Friday, May 18, 2012

The Horror of the Passive Voice

Posted by LD Keach on Friday, May 18, 2012

(Or, you can have my auxiliary verbs when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.)

Today we're gonna get a little English Geeky up in here. We're gonna to use spooky words like conjugation and modality and, at the end I'm gonna make you diagram a sentence. Just kidding! I know we'd all rather claw our own larynx out than diagram a sentence, so we'll pass that torture over today. What I will torture you with is definitions.

First, here is the precise and accurate (according to my college profs, who better damn well know what they're talking about considering how much money I've paid for those classes) definition of that dreaded writer's bane called The Passive Voice.
The passive voice is a grammatical construction (specifically, a "voice") in which the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action (the patient) rather than the performer (the agent).

And that's copy-pasta straight from Wikipedia, so doubly reliable for taking as gospel truth.

Ultimately, the passive voice is a way of writing that emphasizes the thing that is acted upon, instead of emphasizing  the actor. Note that nowhere in the definition does it say "evil" or "foul, unclean blight upon the face of humanity." It does not say that once you mark that diabolical auxiliary verb upon the page, you will burst into flame. There is nothing wrong with passive voice.

I've met writers who try to clip every last "was" from their narrative and rewrite everything in the active voice, mostly because Writers' Market told them to. (Curse you, Writers' Market! Curse Yoooooooooou!) What results from this editorial treatment is stories that are so wooden and awkward that they make me want to claw my larynx out. What they had done was kill their own natural narrative voice--the one that uses a combination of passive and active, the voice that is their specific hallmark as a writer--and replaced it with the mechanical, lifeless narrative voice of the subjugated literary masses.

Or, in other words, they wrote themselves out of their own story in hopes to sell books.

Passive voice is simply a narrative style that's not popular these days. Pick up Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities, (or, The Haunting of Hill House or The Shining, don't forget those) and you'll find those  classics are chock full of passive voice. Literature is as subject to fashion as everything else, and culture is fickle. Like bellbottoms! What is writing of grandiose important these days will be trite tomorrow. So, don't wear yourself out cow-towing to the latest fad. Find your voice and use it to write something you want to say.

And, while you're at it, don't read A Tale of Two Cities. That crap's so awful, it makes me want to claw Dickens' larynx out.