of was is to think of it as translating into existed in the state of. If what you're trying to say still makes sense in that context then it's fine, but if it's not, then maybe there's a better way of saying it.
     
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  9. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    There is some good advice in many of the posts, but let's understand one thing...

    Just because you write a sentence with was, or were, or had, that doesn't make passive voice. As several members correctly pointed out, there is only one definition of passive voice, and that is when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb.

    That's it. No other.

    If you're using was, or were, or had, you're simply writing "to be" verbs. An abundance of "to be" verbs can be a problem where your work is telling too much, rather than showing, and skewing the necessary balance between the two, but that is a matter wholly separate from passive voice.

    Generally, it is true that writing in the active voice makes for more engaging reading. You should train yourself to write in the active voice by default, but understand there are perfectly fine reasons for writing in passive voice. In my opinion, passive voice is a tool you should consciously use for an effect.

    Some examples of when to use passive voice:

    1 - To deflect responsibility.

    Mistakes were made. (Commonly seen in legal writing)

    2 - To emphasize an object.

    Fifty-one votes are required to pass a bill in the Senate. (This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required.)

    3 - To remove emphasis from an unknown actor.

    Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m.(Passive)

    Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m.(Active)

    In the example above, family and friends aren't likely to know, or care much about, Dr. Jones. They are much more interested in the “object”(the baby) than in the actor (the doctor).

    I hope that helps.
     
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  10. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    All of our paperwork must be written in active voice. (See what I did there?)
     
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  11. elemtilas

    elemtilas Inkling

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    Right.

    "Passive voice" is simply and clearly a description of verbal grammar.

    Passivity of description, what you're getting at below, is more a matter of writing style. (Or, I guess, lack of style!) It's kind of lackluster to constantly say things like "the ball was like this and like that".


    Good points all!
     
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  12. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    Technically, the computer wasn't wrong. "The City was once known by another name" could be rewritten in the active voice as "People once knew the City by another name," or "The residents once knew the City by another name," or "Outsiders once knew the City by another name," or "The Martians once knew the City by another name." The original way it's written doesn't explicitly say who knew the City by another name, and so runs the risk of being misinterpreted by readers, if you ignore context. The computer is doing its job by flagging the sentence. It's the writer's job to decide whether the context is sufficient to make the meaning of the sentence clear, or if perhaps the sentence is to remain ambiguous.
     
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  13. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

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    All of our paperwork must be written in active voice by zombies. :)
     
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  14. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

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    I agree with 99% of this. But one bit doesn't seem right:
    "when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb"

    The subject of a sentence is never acted upon by the verb (at least, as I understand that sentence). The subject, by definition, is the thing doing the verb.
    E.g. John kicked the ball. - John in the subject.
    The ball was kicked by John. - John is still the subject, the word order has just shifted around.

    At least, that's how I've always understood it.
     
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  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I almost posted a comment earlier today apologizing for my use of "subject" earlier in this thread, because of the way my use of that word might create confusion, heh.*

    I think Elemtilas used terminology that, though less familiar, clarifies things:

    The Agent is the doer, the Patient is the done-to.

    Subject and Object are more grammatical in nature, quite regardless of the roles of the parts.

    The only reason I didn't post that apology after all was that I didn't want to confuse more by splitting these hairs.

    Plus, earlier I was looking at these things the way I might look at Schrödinger's cat: Before the sentence is written, the Agent and Patient are both subject and object, heh, or can be either; but I was privileging Agent in a way, and the active voice. In other words, before the sentence is written, Agent should be Subject — if you are thinking in terms of active voice being the standard. But they are not the same.

    I've probably now confused people even more.

    *Edit: I mean when earlier I wrote that

    I probably should have written "Basically, any time the Agent needs to be deemphasized...."

    Edit #2: Agent (grammar) - Wikipedia
     
    Last edited: May 17, 2017
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  16. Malik

    Malik Archmage

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    [​IMG]
     
  17. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I understand what you're saying, & it begs clarification.

    In your second (passive) sentence, "The ball was kicked by John", John is actually no longer the subject. The ball is the subject, and it is being acted upon in the manner described by the verb.

    ACTIVE:
    John kicked the ball.
    Subject (John) --> performed action (kicked) --> the ball.

    PASSIVE:
    The ball (Subject emphasis switched to ball) --> was kicked (The subject was acted upon. The subject was not the actor.) --> by John.
     
    Last edited: May 17, 2017
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  18. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

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    The sentence was thought by a child running through the city streets, does that make a difference?


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  19. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    "The Wall had not always been there, and she once knew the city by another name."

    Okay, I just wrote that to be funny.

    I does not make a difference that a child was running through the city streets, what makes a difference is how it fits into the story. If you went into that story and changed all of its passive voice sentences into active once, it would lessen the quality of your story. There are no always do, and always don't in an art form. You need to give each sentence what it needs and sometimes that is passive voice.

    Why beat yourself up over this? Are people telling you the writing is too passive? or is it just the grammar checker?
     
    Last edited: May 17, 2017
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  20. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

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    There is wonderful knowledge amongst the people of this forum, I'm so thankful for everyone's input. I think if there is an area of writing I can improve on I should do so, for writing is my true love, and I need to do it justice.

    Until I started my Master of Creative Writing course I hadn't even heard of passive voice, and although it was drummed into us I couldn't see it clearly. Everyone here has explained it better than my lecturer did at Uni.

    Does Yoda speak in passive voice?

    Thank you. :)



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