Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “grammar”

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

I already dedicated one post to my jihad against grammatical absolutism. The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing” Once again, with respect to active versus passive voice, Messrs. Strunk & White are among the standard-bearers Once again, the general concept has been expanded to dogma. Usually preferring active construction over passive is a worthwhile editing tip, along the lines of looking for excessive, well, anything. But that’s about it.

According to Strunk & White, “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” Gee, you mean sentences like that fucking sentence about passive voice? Let’s run a few tests from the last post.

  • Is the verb being done to the subject? The subject is “sentence” the verb is “made.” Oops. Hey Mr. White, you wrote the fucking sentence telling us not to use passive voice in passive voice. Like I said before, if you can identify the subject and verb, you can always identify passive, so that proves it. For a quick refresher, though, let’s run through the other tests.
  • Is the Noun followed by a prepositional phrase? Hey, look at that. The prepositional phrase “by substituting” follows the noun “sentence.” The preposition “by” and verb “substituting” creates a prepositional phrase. Which means the sentence is passive.
  • Is there a conjugation of “to be” followed by a past participle? Since “can be” is a variation on “to be” and “made” is a past participle – ding, ding, ding.
  • Did zombies write the sentence? “Many a . . . sentence can be made lively by zombies!” Yay zombies. Boo Elements of Style.

This example does a great job of showing how hypocritical (or, more likely, clueless) Strunk & White could be about grammar. The sentence does a great job of showing why we should avoid passive voice. It does so by: (a) using passive voice; and (b) sucking so much. Specifically, sucking so much in the precise way passive voice can (but doesn’t always) make our sentences suck.

The sentence has been treated (hehe) as a call to action, challenging writers to make their prose more vigorous and engaging. Something you can only do if you ignore what they actually wrote.

What they wrote:      “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.” (teh suk)

What they meant:      “Active voice makes your writing livelier.” (less teh suk)

By sucking, Elements manages to show us the reason we should avoid passive voice. Usually (but not always) passive sentences are less engaging. This, like the adverb advice and every other “Rule” about writing is worth understanding. Not because passives are inherently bad, but because they have about a 50/50 chance of making our writing less engaging.

 

Bad passives should be avoided.

How do we know which passives are bad? We’re the writers, it’s our world, they are our words, so it’s up to us. I like finding all of the passives in my writing, but I don’t expect to get rid of them all when I find them. Typically, I look for alternatives. In the case of the title of this tip, the obvious alternative is “Writers should avoid bad passives.” Meh, it’s a little better, so I would probably make that change (without any great feeling of accomplishment upon having done so). Sometimes, though, I find sentences that are watered down by passive voice, and changing it to active improves the sentence enormously. Changing an event from passive to active often changes the tone from one that reports to the reader about what happened (“The protesters were excited by the speaker. The embassy was attacked”) to one that shows the scene more vividly (“The speaker worked the protestors into a frenzy. They attacked the embassy.”).

There is no “Rule” for this. If I were to try to formulate one, it would be Passives are worth finding because there’s a coin-flip chance the sentence could be better. Unless you write with a lot of passives, in which case they are even more worth finding because there’s an even better chance the sentences could be better. Grammar check is your friend. If you honestly wonder whether you overuse passives, look at your readability statistics (most word processing programs have them built in, and the Google machine can send you to dozens of free sites where you can paste in pages to do a quick test). If you’re over five percent, you should do some serious thinking about your writing. Less than that, you’re probably doing just fine. That’s just a blood pressure check, though, and a final manuscript needs an angiogram. Grammar check misses passives on a regular basis. You need to be able to identify them for yourself, because (particularly in longer or more grammatically complex sentences) a fair number just slip through the cracks.

Good passives should be hugged (by zombies).

Thanks to grammar check, I know that, statistically, my fiction runs between two and three percent passives. That’s a good range for me because, at that level, I’m probably not using passive voice in sentences where it is not clearly the best tool for the job. Contrary to what my college professor, a law school professor, scores of people giving grammar advice on the interwebs, and Strunk & White believe, there are plenty of situations in which the passive voice is best. The first paragraph of my manuscript contains this double-dose of passive voice: “Feeling as though he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried look casual.” Passive? You bet, times two. That’s the least of its problems. Not only is it passive deux foix, the whole thing is nothing but exposition about my protagonist’s feelings and thoughts. Something else I do very little of in my writing. For good measure, I split an infinitive.

In that introductory paragraph, I’m teasing out why Nick is there and what he’s waiting for. It’s all explained, through dialogue, about 200 words later. For that particular paragraph, though, I wanted to leave a bit of a question mark about who was watching (or ignoring) Nick. I did this largely to make the “them” more of an abstract concept (which, to Nick, “they” were at the time) and less of a good-natured guy named Jim (which, “they” turn out to be). I want the putative watcher(s) to be as abstract as possible. Because active voice usually helps by making our writing more concrete and direct, it works against that goal.

There are a number of situations in which passive voice may be the better choice. (Alliteration, yay. We should all march around chanting that). Those times include instances in which:

  • The actor shall remain nameless. Maybe you don’t know who the actor is (“The book was printed in 1614”), the actor is too broad to try to identify (“…has been proven by hundreds of studies”) or you want to keep the mystery going (“we were being watched”).
  • The action is the focus of the sentence. Sometimes, passive voice can be used (by zombies) to place emphasis on the verb, downplaying the relative importance of the subject. “All men are created equal” may be sexist, but it’s not bad writing. Saying “the experiment was conducted in strict conformance with ethical standards” shifts the emphasis from the subject (the experiment) to the manner in which it was conducted, which is the focus of the sentence. If the answer to the question “Where’s mom?” is “She was kidnapped,” you are not lacking for clarity, action, or anything else. “Three men in a gray sedan kidnapped her,” provides more information, makes the sentence active, and changes the emphasis from “kidnapped” to the three men.
  • Put your best foot forward. If your subject is not the actor, but you still want to keep as much focus on the subject as possible, it helps to identify it first. “Clouds are formed by evaporation” places the emphasis on clouds. “Evaporation forms clouds” says the same thing, and does it actively, but it also changes the focus of the sentence from clouds to evaporation. This is the inverse of “action is the focus of the sentence” and can sometimes yield the opposite result based on whatever else is happening in the sentence. Hence absolute rules being a bad idea.
  • If you’re Richard Nixon’s press secretary or you’re withdrawing your nomination of Zoe Baird to be Attorney General. In some instances, the grammatical double-speak that is the hallmark of passive voice can be your friend. “Mistakes were made (by zombies)” is easier to say than “My boss, the President, really screwed the pooch on this one.” My favorite personal example comes from this group. I had a legal research and writing professor who was adamant about passive voice. He would not accept the argument that “Sam Watson was killed” was better than saying “My client killed Sam Watson.” A man like that needs to be in academia. In the real world, his adherence to the prohibition against the use of passives is called malpractice.
  • The nature of what you’re writing is instructive. Meaning, you are writing a passage or blog post or something else that provides instruction. “When you finish doing X, Y will start happening” is a natural formulation in instructive writing. Most of what I am advising here is oriented toward fiction writing. The advice is probably worth keeping in mind, but sometimes constructions that avoid the passive in instructional writing are so convoluted, they make things way worse than a zombie ever will.

A sensible approach to passive voice makes the ability to identify passives a valuable tool. Saying that passives have no place in our writing just makes you sound like a tool. It’s ironic that I feel compelled to defend something that only shows up in one of every forty sentences or clauses of prose I write, but the idea it needs to be avoided altogether (by zombies) compels it. Primarily because we should get rid of passives most of the time. Knowing the rule and being able to spot them facilitates that. More importantly, it empowers us to look at a sentence and, with the full understanding it’s passive as hell, decide, yea, the zombies can keep this one.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).

 

D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.

 

E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

Don’t Use Adverbs Freely (Or: What’s the big deal about adverbs?)

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’”

 – Elmore Leonard

 

What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Who gives a shit? Well, we should, for starters. Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view.

 

Advice about adverbs is to writing what the Red Scare was to sensible international policy from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Something based on a legitimate rationale (Stalin was a dick) carried to ridiculous extremes (the McCarthy hearings).  

The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut about half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. The number may be even higher than that. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this:

We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half.

 

Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true. So, what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with the reason the advice is right half the time.

1.     “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw the phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation.

2.     “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up.

3.     “Makes no difference.” This group includes at least half of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything.

Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”).

That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, which I’ll go into in a future post (or series of posts, because it’s hard to do a full-on jihad on someone’s ass in one blog post). But that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem. King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice. First throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. Rarely do you see anyone call them on their hierocracy, despite the fact that the next fucking sentence in The Elements of Style has two fucking adverbs in it. And not for effect. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. Guess what part of speech the second word of the foreword to the 4th edition of Elements is. If you guessed an adverb, you’d be absofuckinglutely correct.

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

1.     The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t make it one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. A linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. Thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs, the average for published material in that period was six. In other words, E. B. White is hypocritical as all shit about this stuff. Odds are, your first draft already contains fewer adverbs than his writing.

[Note here: I enjoy E. B. White’s prose immensely. He was a master of the craft. He was also horrible at explaining it and far too prone to pronounce minor truisms as absolute laws. Plus I had a college professor who believed White’s bullshit, no matter how many times I could point to White not following his own “Rules.”]

2.     The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. So don’t get sidetracked by the bullshit about keeping them out altogether.

What we should be doing. I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful. More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing, I might as well be looking at a note in my handwriting that says, “This dialogue did not do the job it was supposed to do.”

There is no need to post a comment about the great work of literature that uses an adverb in this fashion beautifully, I am certain it exists. I’m equally certain I haven’t written one yet, though that would be a wonderful accomplishment. We are looking at one sentence in ten million or more.

Actually, please do comment, because I would like to see it. Out of curiosity, though, not because I doubt its existence.

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