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Club 33
09-29-2006, 04:21 PM
Over the past few months, Iíve read a number of books on how to improve writing skills. One of the things that seem to pop up most frequently is that passive sentences seem to be universally frowned upon. Microsoft Word even has a handy little feature that gives you a percentage of how many passive sentences you have used.

And yet, for some reason, I have a really hard time spotting them in what I write. Iíve read numerous explanations of what they are but something just isnít clicking in my brain.

For those who have a good grasp of them, I have a few questions.

First, are there any tips you could offer that might help me improve my writing in this area or make the concept of passive sentences clearer to me?

Second, what are your opinions of passive sentences? Do you loathe seeing them, as so many authors attest?

Lastly, I know this is arbitrary but do you think that there are a percentage of passive sentences that are acceptable? Should the goal be to remove them completely or do they have their place?

Any and all insight into this somewhat perplexing dilemma would be helpful and appreciated.

PS: According to Word, the percentage of passive sentences in this post is 8%.

twickster
09-29-2006, 07:42 PM
Passive voice just means that you are saying "X is being done" not "[someone] is doing X." It's not good because it leaves the actor -- the person doing the action -- out of the picture, so it's vaguer -- and can be weaselly, if you're deliberately avoiding stating who the actor is.

For instance: "It is said that dogs are smarter than cats."

By whom? The AKC? Behavioral biologists? The folks drinking coffee down at the diner?

So once you've identified the actor -- "animal trainers," perhaps -- you've got two choices:

"It is said by animal trainers that dogs are smarter than cats" (keeping it in the passive voice, and unecessarily wordy) -- or -- "Animal trainers say that dogs are smarter than cats." This is shorter, terser, and clearer. You hit the points in order of importance -- the actor is more important than the action, here.

Tip: look at your verbs of action (i.e., not verbs of being, like "is" or "are") to see if you can identify who's performing that action. If not, figure out your actor and rewrite the sentence to put the actor first.

kunilou
09-29-2006, 08:09 PM
They aren't bad in an absolute sense, but they slow down the story. The core of writing (as opposed to grammar) is telling a story.

Compare and contrast:

The use of passive voice should be avoided by most writers.

Passive voice should be avoided by most writers.

Most writers should avoid using passive voice.

Most writers should avoid passive voice.

Passive, BAAAAAAD!

Each of those sentences "work" but in the context of your story, only one of them will be the best.

Civil Guy
09-29-2006, 10:33 PM
...One of the things that seem to pop up most frequently is that passive sentences seem to be universally frowned upon...

Suggested rewrite: One of the things that the books mention most frequently is that good writers universally frown upon passive sentences.

...Should the goal be to remove them completely or do they have their place?...

Suggested rewrite: Should I try to remove them completely or do they have their place?

Any and all insight into this somewhat perplexing dilemma would be helpful and appreciated.

Suggested rewrite: I'd appreciate any and all insight into this somewhat perplexing dilemma - I'm sure it will be helpful.


Me, I think that passive sentences have their place, used sparingly... but it depends upon your audience, for one thing. My problem with them is that they sound bureaucratic: mistakes were made, and corrective actions should be pursued.

E. Thorp
09-29-2006, 11:15 PM
Passive voice just means....
I often have to explain passive voice to people. twickster, I found your explanation in post #2 unusually lucid. May I use it?

Garfield226
09-30-2006, 12:12 AM
I'm not a writer, but I've taken a creative writing class and I'm a journalism major. I've been taught that you should only use a passive sentence when you are deliberately trying to emphasize the object of the sentence.

Check out Purdue University's online writing lab (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_actpass.html) for a pretty handy guide to grammar.

Rigamarole
09-30-2006, 12:30 AM
I'm not a writer, but I've taken a creative writing class and I'm a journalism major. I've been taught that you should only use a passive sentence when you are deliberately trying to emphasize the object of the sentence.


"You've been taught"? What kind of pansy-ass passive sentence is that, soldier? Taught by whom?

We need accountability here people, accountability!

*in Hokey-Pokey melody*

And that's what it's all about! Dum-DUM.

Club 33
09-30-2006, 01:55 AM
Thank you all for your input!

Twickster, your explanation makes more sense than just about anything I have previously read.

twickster
09-30-2006, 07:22 AM
Glad to help. (I'm an editor, not a writer -- so part of my job is explaining to people why I'm asking for rewrites. ;) )

E. Thorp -- mi explanation of passive voice es su explanation of passive voice.

Carnac the Magnificent!
09-30-2006, 10:07 AM
This thread has good information on passive writing.


http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?t=162294&highlight=passive+sentence+construction

Club 33
09-30-2006, 01:55 PM
Thanks for the link!

Scissorjack
09-30-2006, 04:25 PM
This thread (http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?t=357485) has a lot of good information about how the use of passive voice, especially as a stylistic device.

To expand a little on what Twickster said, using the passive voice to eliminate the actor from a sentence is generally legitimate if:

1/ You don't know who performed the action: "My house was robbed"

2/ It's obvious who performed the action: "The thief was arrested"

4/ It's unimportant who performed the action: "The barn was built"

Generally, if the action itself is more important than the actor{s}, passive voice is perfectly acceptable, especially if an impersonal, clinical tone is required, for example in writing up an experiment: "The chlorine tablets were added to the brake fluid and the results were noted."

It can also be used to give a "Voice Of God" tone, although this usage leads towards weaselling "Mistakes were made" sentences where the actor is slyly omitted...

5/ Voice Of God: "Trespassers will be prosecuted"

As a stylistic device, passive voice can also be used to shift the actor - and hence the focus - to the end of the sentence, often to create suspense or heighten anticipation: "The murder was committed in this very room."

Excalibre
09-30-2006, 05:52 PM
In terms of grammar, let's look at the difference between active and passive sentences. (The following basically only applies to transitive sentences - those that involve one entity performing an act upon another. It's only a rough overview. I tried to explicitly explain the very basic grammar because I know a lot of people never hear about subjects and objects and stuff in English class; apologies to those that already know this stuff. I'm not trying to be patronizing to those who already know most of this.)

Take an active sentence like this: Maria slapped John. Maria is, in syntactic terms, the subject of the sentence. Subjects generally appear before verbs, and verbs agree with the subject of a sentence (so you have He is tall, but They are tall - the verb takes a different form depending on whether the subject - he or they in this case - is singular or plural.) Now, in most ordinary active voice sentences, the subject is also semantically (that is, in terms of the sentence's meaning) the agent of the sentence. An agent is an entity that performs an action. One test to see if something is a subject of a sentence is whether it can be replaced with a subject pronoun. The following are the subject pronouns of English: I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

John is the direct object of the sentence. The direct object usually appears after the verb; if you replace it with a pronoun, you use an object pronoun: me, you, him, her, it, us, them. (Notice that some pronouns are the same for both subject and object.) Direct object, again, is a term that has to do with the sentence's syntax. In terms of the sentence's meaning, John is the patient - that is, the entity upon which the action is performed.

So in an active voice sentence, usually the subject is also the agent - the subject is the thing that performs the action. And the direct object is the patient - it's the thing that the action is done to. Passive sentences work differently.

In a passive sentence, the patient is raised to the subject position. So the passive equivalent to the above is John was slapped (by Maria). (I'm using parentheses to note that that part is optional.) The patient, the entity that (in this case) gets slapped is the subject. Note that when you use pronouns, the sentence becomes He was slapped (by her). John is replaced by he, a subject pronoun, which signals that John is now the subject of the sentence. Maria, in turn, doesn't have to show up in the sentence at all. In a passive sentence, you have the option of omitting the agent entirely; if it appears, it is an object of a preposition, the preposition being by.

So in an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is the agent (the performer of the action) while the object is the patient (the one the action is performed on.) In a passive sentence, the subject is the patient, and there is no direct object. The agent, if it's included at all, is in a prepositional phrase and it's introduced by by.

The verb changes too; it's replaced by a form of be plus a past participle (in this case, slapped.) So Maria ate the chocolates becomes The chocolates were eaten by Maria. There's a form of be, in this case were, plus a past participle. (Notice that past participles are often, but not always, the same as the past tense form of the verb.)

There's no single, simple rule to identify a passive sentence. But look for a form of be plus a past participle. If the sentence includes by so-and-so, or if you could mentally add it to the sentence, and that so-and-so is the entity that performs the action, it's probably a passive sentence.

Oh, and Scissorjack's advice about when you can use the passive voice is right on. The passive voice can certainly be overused, but it's not the evil that a lot of style guides pretend; there's definitely a place for it in all sorts of writing. It's a good idea not to use the passive voice too much, but that's one of those rules that tends to be repeated a lot more than it deserves; there's nothing wrong with using it occasionally.

E. Thorp
10-01-2006, 12:48 AM
E. Thorp -- mi explanation of passive voice es su explanation of passive voice.
Muchas gracias are given to you by me.

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