Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Writing Teacher's Musing

AAAACK, I thought it would never end. No, not the continuous discussions about the 2016 Presidential Election – unfortunately for all of us that drabble has just begun. No, I am talking about the writing and literature classes I teach as an adjunct at an area college. Don’t get me wrong the students, for the most part, try their best, it’s a shame their best is simply not very good. In consequence, as I turned in my keys and grades my heart fairly flew out of the confines of my chest and somewhat meager bosom. I felt like Mrs. Mallard upon hearing about the sudden death of her husband, her words “Free! Body and soul free!” flitting across my brain.
Free from trying to explain how to avoid passive voice and the problem with mixing past and present tense and don’t get me started on the nauseating abundance of clichés that are so painful and so oft repeated just the mere hint of them makes my stomach ache. Free to do as I please I ponder the things my students struggled with—and with my monthly blog post due—I decided to give a quick refresher on these very things.

For today, I’ll cover passive voice, my personal nemesis.

Verbs are either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. (I like to call this the lazy voice where you sound as lazy as this sea lion.) In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Grammar checkers are able to pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so. Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work. And I know you don't want to look like this. 

The passive voice does exist for a reason, however, and its presence is not always to be despised. It is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations: When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.
When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.
The passive voice is especially helpful (and even regarded as mandatory) in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle described is of ultimate importance. Instead of writing "I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker," you would write "Twenty cc of acid is/was poured into the beaker." The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of process are much more important than anyone's taking responsibility for the action: "The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse."

In a nutshell,  (oops, I know, I know, I can’t help it, I’ve been grading and listening to cliché obsessed students all semester and it’s difficult to stop cold turkey) instead of writing “I was wondering why you showed up dressed as a clown,” go with, (I wondered why you showed up dressed as a clown,” or my favorite and most direct action, “Why did you dress up as a clown.” I mean come on, she came wearing white face and a ball on her nose so ask her straight out and don’t be passive about it.


January Bain said...

I hear you! Well said! Best, January

Olga Godim said...

Great post. Most writers I've edited (and none of them a student) should read it.

Victoria Roder said...

Appreciate the refresher information.