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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » When the Passive Voice is acceptable

   
Author Topic: When the Passive Voice is acceptable
jerich100
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I understand there are situations where the passive voice is not only acceptable, but is preferred.

For example, note the following sentence:

"I was hit with an iron."

The "was hit" part is passive. But I believe it to be an acceptable answer to the question: "What happened to you?"

I THINK the passive voice is okay if what HAPPENED is more important than who or what did the action. Is this true? Or said more simply: Put the most important thing at the front of the sentence.

Do y'all agree with the above? This may explain why my grammar checker can't determine whether the passive voice is acceptable or not because it doesn't know the intent of the sentence.

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extrinsic
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Passive voice places the object of an action in sentence subject position, the done-to of an action. Passive voice expresses process statements.

Stasis statements, on the other hand, express states of being, oftentimes ongoing being or being for a determined or indetermined time span. Stasis statement construction resembles passive voice in the use of auxilliary to be verb use, and perhaps a preposition following the predicate and preceding the object or implied preposition and object. Due to stasis statements resemblance to passive voice, they are often confused with each other.

"I was hit with an iron." contains the recipient of the action in subject position, a to be auxilliary, the main verb past tense "hit," the preposition with, and the immediate subject doer, the iron, in object position, all the signals of passive voice. An iron hit me. is active voice. Both passive and active forms express a process statement, an event portrayed.

However, passive voice is not limited to past tense. For example, He was getting hit with an iron. He had been getting hit with an iron. He would get hit with an iron.

Stasis statements, like passive voice, tend to be static voice, though they may not necessarily contain a preposition or to be verb.

She watched the iron hit him.

Note that to watch in that use describes an ongoing state of being. An event too. That the state of watching--being--is an indetermined time span of comparative stasis makes it more of a stasis statement than a process statement, mixed, in limbo but favoring static voice, though in active voice.

Similarly, auxilliary verbs other than to be may form passive voice: to get and to have.

He got hit with an iron.
He got a beating (implied from someone withheld or unknown).
He had an iron hit him.

No preposition though in the last two, which disguises a signal for passive voice.)

Passive voice's functions include emphasizing the recipient of an action, when the doer of an action is unknown or withheld, for reassigning responsibility for an action, for promoting an object and demoting the subject of an action, and for impersonal, non self-involved composition.

Mechanical style's principle regarding passive voice is use consistently, timely, and judiciously. The issue of passive voice is it tends to deprive writing of vigor, emphasis, and feels formal and impersonal. One shortcoming of note for passive voice--passive voice limits verb choice (diction) to transitive verbs: verbs that take an object.

For stronger grammar checking app, consider resetting from the default so-so strictness to the strictest setting.

[ January 21, 2014, 04:27 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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I've been, on and off, using the search feture of my word processing program to seek out and revise sentences like "he was," or "he had," and assorted variations. I don't know if it made the end product any better, but it certainly made me more conscious of it when I write the rough draft. (Not that I've stopped doing it.)
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genevive42
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The complaint against passive voice is more one of, 'might there not be a better/more active/more interesting way to say this?' That's all it is.

If your prose is littered with passive sentences, it can end up feeling stilted and boring. However, there are times, and sentences that sound more natural in their passive form. If you only have a couple of passive sentences here and there, don't contort your prose to change them. Just ask if they're the best sentences they can be.

Also, dialog has slightly different rules. In the attempt to portray character and create a semblance of reality in speech, it's fine to use some tools you wouldn't use as much in exposition. Mitigating words are an example of this. In speech we mitigate all the time, and you can use it to show your character's doubt, or their softening toward another character.

Consider:

"What happened to you?"
"I got hit with an iron."

"What happened to you?"
"That jerk Bowser hit me with an iron."

"What happened to you?"
"Some crazy guy leapt out of the crowd and attacked me with an iron just because I said something about house-husbands being lazy wusses."

Three different ways of saying this, but with different levels of information and intensity. The question is, which one is right for your story? That's really the main question to ask when you're thinking about any writing 'rule'.

Remember, 'writing rules' are only guidelines. Use the concepts as tools, not laws.

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Reziac
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Also useful for the classic blame-shift, frex:

Bottles were broken. Punches were thrown.

instead of

I broke the bottles and hit the guy.

The problem from a crit standpoint is that passive voice (a useful tool) is commonly conflated with passive writing (that just lays there limp and soggy), but they are not at all the same thing.

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Denevius
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I definitely think there are a couple of common critiques people throw out not because they understand them, but simply because they are commonly said in workshops. 'Watch the adverbs' is one of them. Avoiding passive voice is another. One that I find funny is the insistence of smells in descriptions. Some creative writing resource has made this of utmost importance, and many seem to have bought into the recommendation with a somewhat fanatical zeal.

But yeah, it's not so much a passive sentence, but passive writing that needs to be watched out for. Passive writing tends to put writers at a distance from the narrative. 'I was running', 'I was hit with a ball', 'I was driving to work'. These examples sound like someone is reporting their actions to you, which is a general tone you want to avoid in your prose. 'I ran', 'The ball hit me', "I drove to work', puts the reader in more immediate action in the narrative.

I find a lot of newish writers suffer from not properly regulating narrative distance. And their prose will be littered with passive sentences that creates a feeling of the reader looking in on the events of the world unfolding on the page.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
One that I find funny is the insistence of smells in descriptions. Some creative writing resource has made this of utmost importance, and many seem to have bought into the recommendation with a somewhat fanatical zeal.

I think "instistence" might come from auditors who have repeated without understanding why olfactory sensations, any sensation stimuli for that matter, are influential for developing close aesthetic distance and how to artfully deploy them.

Aromas are strong memory triggers and as such they're related to engaging readers' imaginations, which in turn is related to developing the all-important illiusion of reality in the now moment of a scene that closes aesthetic distance. Smells that readers have encountered, that memories of suit a writer's intent and meaning, have powerful magic in developing the illusion of reality. Unmediated sensory stimuli, visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile in particular, and gustatory, have artful magic potential in developing the illusion of reality.

Scents, aromas, smells stimuli, in particular, are potently evocative for developing close aesthetic distance when artfully, dramatically, timely, and judiciously deployed. A reason why olfactory stimuli is challenging to develop or deploy at all for strugglng writers is because most times humans sense smells nonvolitionally, subconsciously and quickly become desensitized from constant exposure.

Say a character enters an enclosed space that has a subtle but dominant aroma. What's that smell? If a writer has no familiarity with the setting and is inventing it for a narrative, leaving out a smell sensation is automatic. But implying or directly describing the smell authenticates the narrative and develops close aesthetic distance and the illusion of reality.

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MattLeo
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"Passive voice" is for some critics like catching the kids with the elbows on the table [note 1]. In truth there is nothing wrong with elbows on the table according to etiquette experts, but it's a popular rule because it's easy to catch kids doing it. Likewise writers like to trot out passive voice in a critique because it's something you can say without really thinking.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the passive voice, if you use it in sentences where doer of an action is relatively unimportant or unknown. "My car was stolen" is every bit as correct and robust as "Somebody stole my car." Maybe even a little more robust.

The problem is using the passive voice where the active voice is more natural. "The hooligan was punched in the face by me," is just bizarre. Don't write bizarre sentences unless you have a reason to do so.

The real enemy is unnecessary vagueness. So don't use the passive voice when you can identify a suitable subject for an active clause. The obvious exception is for characterization -- when you want to show a character (including the narrator) who is reluctant to identify the doer of an action: "When my car was wrecked I had to walk the rest of the way to work..." vs. "When I wrecked my car I had to walk the rest of the way to work."

note 1: the actual rule is that you are not allowed to put elbows on the table while you are using silverware. Oh, and you can eat asparagus with your fingers, but not cheese unless it is served by itself.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
"The hooligan was punched in the face by me," is just bizarre. Don't write bizarre sentences unless you have a reason to do so.

The hooligan was punched in the face by me! Not by that other punk who wants all the credit!


quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
note 1: the actual rule is that you are not allowed to put elbows on the table while you are using silverware. Oh, and you can eat asparagus with your fingers, but not cheese unless it is served by itself.

I don't have a table. I eat with the plate in my lap.
<thinking>
So where the hell am I supposed to put my elbows??

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