If You're Writing In The Passive Voice, Consider Revising

Posted at 04:08am on 23rd January 2009

I wrote, yesterday, on the need to find your Voice, and illustrated how verbs may be used in the Active and Passive voice. Now I am no expert when it comes to grammar, and if there are those who know better than I, I would ask you to correct me please. However, I do know that persistent use of the passive voice in writing creates a clumsy and confusing narrative, which fails to have any impact on the reader, or to engage them in any way with the thoughts, words or deeds of the character. Take a look at yesterday’s excerpt from my book, A Painful Post Mortem and compare it with the same passage, below, in the Passive Voice.

KEY:

Subject (bold)
OBJECT (CAPS)
Active Verb (Italic)
Passive Verb (underlined)

‘This your local?’ The QUESTION was asked by a spotty youth whose pristine climbing boots had clearly never made contact with open ground.

‘Certainly not!’ was the RESPONSE given by Mark. ‘Extension of home. Just a short stagger across the village square!’

A LAUGH was emitted by the boy. IT (i.e. the laughter) made Mark feel good.

The LANDLORD was addressed by Mark, who turned to him; but Mark’s voice was raised for the benefit of the three or four hill walkers clustered at the end of the bar: ‘Don’t see my name above the ruddy door yet, Len. Must have bought the place several times over with my custom.’

The ROLE of stooge was dutifully played by Len.

‘Haven’t seen the colour of your money for rent,’ was his response, as an inventory was cheerily reeled off: ‘Use of premises as registered office; exploitation of pub staff as go-between, message-takers and delivery boys; monopolisation of telephone in hall – Need I go on?’

The hill WALKERS, for whom pints of ale were being drawn by the Landlord, were informed by him, ‘Property tycoon, Mr StJohn. Better watch which route you’re walking. Might find Mark’s bought up Mam Tor from under your feet and bulldozed it to build a shopping mall.’

It was an incestuous and practised routine, whereby Mark and Len benefited, respectively, from increased consumption, and sales, of ale. This is the only sentence (other than dialogue) which remains as it was, already in the Passive Voice and, for the purpose of this exercise, I’ve left it unchanged. Mark’s BANTER was greeted with laughter by the hill walkers and the first ROUND of what would undoubtedly develop into a hardened drinking session at their expense was paid for by him.

WHAT IS A PASSIVE VERB?

There is a place for Passive Voice in writing, as I pointed out. But only rarely in Creative Writing, and then, preferably, in dialogue.

An excellent explanation of the Passive Voice can be found in this website handout, which points out the merit of using Passive Voice in official reports, scientific or medical papers. For example (mine) this use of the Passive verb: ‘Research done by the BMA into the use of Aricept in cancer patients found a positive result’ is, in my opinion, preferable to this use of the Active verb, ‘The BMA found positive results when undertaking research into the use of Aricept in cancer patients’. The reason for this is that the end of the first sentence ‘positive result’ has more impact than the end of the second ‘cancer patients’.

Another educational handout: makes the following statement:

“A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?”

Here, ROAD is the OBJECT, chicken the subject and was crossed the Passive verb.

And with that, this BLOG POST has been brought to its conclusion by its author, Mel Menzies! Or, to put it another way: The End.

CLICK TO READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF A PAINFUL POST MORTEM. A NEW WINDOW WILL OPEN. YOU MAY NEED TO DOWNLOAD THE LATEST VERSION OF ADOBE.

Your Comments:

Herbert
23rd January 2009
at 6:07am

Writing as one who extensively used passive voice in his
administrative career and also as an academic, I confess that I
find it hard to even speak in the active! Well, possibly not!



However I am reminded that the need to engage people in
dialogue, especially in my new potential career, means I need to be
careful how I use language.



Many years ago I recall being told the theories of Basil
Bernstein which distinguished between restricted code and
elaborated code. Restricted code was the language of every day
people whereas elaborated code was used by professionals including
teachers who thus often failed to communciate.



I guess the reason for writing is communciation - and I am
finding your comments helpful as I have to prepare material for
general consumption both inb a newsletter and in spoken sessions
these days.



The other factor is that the passive depersonalises the account
and for those of us who have a cetain incipient shyness in their
make up it becomes a crutch!

23rd January 2009
at 5:36pm

Thanks Herbert - I think :)) I no nuffin about Bernstein, but it
seems to me that it ought to be the other way round i.e. restricted
speech should less communicative than elaborated.



However, I do understand what you mean when you say: "The
other factor is that the passive depersonalises the account."
That's exactly my point! The manuscript I was asked to critique
failed to engage me as a reader because excessive use of the
Passive Voice had completely depersonalised it.



I also found your comment "for those of us who have a
cetain incipient shyness in their make up it becomes a
crutch!" very interesting and plausible.



Thanks again. Keep the comments coming. Mel

PiterKokoniz
8th April 2009
at 10:25am

Hi ! ;)

I am Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that your posts are really
interesting

And want to ask you: what was the reasson for you to start this
blog?

Sorry for my bad english:)

Thank you:)

Your Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

9th April 2009
at 2:01am

Piter - how lovely to hear from someone in Lavia! Greetings to
you.



You ask why I started my blog. Good question! Not, as you can
see, to make money. I don't have any adverts anywhere on my
website. My main reason, if I'm honest, was to sell my books.
ALL PROFITS ARE FOR CHARITIES BENEFITING CHILDREN. See links for
details.



But it was more than that. Writing and helping people to realise
their potential are my two passions. So whether I'm writing a
Creative Writing Tutorial or a Self-Help article, I'm
fulfilling myself and, hopefully, others.



PS Your English is very good. 110% better than my Lavian! :)
Keep in touch.

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