The war on passive!

General with swordThere is a war going on and the written word is the battle ground.  It’s passive voice vs. active voice and they’re taking no prisoners!  If you don’t know the difference, see an informative explanation here.

Most writing guides out there will tell you to avoid passive at all costs.  Should you see it, don’t hesitate to kill it with whatever weapon you have handy (usually the delete key).  Passive voice is like a disease and it can spread rapidly if not contained.  Don’t let it invade your manuscript or else your carefully crafted story will surely perish.

Yes, that is how extreme the warnings get out there and I have to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.  I’m going to go with a more balanced approach to this dilemma, be the peace maker if you will, because I don’t think it really is as big of an issue as it seems.  Grab one of your favorite author’s books right now…I’ll wait.

*Jeopardy music plays*

Okay, now pop that bad boy open and start looking for passive sentences.  I’m willing to bet you can find them more often than you’d expect.  I know I found plenty in the hallowed words of my favorite paranormal romance novels.  Passive is not really the enemy.  It has uses and cannot be denied its place.

Awhile back I read a book where I had no doubt the author went to great lengths to cut out all the passive words.  Nary a “to be” verb anywhere!  This resulted in one awkward read because too much active voice really can be too much!  It was the first time I’d ever wished an author had not taken the rule that literally.  Most writers who’ve studied their craft know they are supposed to avoid passive, but most of us also realize it’s a GUIDELINE, not an unbreakable rule.  A bit here and there makes for smoother writing when mixed with active.

Active and passive should work together!

Don’t get me wrong.  If you go through your work and see three (or more) sentences in a row with “was” then get thy delete key out right now and start killing.  Do not even think about keeping all those.  I’ve seen paragraphs with no less than ten instances of “was” in them.  If it’s your first draft, no big deal, but during the revision stage you need to get a hold of yourself and change things up.  If for no other reason than using the same word over and over makes for a tedious read.  Variety really is the spice of life.

I hope this puts the matter in perspective for those who needed it.  Feel free to offer your own thoughts and advice on the matter.

~ by Suzie on December 7, 2012.

17 Responses to “The war on passive!”

  1. Everything in moderation. 🙂

  2. Oh, the memories! Way back I did a degree in linguistics and studied generative grammar. The passive had a HUGE impact on the development of syntactic theory back in the 60’s and 70’s!


  3. I agree with those who preach “moderation.” Yes, active verb implies … well … action! And it’s good – if it doesn’t sound forced. If a writer finds herself (or himself) consulting the thesaurus more than once a week to find “active” verbs to replace the passive voice, you’re probably overdoing it, LOL

    • Lol, PL. I sometimes use Microsoft Word’s theasurus to find synonyms, but it’s usually because I overused a certain word and need a different one. That or I want to find a better word than the one I’m currently using. Not so much to look for active verbs, though.

  4. I think passive voice can be used strategically too – like if you have a character that distances themself from situations, avoids responsibility etc. Having that character think or speak in a passive voice helps communicate that trait.
    The corporate world is full of passive voice 🙂 You’d shudder to read my executive summaries.

    • Excellent point, Debra! And – having worked for newspapers for 30-plus years – I’m very aware of that trait not only in corporations but at the government level. The passive voice carries a great deal of absolution.

      • Exactly, PL. The military uses passive voice a lot. Makes it easier to say what happened without saying who did it, which is important if somebody screwed up, lol.

        • Which is why it’s used so much in corporations! Don’t want to throw someone under the bus until you’re absolutely sure the political impact on your own career LOL

    • Good examples, Debra. Passive voice most definitely has it’s uses.

  5. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    Eleven instances of “was” in one paragraph. One sentence, actually. No wonder this guy never made it as a writer …

  6. To go off in a slightly different direction, the passive voice is much overused in technical writing, but sometimes it is unavoidable. There are times when a complex, conditional statement can only be constructed in the passive voice. I recall years ago when I was working on a proposal, and butted heads with an editor. I had included a long, complex, and inelegant sentence, but hadn’t found any way to simplify it while keeping it technically accurate. This editor kept changing it so it read better, but in every case changed its meaning. I think she thought I was just being difficult, but I would have been delighted if she could have made it read better without making it wrong. I’m a big fan of elegant prose, but sometimes you have to sacrifice elegance for accuracy.

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