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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leela Bruce Kung Fu Fights the Active Voice Wanks

Leela Bruce here, and hello. Time for another round of Kung-Fu fighting really bad writing advice.

If you say something is a suggestion, most inexperienced writers will ignore it.  Completely.  Utterly.  They, of course, know better. Unfortunately, if you say something is a rule, they internalize it upon a steel plate of commandments within their brain, and in a few years when their writing career tanks and they become some kind of editor or agent, they run around power scoffing at anyone who breaks the rule--even when it is the better choice.

This is pretty much exactly how passive voice got such a bad rap.  Perhaps with a few more tweed jackets from Cornell thrown in there. (Oh that's right Strunk!  I'm looking at you!)

That's why today I'll be taking on legions of Active Voice Wank's.  What famed kung-fu fighter hasn't taken on dozens of opponents at a time at least once in their career?

First, a cerebral attack akin to starting out with battle aura (in order to ensure that everyone is too intimidated to attack me more than one or two at a time).  Think of active and passive voice like a transformer (that's transformer with a little T so I don't get sued, but I'm not talking about the electrical boxes).  Imagine you're a giant robot that can turn into a Lamborghini. If you need to get across town because someone thought they saw Harold Bloom, you don't go on foot.  You turn into a car, and zip across town.  When you GET to Harold Bloom, you don't stay in car form.  You transform into a robot so that you have prehensile thumbs with which to grab him by the lapels and a fist that you can drive into his trachea.  I mean maybe if he's in the middle of the road you can just run over him, but if he's behind some of those cement pylons or there are innocents, you're going to need a different mode.

Passive voice is exactly like that.  Exactly.

Now, let me start with some quick punches.  Passive voice is a grammatical construction.  It is not "anything you think feels weak or callow," consisting of verbs without "spine," it is not any sentence with "to be" as a verb, it is not any sentence written in perfect tense, and it is not it a way to refer to writing that generally takes a passive stance.  It's an actual grammatical construction that consists of removing the agent or actor.

[Okay here's a lightning quick lesson in passive voice--just to show all you active wank assholes that I totally know what I'm doing: 

You can't use just regular old high school grammar to unlock what the hell passive voice means.  Because "subject" is a word that has to do with the geography of a sentence and if you try to talk about what happens to the subject in passive voice, you will get confused since another subject comes along and takes its place.  English sentences have to have a subject (unless they're a command with the implied subject of "you").  Even if there really is no subject we put in a filler subject.  "It is raining."  It has NO antecedent in this sentence.  "There is a book on the table."  There has no meaning.  It just wouldn't be grammatical in English to say "Is book on the table."  (Which you can do in other languages.)

So saying "move the subject into the object position" with passive gets funny, since a new subject shows up to take its place.  It's easier if you understand the linguistics concept of an "actor" or "agent."  This is the person DOING the action of the transitive verb.  (Another reason that subject thing can get weird is that intransitive verbs can't be passive.)  So in a sentence like "I punch Dead white authors," I am the agent or actor.  

Got it?

Okay, so in passive voice the agent goes away and the object swings around into the subject position. "Dead white authors are punched."  It requires some tweaking of the tense that is a grammar lesson I'm not getting into here.  You can add the agent or actor back in with something called a By Phrase.  That would look like this.  "Dead white authors are punched by me."  You can see how this can get really clunky and weird when you're describing action.  But I'm not here to validate the Active Voice Wanks.  I'm here to do various kinds of spinning kicks into their spleens and pancrei...um.... pancreases....whatever.

The problem is, young writers do this a lot, so experienced writers tell them to expunge passive voice, as a reactionary swing, and all the really good reasons for using passive voice get thrown out as well.  And those writers go on to become passive voice equivalents of ED-209s.  Big, nasty, and with no ability to walk down stairs.   Um....metaphorically speaking.]

I'm not here to tell you why passive voice is bad, because the style and grammar equivalents of the Puddies from Power Rangers can tell you all about it.  Over and over. Suffice to say that if passive voice is used when it isn't appropriate, it sounds a little strange. (See.) What I am here to do is kick ass and eat sushi. And the gas station just ran out of sushi.

Let me move from punches to some quick kicks. Passive voice is not a grammatical error. Get that out of your brain. While saying "The book was read by me," might seem quite odd, it is grammatically correct. Passive voice is a stylistic choice that has to do with clarity and the emphasis English speakers place on the agent, which culturally mirrors the emphasis English speaking cultures put on agency in general.*throw one attacker into another*

Reasons you use the passive voice:

1- You don't know who did something.  Maybe you don't KNOW who did something.  Coming up with ambiguous subjects rather than using the passive voice gets weird really quickly.  *sidekick*

("My house was broken into," sounds a lot better than, "An unknown person or persons broke into my house.)

2- You don't care who did it.  Often the action is much more important than who did the action, and an actively constructed sentence will draw emphasis from where it belongs.  *hammer-fist*

("The Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937," reads a lot smoother--despite being passive--than "A bunch of construction workers working for the McClintic-Marshall Construction Co. completed the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.")

3- To emphasize the object or recipient.  Sometimes the object of an action is more important, and you can get a shift in meaning you don't intend by forcing it into active voice.  *spinning back kick*

("Our Marketing Strategy was adopted by several multinational conglomerate," properly emphases the awesomeness of the marketing strategy where "Several multinational conglomerates adopted our marketing strategy" pulls the focus away and places it on the companies.  The meaning clearly shifts.    "Fifty one votes are required to pass a law in the Senate," puts the focus on the number of votes whereas, "Passing a law in the Senate requires 51 votes," puts more emphasis on what happens if they get the votes.)

4- When it is obvious within a multi-clause sentence who is taking the action.  Sometimes your sentence contains multiple clauses, but it could become repetitive and strange if you insist on active voice.  *crescent kick#

("I punched the snobby academic in the face, but being pummeled didn't seem to affect his ability to accept other voices into the canon." It is clear who is punching, and you would have to have a repetitive sentence and force pummel into a possessive gerund to keep it active, which would be clunkier than the passive. "I punched the snobby academic in the face, but my pummeling didn't seem to affect...")

5-General Statements.  General statements often sound more universal and less personally directed in the passive voice.  *spinning kick that hits three attackers*

("Mail should be sent prior to 5pm," seems like a rule everyone has to follow. "Everyone should send mail prior to 5pm," or "You should send mail prior to 5pm," both feel like they are encouraging people to send mail rather than discussing a rule.)

6-Process descriptions.  An agent would often muddle the idea in a process description and cause confusion in meaning.  *flippy reversal*

("The two mixtures are combined to form nitroglycerin."  Describes how to make nitroglycerin.  "Combine the two mixtures," feels more like instructions since it is using the command exception to avoid having an agent at all, and adding in agents creates unneeded confusion. "The person in question combines the mixtures to form nitroglycerin.")

7-Verbs where the agent is obvious.  Certain verbs always have the same agent/actor.  Always.  *super power punch to the brain pan*

(If any of you write "My mother bore me on September 29th," you will probably get some very strange looks.  Pretty much that verb is always in passive voice.  "I was born on September, 29th.")

10-Academic detachedness (also journalism) confused for official or objective.  Careful, this is where newbs get into trouble.  Journalism and politics use a lot of passive voice, but journalists (usually) know what they're doing  ("Saddam Hussein was found!") when they leave out the agent/actor for emphasis and politicians are usually trying to obfuscate blame.  ("Mistakes have been made in this process.")  People think passive sounds "official" and "objective" and drift towards it because of this.


However from time to time adding an agent to a sentence can undermine its intention, and then you need the passive voice.  The rule of thumb here is that if the by phrase in any way clarifies the meaning or intention of the sentence, you should probably put the sentence in active voice.  *foot sweep and subsequent ax kick*

("Kafka was thought to be a terrible writer in his time," convey's the full scope of meaning more than, "Literary critics thought Kafka was a terrible writer in his time," and doesn't take away the focus from what's important the way adding in all the necessary agents would: "Literary critics, agents, editors, MFA graduates, and 'high art' sophisticates thought Kafka was a terrible writer in his time.")

11-Diplomacy.  Sometimes saying who did it really points fingers and raises hackles.  This is sort of the nobly motivated version of what politicians do.  *Muay Thai spinning leg kick*

("We only militarized because we were attacked," tends to assign less blame than "We only militarized because you assholes attacked us.")

9-You are Herman Melville.  Seriously!  *The never-before-seen Melville secret attack*

Oh, and by the way, three of the Strunk and White example sentences of why passive is bad aren't actually passive, and George Orwell used the passive voice when he told people it should not be used.  *grabs last standing attacker by head and twists*  Just sayin....

As I stand in the wake of this fight, with hundreds of active voice wanks unconscious around me.  Some struggling for medical attention; others dead or dying; most saying some variant of "I got the crap kicked out of me," in an obvious moment of sheer passive irony, I just want to leave you with this:  passive voice doesn't just have "a few uses."  It has several.  It has many.  And it is positively bizarre to try to make certain constructions into active voice.  Doing so will change your meaning--sometimes slightly, and sometimes greatly.  Even a purely objective narrator needs passive voice sometimes.

And this is to say NOTHING of all the myriad of narrative voices within fiction that might have their own reasons (psychological, educational, or just wanting to sound official) for leaning towards passive constructions.  Don't be an idiot.  Learn what passive voice is and how to use it effectively and don't just join the h8er zombies that I've just decorated the room with who unimaginatively limit themselves.

This is Leela Bruce.  See you next month when I will Kung-Fu fight some more bad writing advice!


  1. Thank you! Christ! It's like the passive voice scourge around here, and I keep trying to tell people there IS a reason for it.

    1. Yeah, I think people do passive too much, but the reactionary swing can lead to constructions that are equally awkward.

  2. But understanding the reasons for the rule is HARD!

  3. Number six is especially significant for scientists; my understanding is that if you write the "materials and methods" section of a paper in anything but passive voice, journal editors are likely to send it back for correction. I've seen the political obfuscation aspect of number ten described as "the past exculpatory tense" in an article about the way police reports handle what they term "officer-involved shootings."

  4. I've said it before; I'll likely have to say it again. Newbies and amateurs break the "rules" because they don't know what they are. Professionals and other Masters-of-the-Craft break the "rules" because they know what in the hell they're doing.

    Excellent job on this post.