Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Making Grammar Clear

I’ve been thinking a lot about confusion abounds about passive voice, and I think it may be because of several related topics. These related topics have subtle relationships and because of that, they can cause muddled thinking. As a result, they often cause folks to give muddled advice or request imprecise changes to manuscripts.

This was brought to my attention because another member of a group I belong to, was chastised for using "passive voice" when in fact, she had not used passive voice at all. It occurred to me that often, editors use "passive voice" as a catch-all for several different constructions that may bug them. So I thought I'd make a stab at clarifying this muddy area.

So here are the related items that need to be separated and clarified.

Direct versus Indirect: Sentence Construction Element

Passive voice versus Active Voice: Grammatical Element indicating the object of the action

Passive versus aggressive characters: Human Behavior often exhibited by speech patterns

Direct versus Indirect

This is the one I blame the most for muddled thoughts about passive voice. Most of the time, when an editor, contest judge, or critique partner says your writing is too passive, the real problem may be a propensity to use indirect, rather than direct language.

“I wish you’d stop doing that.” Indirect.

“Stop doing that!” Direct.

Both are active voice. One is not better than the other, because they would be said by entirely different characters.

The first may be the perfect dialog for a generally passive character. You may have noticed that people who tend to have passive personalities often use more indirect language. These people, and characters, may have difficulty asserting themselves. Or they may have been taught that it is rude to make overt demands. And more females than males will speak in an indirect fashion. Females are generally more passive than males. Of course, this is a generality, but think about how women and men express themselves and you will see a general trend in speech that reflects overall behavior patterns.

So you can indicate such a behavior pattern by the use of indirect language, regardless of the sex of the character. 

And you might even need to incorporate passive voice.
And perhaps this is why there may be confusion, because a generally passive personality type is also prone to the use of indirect language. And more prone to the use of passive voice. Because passive voice can be used (indirectly) to say: “This wasn’t my fault, it was done TO ME, rather than ME DOING IT!”

The cry of the eternal victim.

Nonetheless, despite their relationships, these are all very different concepts. And when you write, you need to be conscious of the differences in order to interpret reader, editor, and contest judge comments. Often, readers, editors and contest judges are unable to distinguish between these indirect, passive, simple past tense, and the portrayel of a passive personality. So folks often confuse passive voice with indirect language.

But sometimes, a character really is passive and prone to the use of indirect language. And sometimes that indirect language incorporates the use of passive voice.

So it is not evil.

And in case folks need a quick refresher about passive, it is NOT identified by use of the word "was". That's like saying you can identify grass because it's green.
No everything that is green is grass. Not all grass is green.
Not every sentence containing "was" is passive, and not all passive voice sentences contain "was".

Passive voice is ONLY identified by determining the direction of the action.
If the subject of the sentence does the action, it is active.
If the subject of the sentence is the object/recipient of the action, it is passive.

She was thinking.  Active voice.
She got hit by a bus. Passive voice. Colloquial, but passive.Anyway, I wrote this because it occurred to me that what this hapless writer's editor might have meant when she complained about passive voice, was really an effort to eliminate some indirect language (or wording) rather than specifically “passive voice”. And she just used the phrase “passive voice” as a sort of catch-all.

At least I hope so, because I hate to think that no one knows what passive voice is, anymore. That would make me very sad.