Passive Voice Debate

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby polymath » 01 Oct 2010, 19:34

k10wnsta wrote:Chase grabbed his slingshot and we wandered the neighborhood looking for a light that wasn’t surrounded by houses, because until you actually shot them out, the streetlights had an irritating habit of lighting everything around them for all the world to see, and you’d have to be a pretty cherry vandal not to see the scrape in that.

Chase grabbed his slingshot and we wandered the neighborhood looking for a light that wasn’t surrounded by houses. Until you actually shot them out, the streetlights had an irritating habit of lighting everything around them for all the world to see, and you’d have to be a pretty cherry vandal not to see the scrape in that.

Those are a whole other baseball tournament. Conundrum; the voice at play is a lighthearted one, as befits a night of mindless freewheeling vandalism. However, both examples are cluttered with deliberative modifiers and conjunctions which diminish their informal voices' impact. I suggest reading them aloud and seeing how breathless they are for what amounts to not so breathless actions run into clusterflops of conjoined clauses.

Recast yet attempting unsuccessfully not to impose my voice;
//Chase grabbed a slingshot. We slipped into the night, wandering the neighborhood stalking a streetlight. A burning streetlight busybody houses didn't surround. Streetlights had a habit of lighting everything around them for nosy eyes to see. You'd have to be a cherry vandal not to see the scrape in that.//
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby Margo » 01 Oct 2010, 19:50

How about something like:

Chase grabbed his slingshot and we searched the neighborhood for a streetlight near an empty house or a dirt lot. Until you actually shot them out, the streetlights had an irritating habit of lighting everything around them for all the world to see. You’d have to be a pretty cherry vandal not to see the scrape in that.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby J. T. SHEA » 01 Oct 2010, 21:52

K10wnsta, you promised a jillion commas. I count only three. I like commas. Or was that comas?

Once again, I do not have a problem with the sentence. Long though it is, it is quite clear and concise. I would probably break it up into shorter sentences:-

'Chase grabbed his slingshot. We wandered the neighborhood, looking for a streetlamp not surrounded by houses. Until you actually shot them out, streetlamps had an irritating habit of lighting everything around them, for all the world to see. You'd have to be a pretty cherry vandal not to see the scrape in that.'

But that's my style, not a fault in your sentence. It's not worth five more minutes of your time, much less a couple of days! And the passive voice is irrelevant. BTW, I assume 'cherry' and 'scrape' are colloquialisms?
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby k10wnsta » 01 Oct 2010, 22:13

Sometimes I think the use of passive voice - or the oft-written, unwritten rule against it - is interpreted a bit too rigidly in writing circles. Of course, the same is true of much of the advice given to aspiring writers (ie. dialogue tags), likely because many of those honing their craft are desperately seeking concrete rules to guide them to completing that first novel worthy of a publisher's (or even agent's) interest.
But to me, passive voice having no place in literature rings a bit outlandish, if not downright false.

I say ignore the rules and find the voice that works to tell the story. If you succeed in doing that, there are no rules.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby k10wnsta » 01 Oct 2010, 23:36

J. T. SHEA wrote:K10wnsta, you promised a jillion commas. I count only three. I like commas. Or was that comas?

I'm terribly sorry - my initial estimation was based on earlier versions of the sentence in which there were as many as a jillion commas, give or take a bazillion.
J. T. SHEA wrote:Once again, I do not have a problem with the sentence. Long though it is, it is quite clear and concise. I would probably break it up into shorter sentences...But that's my style, not a fault in your sentence.

I tend to swing the extremes, going from a sentence that's a half paragraph long to one that's just two words (and technically not even a sentence). I'm not really sure why.
J. T. SHEA wrote:It's not worth five more minutes of your time, much less a couple of days! And the passive voice is irrelevant. BTW, I assume 'cherry' and 'scrape' are colloquialisms?

I'm a bit neurotic like that. I succumb to overwhelming demand for perfection while being a few grains short of a silo of self-confidence in my own ability. It'd be nice to find a collaborator who could say, 'Dude, leave it be. It's fine. You're just being fucking crazy,' but I could never trust them because they're obviously lying to spare my feelings.
;-) Okay, I'm not so bad that I'd presuppose such a thing.
Of course, entering into deeper analysis of passive voice and all the little technical 'preferences' in writing isn't too helpful with all this, as it adds a dash of paranoia to the witches' brew of uncertainty. But at the same time, it is sort of helpful. How's that for a mealy-mouthed paradox?

Oh, two more things:
1) Yes, 'cherry' (adj.) and 'scrape' (n.) are both slang terms in their use there. 'Scrape' isn't that uncommon, but 'cherry' may be a bit obscure to some. I hope the context of their use defined them for you without much headscratching.
and
2) Thanks everyone - poly, margo, JT - for the input. I'm glad I could sacrifice a sentence on the altar of discussion about passive voice.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby k10wnsta » 01 Oct 2010, 23:55

theepicwinner wrote:What about when magic comes into play?

"Roberto splayed his hands and Victor was sent hurtling backwards into the wall".

Is that better or worse than:

"Roberto splayed his hands, sending Victor hurtling backwards into the wall".

I've seen both methods used in books and it always irks me when the passive voice is used. It just feels wrong to me, hence why I try to avoid it at all costs.


Both of these sound perfectly fine to me. Or they could sound perfectly fine, context depending.
Actually, are either of them even really passive voice?
In trying to answer this, I had to delve deeper into the technical definition of passive voice (delving deeper = googling 'passive voice' and clicking the first link), and as remarkably in-depth and informative as this course handout from UNC is, my attention span won't suffer reading all of it to find the answer tonight. I'll sit down and study it on the morrow. For the time being, I don't think either one of those is really a form of passive voice.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby polymath » 02 Oct 2010, 10:16

A passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, © 1973, Dell Publishing Delta Book 1999 trade paperback edition, pages 13 through 15.

   "Dwayne's incipient insanity was mainly a matter of chemicals, of course. Dwayne Hoover's body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas, too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction.
   "Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness. Yin and Yang were Chinese symbols of harmony. They looked like this:"

   [Yin Yang symbol graphic.]

  "The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout. Trout considered himself not only harmless but invisible. The world had paid so little attention to him that he supposed he was dead.
  "He hoped he was dead.
  "But he learned from his encounter with Dwayne that he was alive enough to give a fellow human being ideas which would turn him into a monster.
  "Here was the core of the idea which Trout gave to Dwayne: Everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exception—Dwayne Hoover.
  "Of all the creatures in the Universe, only Dwayne was thinking and feeling and worrying and planning and so on. Nobody else knew what pain was. Nobody else had any choices to make. Everybody else was a fully automatic machine, whose purpose was to stimulate Dwayne. Dwayne was a new type of creature being tested by the Creator of the Universe.
  "Only Dwayne had free will."

Lots of were and was verbs and auxilliaries, one passive voice sentence. "The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout." "The bad ideas" theme or topic of the sentence, "were" to be auxilliary verb, "delivered" main verb, "by" preposition, followed by the agent of the action (delivered) "Kilgore Trout." Recast in active voice; //Kilgore Trout delivered the bad ideas to Dwayne.//

"Free will," aye, there's the rub. Vonnegut sold somewhere around ten million books, two million Breakfast of Champions, five million Slaughterhouse Five. George Orwell was no less a success. Yet Orwell abhored passive voice. And not a few other successful authors. And not a few other successful authors who purposely and judiciously use passive voice.

Breakfast of Champions' central message is, Think for yourself, or others will do your thinking for you. In the meantime, if you're doing others' thinking for them, you have little or no time to think for yourself.

If there's a meaning to life, and for a writing life, it's navigating the conundrums posed by predetermination and free will. Some destinies are predetermined, some open to free will. Which applies when and why and where is one of anyone's decisions to make for themselves. The only certain predetermination is death, maybe taxes. From birth, death is predetermined. Be angry, deny, bargain, be depressed, find acceptance. Find a way ahead. Life goes on, regardless.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby k10wnsta » 02 Oct 2010, 13:13

polymath wrote:A passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, © 1973, Dell Publishing Delta Book 1999 trade paperback edition, pages 13 through 15.

   "Dwayne's incipient insanity was mainly a matter of chemicals, of course. Dwayne Hoover's body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas, too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction.
   "Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness. Yin and Yang were Chinese symbols of harmony. They looked like this:"

   [Yin Yang symbol graphic.]

  "The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout. Trout considered himself not only harmless but invisible. The world had paid so little attention to him that he supposed he was dead.
  "He hoped he was dead.
  "But he learned from his encounter with Dwayne that he was alive enough to give a fellow human being ideas which would turn him into a monster.
  "Here was the core of the idea which Trout gave to Dwayne: Everybody on Earth was a robot, with one exception—Dwayne Hoover.
  "Of all the creatures in the Universe, only Dwayne was thinking and feeling and worrying and planning and so on. Nobody else knew what pain was. Nobody else had any choices to make. Everybody else was a fully automatic machine, whose purpose was to stimulate Dwayne. Dwayne was a new type of creature being tested by the Creator of the Universe.
  "Only Dwayne had free will."

Lots of were and was verbs and auxilliaries, one passive voice sentence. "The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout." "The bad ideas" theme or topic of the sentence, "were" to be auxilliary verb, "delivered" main verb, "by" preposition, followed by the agent of the action (delivered) "Kilgore Trout." Recast in active voice; //Kilgore Trout delivered the bad ideas to Dwayne.//

Use of passive voice in that instance is preferrable for two reasons:
1) Despite the fact that he's the one acting on them, the significance of Trout himself is secondary to what's actually being established - the bad ideas. Using passive voice keeps emphasis on the core element of the 'bad ideas' by placing them at the front of the statement.
and
2) Use of passive voice there provides a smoother transition between the topics being detailed than active voice would. To demonstrate, assign a letter A to the topic of 'bad ideas' and a letter B to the topic of Kilgore Trout. Disregarding the brief (and poor) yin yang analogy, we see:
'Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the yin and yang of madness...' - A
'The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout.' - A then B
'Trout considered himself not only harmless but invisible.' - B
Summarily, passive voice lists the subjects - A then A then B then B
Recasting the middle sentence to active voice, it becomes - A then B then A then B

polymath wrote:If there's a meaning to life, and for a writing life, it's navigating the conundrums posed by predetermination and free will. Some destinies are predetermined, some open to free will. Which applies when and why and where is one of anyone's decisions to make for themselves. The only certain predetermination is death, maybe taxes. From birth, death is predetermined. Be angry, deny, bargain, be depressed, find acceptance. Find a way ahead. Life goes on, regardless.

This summary is reassuring. I'd been concerned that 'sometimes bad shit happens for no reason' was too vague a theme for the bedrock of a story (even though I've hopefully stacked several layers of increasingly specific themes on top of it)
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby polymath » 02 Oct 2010, 15:16

Reason 1 is valid logic, one of passive voice's principal purposes. Reason 2 is a stretch. Kilgore Trout is either an agent or an object of an agent's action. A doer or a done to. The subject acting or the object acted upon. Thus not a topic.

"Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness." "Were" state of being, to be. "Bad chemicals and bad ideas" agent of being, "the Yin and Yang of madness" topic.
"Yin and Yang were Chinese symbols of harmony." Same breakdown.
"They looked like this:" They, agent.
"The bad ideas were delivered to Dwayne by Kilgore Trout." Topic, "The bad ideas," agent, Kilgore Trout, object of Trout's action, Dwayne.
Agent, agent, agent, agent, topic in sentence subject first position.

Primary function of passive voice, when a theme or topic has more importance than an agent or character doing an action.

Kilgore Trout being a beloved Vonnegut stock character, I would imagine Vonnegut didn't like to openly indict Trout for delivering bad ideas to Dwayne. Thus, passive voice depersonalizes and passes off responsibility for Trout's act of delivering bad ideas to Dwayne, which Trout didn't intend nor take part in directly. It's the bad ideas and the bad chemicals' fault Dwayne went insane, not Trout's, though he felt guilty for playing a part.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby k10wnsta » 02 Oct 2010, 16:47

Topic probably wasn't the best term to use. Originally, I'd written it out using the term subject, but I didn't want that to be mistaken for 'grammatical subject' when I meant 'subject about which details are being provided'.
In other words:

We're provided details about the bad chemicals/bad ideas (in the questionable yin yang analogy)

Then we have a transition sentence.*

Then we're presented details about Trout (that he considered himself not only harmless but invisible)

*Disregarding mention of Dwayne**, the transition sentence contains two nouns: (bad) ideas and Kilgore Trout. Since details about the bad ideas are provided before the sentence, and details about Kilgore Trout follow it, mentioning those two nouns/subjects relative to which side of the sentence their details fall on provides a symmetry (or alignment) to the transition. Active voice would shuffle them.
**the placement of Dwayne, as written, actually bolsters this symmetry, as it falls right in the middle of the transition between the two subjects and, further out, their details.

I doubt the way I'm explaining it makes any sense at all. It has more to do with transitional (or even aesthetic) flow then it does grammatical structure. Hows about a little flowchart (remember, the actions are irrelevant, we're just looking at the sequence in which the nouns are addressed):

info about bad ideas <---> bad ideas <---> Dwayne <---> Kilgore Trout <---> info about Kilgore Trout
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Postby polymath » 02 Oct 2010, 17:35

Transition, that's a good answer to what else that passive voice sentence does, and part of Vonnegut's aesthetic. It makes a reasonable transition from Dwayne Hoover and bad ideas to bad ideas and Kilgore Trout. In my estimation, a passive voice sentence works if it serves more than one or two purposes, and doesn't stall nor disrupt reading flow, nor untimely back off from close narrative distance.

The Yin and Yang of bad chemicals and bad ideas isn't so much an analogy as an ironic contrast, actually, precisely a paradox. Yin and Yang associates (signifier and signified--meant and received) with opposites balanced in harmony. Is harmony really possible with bad chemicals and bad ideas and madness? "Self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless." The very definition of paradox according to Silva Rhetoricae. Paradox: a figure of speech, a genus of trope, a species of semantic inversion.

http://rhetoric.byu.edu/figures/P/paradox.htm

http://humanities.byu.edu/rhetoric/silva.htm
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