This sentence is an example of the passive voice that I'm desperately
December 22, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

trying to get rid of. I have to write for my job and although I'm a good writer, the passive voice is my nemesis. I want to use it consciously and for a reason, not as a mistake or a bad habit. So ummm, yeah, I need some resources.

The resources that I've found to eradicate passive voice make sense, but I have trouble translating them so I can identify mistakes that are particular to my writing style. I've found examples that show what it is, but don't show how to change it. I don't understand the lengthy, technical explanations of grammatical errors. This is a great resource. I also found this, but I'm not quite sure how to use a shell script. So really, I'm looking for books or websites. Can you suggest any resources that you have found helpful to improve your writing, written in plain English?
posted by onecircleaday to Education (22 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This sentence is an example of the passive voice that I'm desperately trying to get rid of.

That is not the passive voice. Here is a good piece by Geoff Pullum at Language Log; he links to other posts on the subject and cites genuine scholarship. Pay no attention to the moral panic about the passive (or what people think is the passive); overuse of the passive voice, like overuse of anything else, can be a problem, but otherwise it is irrelevant to the question of how well you write.
posted by languagehat at 2:03 PM on December 22, 2013 [25 favorites]

Do you understand what the passive voice is?

This is not something you should need "resources" on, once you understand clearly and deeply what it actually is you're looking for.

Active voice:

William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

Passive voice:

Hamlet was written by William Shakespeare.

Anytime the object comes first in the sentence, then the verb, then the subject that acted upon said object, that is passive voice.

Also, passive voice isn't a mistake, per se. It's just considered a sub-optimal choice for various reasons that may or may not apply. There may not be a good active-voice way to say "Our expectations for the second quarter of 2013 were exceeded." In that case, passive is OK. It exists in our language for a reason. It's not grammatically incorrect. Just make sure not to default to passive voice, and especially not to use it at the expense of clarity.
posted by Sara C. at 2:04 PM on December 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I really like the book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.
posted by number9dream at 2:05 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your question is not very clear, because your title does not contain an example of passive voice. Voice is one of several axes in a verb's so-called "paradigm." The other axes are person (I run, he runs), tense (he runs, he ran), aspect (he runs, he is running), mood (he runs, he would run), and so on.

It is important to distinguish a writer's "voice" from "voice" as a grammatical category. One could talk about a voice one needs to adopt for writing with a specific goal in mind. And I suppose you could call a writer's voice passive and strive to avoid that in some vague way. But that voice and a verb's voice are largely unrelated.
posted by Nomyte at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I apologize that I cannot refer you to a specific resource or book, but instead share a potential exercise.

In the sixth grade, my English teacher, in a vendetta against passive voice, required us to write for a whole year without any be verbs (e.g., be, is, are). As the posters above me mentioned, be verbs are not necessarily passive nor will this eradicate passive writing wholesale. However, this maddening exercise did force us to write more thoughtfully and took away a major component of nascent passive writing (e.g., "[object] was written" vs. "[author] wrote [object]").

This won't comprehensively address your individual style, but it is an interesting exercise that pushes you to write differently than before, and creates a unique awareness of how you write. I begrudgingly thank Mrs. L. for her methodical and crushing campaign against passive voice. She made passive voice (and be verbs) a privilege, not a right.
posted by sums at 2:57 PM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I was coming to post a languagelog link, too, but languagehat's is better.

Passive voice seems to have two wildly different definitions. There's the technical definition, which languagelog covers well (and which Elements of Style gets totally, 100% opposite-land wrong), and there's a squishier colloquial definition where it seems to refer to ambiguous or obfuscatory writing in general.

If you're getting at what I think you are, you might want to practice writing in E-prime, eliminating the 'be' verbs, which can force a more 'active' and direct writing style. Don't use it as a matter of practice, but just an exercise in clarifying your thoughts and expressing things more directly and precisely when possible.

Some things will end up sounding pretty wacky in E-prime, but a lot of things will come out clearer and more precise, and the exercise can sort of train you to recognize the latter in your writing.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:01 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Your title isn't passive voice. Sara C. has it. When I break this down for my students, I ask them if they know who did the thing in their sentence. Yes? Then your sentence should make them do the thing:

The ballgame was played by the Mets. No! Make the Mets do the thing. The Mets played the ballgame.

You actually need the passive voice when you don't know who did the thing.

The man was spanked. The baby was left on the doorstep. Uh oh, no idea who did the thing!

You can still convert these to active by throwing Somebody into the mix. Somebody spanked the man; somebody left the baby on the doorstep.

This is just another feature of showing versus telling. If you use passive voice, then you're telling us something happened. If you use active, you show someone doing.
posted by headspace at 3:03 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to a writing course put on by George Gopen, who argued that there is nothing wrong with passive voice. Gopen argues that the passive voice can be used to shift the emphasis of the sentence. For example:

Max performed the experiment.

Is a sentence that emphasizes Max.

The experiment was performed by Max.

Is a sentence that emphasizes the experiment. Which sentence is 'better' depends on your intended audience.

Anyway, Gopen wrote a few books which might be helpful.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:30 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

As others have noted, your question does not contain the passive voice. However, it does contain the verb "to be", which it seems a lot of people think is the passive voice. In freshman English, we once had a "grade your classmate's paper" exercise and my grader marked every instance of "is" as passive voice. First, if you want to avoid the passive choice, you have to know what it is.

Sara C. gave a great explanation, and languageht aptly notes the moral panic over the passive voice. There is nothing wrong with the passive voice. To use Shakespeare, as named in Sara C.'s answer, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York" is passive voice. MLK's I Have A Dream is *full* of the passive voice - "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low." So, never think that the passive voice is some lesser choice when you can't find a way to use the active voice.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:31 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

> This is just another feature of showing versus telling. If you use passive voice, then you're telling us something happened. If you use active, you show someone doing.

This is not true and is yet another example of moral panic. Passive voice has nothing to do with telling versus showing, and (pace Sara C.) has little to do with who "acted upon" what or whom (Pullum: "J is followed by K is a passive clause, but it doesn't talk about anybody doing anything to anything.... The passive construction is not defined in terms of active agents doing things to affected entities!"). It is a purely technical matter involving the placement of participles, and if people were decently educated about their own language it wouldn't even be an issue.

And, to quote Pullum again, "the people who criticize the passive the most tend to use it more than the rest of us."
posted by languagehat at 4:51 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you to all who responded. Prior to reading this thread, I had an idea that there are folks out there who are on a crusade to eradicate the passive voice; what I didn't consider is that they don't know what it is themselves. Languagehat, Tanizaki's and Ernielundquist's comments helped me realize that I've probably found bad information on the web about what is and isn't passive voice. As Sara C. points out, my understanding of what it is exactly isn't very clear. I agree with her point that once one clearly understands the concept, they shouldn't need resources. I don't quite understand what it is and how identify it, and that's why I'm here - if I understood it, I wouldn't be asking.

I will definitely check out the information on E-Prime and the information by Gopen. Unfortunately my boss isn't one who believes that passive voice is useful or effective, so I need to adjust my writing habits accordingly, and find resources that will make my writing, and my work, better.

As a side note, it disturbs me that after both a Bachelor's and a Masters, I still struggle with this. Asking this question is humbling and I appreciate the responses of all who have chimed in - thank you again.
posted by onecircleaday at 5:00 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a practical suggestion, I have Microsoft Word set to mark sentences with passive voice, as another grammar issue. I might not always opt to change the sentence construction, but it's nice to have the built-in proofreading as I go along.
posted by bizzyb at 5:39 PM on December 22, 2013

Yeah, a quick fix if you're truly worried is just to do a search for all "be" verbs in your document. Go through every example. If any of them fit the "[object] is [verb] by [subject]" paradigm, that's probably passive voice, and might need to be changed.

But, again, you really shouldn't need to read multiple sources to figure out the answer to your question.

The boy kicked the ball. Languagehat read the blog. Santa delivered the gifts. The journalist filed a story. Z follows Y in the alphabet. All active voice.

The ball was kicked by the boy. The blog was read by Languagehat. The gifts were delivered by Santa. A story was filed by the journalist. Y is followed by Z in the alphabet. All passive voice.

That is LITERALLY all you have to know. 100% of it.

If that seems difficult (grammar is hard, what can I say), the "zombies" rule is a great trick to remember. If you forget the "zombies" rule, run a search for all the "be" verbs in your document and go through case by case.
posted by Sara C. at 5:49 PM on December 22, 2013

Unfortunately my boss isn't one who believes that passive voice is useful or effective, so I need to adjust my writing habits accordingly, and find resources that will make my writing, and my work, better.

Just to clarify, does your boss actually know what passive voice is? If not, all the grammar pointers here won't help you unless you think "correcting" your boss would be productive. Have you gotten feedback that might indicate what your boss sees as problematic or "inferior" writing?
posted by Schielisque at 6:17 PM on December 22, 2013

Response by poster: @ Schielisque - He may not, but it's the division chief that really, really hates passive writing. With a passion. Ultimately the writing goes to her to review. She also demands that we squeeze all the information for Weekly Action Reports in 12 lines or less. (Consequently, no one volunteers to write them!)

Passive writing is the one thing that I struggle with in my writing, that's why I wrote the post. Also, I want to apply for higher level jobs that require good writing skills in the active voice.
posted by onecircleaday at 6:42 PM on December 22, 2013

Best answer: I'm just guessing, but it sounds from your follow-ups that what your bosses dislike is less "passive voice" and more just "clunky writing." I read a lot of student writing, and it can tend to be verbose and heavy in a way that feels stodgy and dull, even if none of the sentences are actual passive voice. Since the rap against passive voice is that it makes prose stodgy and dull, I wonder if your bosses are having that problem but mis-diagnosing it as something to do with passive voice.

If that's the case, here are a few suggestions that I've found helpful for my students.

1. Write shorter sentences. Longer sentences are harder to parse and kind of "thunk" on the page. They aren't lively. A sentence doesn't have to get that long before it causes problems.

2. As much as possible, make it so the sentence leads off with the human actor.

3. Try to avoid the word "that" as much as possible. It's often a clue to having a too-long sentence, and is often hard to parse.

4. Avoid redundancy as much as possible. For every word, ask your self, is this really necessary?

So, applying these hints some of the sentences you wrote here:

it's the division chief that really, really hates passive writing

=> The division chief really despises passive writing.
=> The division chief despises passive writing the most, actually.

Passive writing is the one thing that I struggle with in my writing

=> I struggle the most with passive writing

The resources that I've found to eradicate passive voice make sense

=> I've found sensible resources for eradicating the passive voice
posted by forza at 7:18 PM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might want to look into "plain language" — it's all about making text shorter, clearer, and more direct. (I recently spent a day in plain language training at work and found it useful and informative. Plus I now have added authority when I'm arguing for why something should be rewritten a certain way: "Y'all paid for me to spend 8 hours in training for this, and now you need to listen to what I have to say about it." VBG.)
posted by Lexica at 7:21 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you want your boss to like what you write, get things that he has written, study them and write in his style. If you need to practice, rewrite his work in your own words in his style. It doesn't matter if he writes active or passive, just write like he does.
posted by 101cats at 10:08 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I second Style: Toward Clarity and Grace as a good book to learn about good vs. bad uses of passive voice. But when people say your writing is "passive," they may not be referring to passive voice exactly. For example, look at these two sentences:
  1. The widget then undergoes a process of crushing.
  2. Then the widget is crushed.
Sentence 1 is technically in the active voice. It doesn't even have a form of to be. But people will still call it "passive," because you're playing bury the verb: You've changed the main action of the sentence from a verb into a noun (crushing), then stuck it into a prepositional phrase (of crushing), and made it the object (a process of crushing) of a verb which doesn't describe any action at all (undergoes a process of crushing).

Sentence 2, meanwhile, is clearly in the passive voice, but it comes off as completely natural, especially if you're describing to someone how widgets travel through your widget recycling plant. Passive voice does bury the verb, but only a little bit in this instance, and only as necessary. After all, your audience doesn't care that it's a CrushCo Model 2650 widget crushing machine what crushes the widget. Passive voice hides the actor, allowing you to omit this bit of useless information. Style goes into much more detail on this point.

If you want to search for buried verbs, I recommend the paramedic method suggested in Lanham's Revising Prose (other sites should have it much cheaper than Amazon). Basically:
  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, to, for, with, …).
  2. Circle all forms of to be (is, are, being, …).
  3. Box the main action of the sentence. If it's in a huge prepositional phrase, box the whole thing.
  4. Underline any introductions to your sentence that are longer than three or four words ("it should be noted that…" gets an underline and a circle).
  5. Read the whole thing out loud and mark off any parts which sound unnatural.
By the time you're finished, you can tell which sentences need to be reworked because they're simply covered in red ink. Often this is an iterative process. For example, if you have this sentence:
The unlikelihood of meeting orders from the majority of its new customers is of concern to the company, due to tardiness in the installation of its new manufacturing line.
Your first stab at revising it might look like this:
The company is concerned that it is not likely to meet most orders from new customers because its new manufacturing line is not yet installed.
It wasn't as clear before, but the action in this sentence is meet, so:
The company may not meet most orders from new customers, because its new manufacturing line is not yet installed.
Can you cut this sentence down even more? Certainly. But the passive clunkiness of "is not yet installed" is also diplomatic, and you might not want to simplify it for fear of pointing fingers. That's another issue Lanham discusses.
posted by aw_yiss at 11:28 PM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is a nice, pithy guide to making your writing more, well, pithy. Handy for a quick reference when you're editing. You don't have to do everything he says, but it does make you think about your habits.
posted by danteGideon at 4:36 AM on December 23, 2013

I'll third the recommendation of Joe Williams's Style. The textbook editions from Longman have exercises; they are expensive new, but cheap on the used market. The U of Chicago Press has inexplicably let the trade edition go out of print. I'll have to complain to my editor there about it!

I like Aw_yiss's diagnosis and advice. What some people label "passive" is simply indirect or obfuscatory. "Beatings will continue until morale improves" has the active voice in both clauses, but its subjects are impersonal. Joe would have said that the characters in the story are unclear; all we see are the actions. "We will continue to beat you until you cheer up" makes both characters and actions visible.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:35 PM on December 23, 2013

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