June 26, 2014

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb. More confusion comes from mischaracterizations. In a popular and otherwise helpful book, “On Writing,” the prolific Stephen King refers to the “passive tense,” a mistake since active and passive can be expressed in any sequence of time. (Passive and tense could be used to describe any number of King protagonists waiting for some horror to beset them.)

I argue that the passive has its uses and that writers should learn them, a position shared by Connie Hale in this New York Times essay.

But before I describe those uses, it will help first to overturn the conviction of the passive as “dull,” using DNA evidence of a textual nature. The standard critic argues that passive verbs are “weak,” “flabby,” or “soft.” The favored active verbs are then said to be “strong,” “vivid,” or “muscular.” It makes sense that, by definition, the active should usurp the passive, in the sense that we prefer the active student, soccer player, or lover to the passive.

Let me offer, as exhibit A, a phrase written by the Alabama author Daphne Simpkins in her essay “Two Clocks.” The piece describes the not-always-happy burden of escorting an elderly neighbor to doctor appointments, including a 40-mile trek to the foot doctor, where the woman’s “bunions are peeled and the toenails sawed off….” Many years ago, Daphne was a student of mine and probably heard my preference for the active. Now she is teaching me a lesson: that the passive can be vivid – to the boundary of yuck, as in “peeled” and “sawed off.”

That’s when it hit me like a pool cue to the solar plexus. The passive can be vivid, and the active dull, as in the sentence “Travis went downstairs,” as opposed to “fell” or “tripped” or “tumbled.”

This led me to an insight that may be ancient, but that is new to me: verbs are not active or passive at all. The activity or passivity rests in the subject, not the verb. When Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey complained that “I was blindsided” by the bridge scandal, it portrayed him as the passive receiver of the malpractice of others. That is exactly when the passive is most useful.

I often teach a passage from the journalist Thomas French, who wrote the story of an aging chimp named Herman, a charismatic creature who died violently at a Tampa zoo. We learn that as an infant, Herman “was taken from his mother…then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint. He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” These verbs (my italics) are vivid enough: taken, sold, carried, installed, taught. They describe Herman as an orphan, a captive, a victim. He is passive, not the verbs.

When Herman grows to become an alpha chimp, the virtual king of his zoo, his status changes, and so do the author’s verbs: “He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.” Herman is no longer the pauper, but a prince. He is the agent, the doer, the active one.

In those adjoining examples we see a lesson for all writers. Prefer the active, if you will, but when you want to focus on the receiver, the victim – be it bunion or chimp – the passive rules. There, I said it. In the active voice.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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