Writing Post: Passive, Impassive, or Apathetic?

Full disclosure: I hate writing about grammar, I don’t understand grammar, and these two things collided and lead to me whining at a friend who does understand grammar and trying to force her to explain in words short enough that I could understand them, and then possibly having a row with some people about something entirely unrelated in order to avoid writing it.

What I’m saying is, this post nearly didn’t happen. And probably shouldn’t have. I was asked by a friend after the “Show, Don’t Tell” and “What Is Litotes” posts if I could explain the “don’t write in the passive voice” advice meted out by the great and the good. Or the noisy and time-rich.

The problem was that at the time, I couldn’t. I know enough to avoid using it, but not enough to be able to adequately explain it, or even to explain what the “passive voice” is. This Language Log essay is doubtless very informative, but you do have to have a grip on the jargon of linguistics first. This post by Grammar Girl about the Active Versus Passive voice is easier to digest.

The Grammar Girl post says:

Another important point is that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

which I think covers well what I would say: using the passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong, and in fact has a place in political speech-writing an awful lot (when someone wants to imply that no one was at fault. In other languages, where there has to be an actor in an action, it’s a little harder to do this. English at least allows for “the vase was smashed” without any suggestion that the smashing might have occurred as the result of someone doing something). It’s also useful in lab reports: “the solution was stirred vigorously”.

The passive voice also has a place in poetry, I think, and in certain situations in fiction. Perhaps what’s important is to use it when you know what you want to achieve with what you’re saying (or the passive, “with what’s being said”, which just removed the responsibility from you).

For example, the sentence people hate John.

Now, there are circumstances where this is the preferred form. If you want to make it sound as if John’s innocent in all this, for example, or that the hatred is the province of “people”, a group which can be inflated or contracted to avoid including the speaker, use this active sentence. People hate John. John is the one being done to. People are the ones doing the hating. There is action (hate), actor (people), and acted upon (John, who I’m sure isn’t that unpopular really!).

There are other circumstances where what you’re trying to communicate is different. Perhaps John’s kind of a bastard. Perhaps John inspires hatred so completely that it’s almost how you’d identify him. Perhaps there is a gravitas to his experience of others’ hatred that gets lost in the active clause. Perhaps you want to emphasise the degree to which he is hated by mirroring with first the passive clause and then the explanatory active: John is hated; people hate him.

John is hated takes away the actor and leaves John the sole inhabitant of the clause. What is important is John, and how he is hated. It doesn’t matter who hates him (and so we lose the weak, flexible “people”), only that he is hated. It becomes a title: John, the hated.

So there are circumstances even in fiction in which passivity is to be encouraged (voila!).

Why the injunction against it?

Because most of the time, in narrative, you want there to be an actor performing the actions you’re writing about. There should be someone or something doing something, as well as someone or something being done to. The active voice pins responsibility onto the actor, and makes sure that actions don’t occur devoid from a motive force.

But why should fiction be about that?

Because human minds are mad keen on intentionality. As observed by Dr VS Ramachandran and various others, the mind looks for actors in even actorless events. We ascribe intentions to inanimate objects and forces: the weather is against us, the trees are our friends today. There is a sound evolutionary suggestion for this, better-described in Phantoms in the Brain than I could ever hope to manage, as well-observed as the human tendency to look for faces in anything we see.

The active voice enforces a sense of personality and continuity, and strengthens the reader’s identification with the situation you’re describing.

The Grammar Girl post also notes:

A recent study suggests that less educated people–those who dropped out of school when they were 16–have a harder time understanding sentences written in the passive voice than those written in active voice. I only had access to the press release, not the original study, but the results made it seem as if you should stick with active voice if you’re writing for the general population.

So if you’re writing Young Adult or children’s fiction especially, it’s better to stick to the active voice at all times and not leave your readers potentially confused as to what’s going on and who is doing what to whom!

When the passive voice in fiction is pretty cool:

The passive voice is also, incidentally, useful in situations where an object with no internal life is the focus of the story, scene, sentence, or clause.

The passive voice, then, isn’t so much verboten as “not always appropriate”, like almost any optional element of writing. It’s useful for making the distinction between things you’d like the reader to believe happened by accident or without motivation, and things which you’d like the reader to believe were intentional. It’s not so much a “no-no” as a “know when to use it”.


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