Passive Voice Debate

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unprintableme
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Passive Voice Debate

Post by unprintableme » September 27th, 2010, 4:51 pm

I propose a discussion about passive voice; definition, pros and cons, etc. I have only ever heard the 'weak impact' criticism and am interested in other viewpoints. I did notice that Nathan attached the word 'extended' to passive voice in the blog where he denigrated it, which makes me wonder where the tipping point is. If a little is acceptable, how much is too much?

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Holly
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Holly » September 27th, 2010, 5:12 pm

The legal profession uses passive voice all the time. Lawyers tend to avoid direct language about money and crime. Passive language allows them to cloud situations and avoid embarrassing their clients.

"Jane Wilson, a ninety-year-old widow, was run over at Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street" is not as embarrassing as "John Wilson chugged one too many Buds and ran over Jane Wilson, his ninety-year-old grandmother, at Connecticut Avenue and Porter Street."

As far as fiction goes, once in a rare while you might not want to reveal who did what. Usually, though, passive voice makes for dull writing.

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Claudie » September 27th, 2010, 5:45 pm

Holly, that is one of the funniest example of passive voice I've seen.

If you use the passive voice in your writing, you add distance between the reader and the story. Unless you have a very good reason to do that, I wouldn't recommend it.
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polymath
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by polymath » September 27th, 2010, 7:11 pm

Oh passive voice, right up there with Show Don't Tell for struggling writer quandries.

Passive voice, simple definition; when the doer of an action in the predicate clause of a sentence is not in sentence subject position. In other words, when the theme of the action is more important than the agent of the action.

Holly's example of passive voice superbly demonstrates one purpose of passive voice. Depersonalizing the doer of an action. Also, passive voice passes off responsibility, for when the doer of an action has less priority than some other subject, when pecking order animacy or subject obviation are desired, and when a doer is not known or deliberately withheld for a credible reason.

One hundred tapwater samples were tested for heavy metal concentration.

Passive voice is easiest to identify by a to be auxilliary verb modifying a main verb.

Maveric is going to get creamed. Note "is" to be auxilliary verb, "going" gerund auxilliary verb, and "to get" infinitive auxilliary verb and main verb "creamed." The doer(s) of the creamed action is not in subject position, in fact, absent altogether unknown.

Recasting slightly improves the sentence, but still leaves it in passive voice.

Maveric will get creamed. Note futurity auxilliary verb "will," which is also at times used in the form of a to be auxilliary verb.

Not all passive voice takes a to be function verb. Forms of to have and to get also construct passive voice.

Maveric has a beating due.
Maveric got creamed.

Also implied to be function verbs construct passive voice.

Convicted murderer John Doe [was] executed at midnight. Like, you know, news story headlines.

Sometimes a doer is not implied nor absent. Usually a prepositional clause indicates the doer from sentence object position, with by or from prepositions, for example.

The guilty knives were taken from the Mongol murderers by Alexander.

Passive voice has a place in expository composition, formal writing, everyday speech, narrative's dialogues, and creative nonfiction and fiction. Good writers use passive voice occasionally for sentence variation, but infrequently. Though there are readers and writers who balk at any passive voice, when it has a rhetorical purpose, it can be dramatically potent.

"Whatcha doing?"
"Killing time."
"Wasn't you supposed of been working in the salt mine?"
"I was sent home for lollygagging."
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Margo » September 27th, 2010, 10:05 pm

Pros: none.
Cons: weak...weak...WEAK.
Frequency: never. Rarely, something might slip in as dialogue. Once about every 30,000 or 40,000 words. If I find it, I rewrite it. It distracts me when I read it. If I see it more than once or twice in a book I'm reading, I'll stop reading the book. Right up there with adjective addiction and compulsive alliteration for me. Book, meet wall.
Urban fantasy, epic fantasy, and hot Norse elves. http://margolerwill.blogspot.com/

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Quill » September 27th, 2010, 10:32 pm

Pros: It's hated by Margo. :)

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by unprintableme » September 27th, 2010, 10:53 pm

Thank you all for your input. It has been very informative. Now I'd like to present the sad but humorous end of Fugalburt for our dissection.

.....

Navels fascinated Fugalburt. He often explored his own, wondering what truths, or riches awaited discovery. Although, thus far he'd only found a porridge of lint and dead skin packed under his fingernails.

Fugalburt's reverie was broken by a crash. He looked up from his navel to find his bedroom door shattered by a huge serpentine creature that was slithering across the room toward him. Its skin, pale and scaleless made only the faintest whisper as it slid across the rug. It's eyeless face was adorned by an oddly navel-shaped mouth, emanating from which Fugalburt could hear sickening sucking sounds; the sounds of hunger. While its undulating mouth hovered over him, Fugalburt wondered how it would feel to be contemplated by a navel.

.....

As is the case in the first sentence of the second paragraph, I often find that I will put the character, who is the subject of the paragraph, in the subject of the sentence whatever the voice to keep the reader in the character's head. I used passive-voice again in the middle of the second paragraph to more directly connect the creature's mouth to the sucking sounds. The other phrasings I tried for this paragraph appeared less efficient to me. Thoughts?

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by polymath » September 28th, 2010, 12:51 am

unprintableme wrote:Thank you all for your input. It has been very informative. Now I'd like to present the sad but humorous end of Fugalburt for our dissection.

.....

Navels fascinated Fugalburt. He often explored his own, wondering what truths, or riches awaited discovery. Although, thus far he'd only found a porridge of lint and dead skin packed under his fingernails.

Fugalburt's reverie was broken by a crash. He looked up from his navel to find his bedroom door shattered by a huge serpentine creature that was slithering across the room toward him. Its skin, pale and scaleless made only the faintest whisper as it slid across the rug. It's eyeless face was adorned by an oddly navel-shaped mouth, emanating from which Fugalburt could hear sickening sucking sounds; the sounds of hunger. While its undulating mouth hovered over him, Fugalburt wondered how it would feel to be contemplated by a navel.

.....

As is the case in the first sentence of the second paragraph, I often find that I will put the character, who is the subject of the paragraph, in the subject of the sentence whatever the voice to keep the reader in the character's head. I used passive-voice again in the middle of the second paragraph to more directly connect the creature's mouth to the sucking sounds. The other phrasings I tried for this paragraph appeared less efficient to me. Thoughts?
Passive voice while passable for keeping in close touch with a viewpoint character contrarily exacts a cost in narrative distance. Staying in touch from first position reminds readers who's who, sure. But the cost is it calls attention to the narrator. Once close narrative distance with a viewpoint character is established, readers follow a viewpoint character's perceived sensations and cognitive reactions to sensations until a narrator timely reenters a scene. Readers can bridge the gap between viewpoint character perception and narrator reporting perception without needing reminding of who's who reporting what.

The first paragraph closes in then the first sentence of the second paragraph backs away to the narrator. Passive voice is the culprit there. The second sentence starts from the narrator's perspective but closes back in on the viewpoint character somewhat. Conjunction "that" creating a run-on sentence and past progressive "was slithering" are the culprits there. The third sentence closes in. The fourth sentence backs away, passive voice again. The fifth sentence closes in.

My imagination yo-yos in and out of the narrative frame. If I were tasked to read and evaluate a lengthy manuscript of the same, I would report that unsettled narrative distance caused by abrupt changes in perspective aiming point with passive voice being the culprit give me a figurative stiff neck from switching back and forth between the narrator's perception of Fugalburt and Fugalburt's perception.

While heavily weighted with modifiers, the mellifluous flow is quite dynamic, except for awkward word "adorned." Nevertheless, I like the narrative, brief as it is, for its complication incitement from Fugalburt being contemplated by a serpent's hungry navel-like mouth. Ha. Too much navel contemplation? Take that! I'm asking and caring about, What happens next? In other words, in spite of the yo-yoing, I found rapport with Fugalburt's predicament and am curious enough to want to read on.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Mark17 » September 28th, 2010, 2:32 am

Thank you all for this thread, this is a problem I'm trying to deal with right now in my WIP. The above example actually helped me with some of the problems.

Because of the aforementioned, I've been real conscious of passive voice in my reading. I'm reading Sirens of Titan right now and noticed that Vonnegut uses passive voice constantly in it. Sirens of Titan is his second novel, so is this just because he was still a relatively new writer at the time? Can an interesting enough plot overcome constant use of passive voice? Are there any other novels by acclaimed others that do this?

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by polymath » September 28th, 2010, 12:55 pm

Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon use passive voice aesthetics similar to Vonnegut's. They also have to be auxilliary and main verb frequency in common with Ernest Hemingway, whose narrative and chapter opening sentences tend to start with to be predicates. A reader doesn't have to go back very far in literature history to find passive voice commonplace. Before Strunk, middle to late Nineteenth century and on back into the mists of time to the roots of folklore. Plenty of passive voice in Grimms' fairy tales, Aesop's fables, Arabian tales, Russian folklore.

One thing they have in common, overt narrators. Reader surrogate and rapport is with their narrators rather than viewpoint characters or other internal reader surrogates: settings, plots, ideas, or events. Old fashioned in some regards and consensuses. Yet occasionally a novel will still do well with overt narrators and occasional occurrence of passive voice. For instance, Susanna Clarke's highly acclaimed and successful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norel, 2004, published by Potter saga host publisher Bloomsbury. Though Ms. Clarke's usage of passive voice is far less frequent than Vonnegut's in keeping with the proper grammatical aesthetics of our time and the Victorian age depicted in the novel.

Overt narrators express a running commentary on the circumstances of a narrative, thus creating closest narrative distance between readers and a narrator. They tend to preach. Vonnegut preaches (lectures) to readers in a conversational, yet authoritive everyday voice familiar to his audience's everyday experiences, Adams and Heller, too. Pynchon goes back to the sophisticated voice of past literature, Clarke too.

Overt narrators are a trade off for close narrative distance, preaching commentary traded for some small or large remove from the immediacy of a narrative's internal setting. Passive voice for overt narrators is part of a writing repertoire for benefiting from its purposes, depersonalizing, passing off responsibility, thematic priority over agent priority, when the doer of an action has less priority than some other subject, when pecking order animacy or subject obviation are desired, and when a doer is not known or deliberately withheld for a credible reason.

Vonnegut doesn't abandon passive voice in his later novels and short stories. He more effectively and perhaps more judicisouly uses it as he grew as a writer. To my way of thinking, it's part of his aesthetic repertoire. Vonnegut is a penultimate Postmodernist, a self-aware challenger and questioner of authorities and absolutes, well-suited to tumultuous middle Twentieth century Postmodern social upheavals. His writing voice, if nothing else, though his methods too, challenge and question conventional writing wisdoms and status quos, like passive voice, god-like narrators, shifting narrative points of view--the so-called narrative point of view violation, for examples.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Margo » September 28th, 2010, 1:10 pm

Quill wrote:Pros: It's hated by Margo. :)

Clever, clever girl. But I'll get you, my pretty, and your passive voice, too. I'll send my flying gerunds after you.
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by unprintableme » September 29th, 2010, 11:06 pm

I'd like to thank everyone for their input for this discussion. It has been very helpful.

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J. T. SHEA
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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by J. T. SHEA » September 30th, 2010, 6:47 pm

For heaven's sake, Unprintableme, forget the passive voice debate! Tell us what happened next to Fugalbert! You can't just leave him there, facing the giant navel-snake!

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by unprintableme » October 1st, 2010, 1:38 am

J. T., here it is, enjoy!

Reflexes and training took over. Fugalburt tossed the remains of his dinner Shrimp Scampi dinner on the beast's head. Maybe the pungency of the garlic would distract the thing. It worked. The beast began waving its head back and forth as if to rid itself of the smell. Fugalburt glanced around his room for a weapon. Choosing his blanket, he whipped it over the beast's head then pushed it to the floor under him. Though confined by the blanked, the beast was still thrashing wildly. Fugalburt's hand reached up and found his bedside lamp, a Buffalo Bills helmet with a shade on top. It was an ugly waste of plastic that his uncle had given him and Fugalburt silently hoped it would break while he bashed the beast's head with it. When the beast finally stopped moving Fugalburt paused to catch his breath and consider his next step. Was the beast dead? Fugal decided not risk it and moved to open his closet door then remembered the toothpicks the beast had made of his bedroom door. Instead he rolled the beast up in his rug. That would hold it for a while.

Fugalburt crept to his bedroom door and listened. Why hadn't his commanding officer called him? Had the invasion not been undetected? How many of these beasts were there? Silence. Fugalburt moved as quietly as he could down the stairs to the living room. The stair railing has suffered the same fate as his door and the rest of the room lay in ruins. The scene was surreal with whiffs of smoke spiraling up from the smashed TV and the lamps knocked over, casting their light at odd angles. Then Fugalburt found his parents lying on the floor, both with their heads missing.

Fugalburt shook his head. This was not the time for grieving. That could happen later. Right now he needed to kick some alien butt. Of course, Fugalburt reflected as he sprinted upstairs for his emergency phone, he'd be hard-pressed to identify the posterior of the thing rolled up in his rug. He dialed the command center and let it ring while he went to the front door to survey the neighborhood; rather the hole where front door had been. Fugalburt stepped through the ragged portal and scanned the street and gasped. The devastation was complete. Mr. Sythe's house was burning as was the Manning residence. A silver sedan lay in the road, overturned with its engine still running. Fugalburt noticed a beast slithering out of the Trent residence, presumably looking, or more accurately, sniffing for more heads.
Worse, no one was answering at the commend center. That meant Fugalburt was on his own. He'd have to deal with this invasion himself. His lips stretched in a mirthless smile. No problem, he'd just need a few items.

Fugalburt stepped through the wreckage of the house to the garage and opened his secret weapons cache. He selected his shotgun with the 32 round clip and his favorite, a flamethrower he had made himself. It just the thing...

“Fugalburt!”

The siren split his eardrums. Could that be reinforcements? Was it the aliens?

“Fugalburt! What are you doing? That's disgusting!”

Fugalburt shook his head and glanced up to find his mother standing in his doorway, then to his finger with the navel porridge under the nail. “Nothing, Mother.”

“Well, young man, get your homework finished and then shower. It's almost bedtime.”

“Yes, Mother,” replied Fugalburt to the closing door.

But instead of getting up, Fugalburt's finger found his navel again.

These beasts just wouldn't die fast enough. Fugalburt weighed his options and decided to somehow get to the command center and find an A10 Warthog, that would do the trick...

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Re: Passive Voice Debate

Post by Holly » October 1st, 2010, 1:53 am

unprintableme, that's hilarious! I loved it...

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