Writers: Battle passive voice like a Jedi! (not counting Yoda)

image Don’t bother tapping your watches! It really IS time for Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, a weekly feature written by a writer, for writers, that is occasionally mistaken as insightful. NWOW is when I utilize my 15 years as a newspaper columnist to offer writing advice that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has called “…a literary appetite suppressant,” and what Simon & Schuster recently credited with “The inspiration behind streamlining our rejection letters.”

But enough with the accolades!

This week, we will be talking about “passive voice.” To clarify, this is not when, after having too many margaritas at your favorite Mexican restaurant, someone tells you to stop showing everyone your flauta.

Passive voice is when you put the verb in your sentence before the subject. This breaks away from the “Subject-Verb” structure and turns the subject into something being acted on, rather than prompting the action. For example, the earlier introduction to this week’s topic could have been written three ways:

Active voice:
“Passive voice” is what we will be talking about this week.

Passive voice:
What we will be talking about this week is “passive voice.” I hope that’s ok. If not, we can talk about birds or something.

Passive-aggressive voice:
We’ll be talking about “passive voice” this week. I’m sorry if that’s a problem, but I don’t see YOUR name on this blog!

Before we go any further, I’d like to thank my blogger friend Samara at A Buick In the Land of Lexis for suggesting this topic, which she did by sending me the following email:

On the topic of passive voice you should write.

Oops! Sorry! That one actually came from Jedi Master Yoda, whose suggestion came to me in the form of a cheesy voice-over while I was showering. To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of it. Regardless, Samara’s email came first, so I am giving her the credit for today’s topic which, if important enough to be on the minds of Samara and Yoda, is certainly important enough to address in this week’s NWOW. If for no other reason than having “Samara” and “Yoda” together in the same sentence β€” which I believe is a first.

The other reason, though, is because Yoda almost always speaks in a passive voice. And I’m not just talking about his peaceful demeanor, or how he fakes being decrepit until it’s time to kick Imperial booty. Here are some examples, along with how they would be re-written in an “active” voice:

Consume you it will, like Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Active voice: “It will consume you as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.”

In this case, “It” (dark side of The Force) is our subject. The verb is “consume,” which directly follows our subject β€” a standard active-voice structure. In Yoda’s case, he put the verb before the subject, creating a passive-voice structure.

Don’t be too hard on him though; he had George Lucas writing his dialogue.

Here’s another example:

“Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.”

This one is a little tricky because it could actually be re-written as “active voice” a few different ways:

Active voice (1): “You have become powerful; I sense the dark side in you.”

Active voice (2): “I sense the dark side has made you powerful”

Active voice (3): “I sense your backside has emitted something powerful.”

In each case, the subject comes first and is closely followed by the verb, making the subject into the active ingredient. Does this mean passive voice should be avoided at all costs?

Telling you this would be a mistake…

YES! That last sentence was passive! Is everyone ok? Of course you are! That’s because passive voice isn’t lethal. But it can get boring and, when used too often, become a confusing sentence structure for readers to follow. Think of passive voice as an aside; it’s something you can do from time to time to keep the rhythm fresh for your readers because it engages their thought process in a different way. However, when used too much it loses its effect and just becomes annoying.

Here’s one last passive-voice example from Yoda. I’m sure you’ll recognize it:

“Try or try not, do or do not.”

What would the simpler, more direct active-voice version be…?

That’s RIGHT!

“Don’t bother.”

Next week, we’ll address a topic sent in by my friend Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who asked if social media and blogging helps (or hinders) credibility in the publishing world?

I don’t mean to brag, but considering the kinds of accolades I’ve gotten from Suzanne Collins and Simon & Schuster, I think the answer should be pretty obvious…

Until next week: Helpful I hope this has been.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

68 thoughts on “Writers: Battle passive voice like a Jedi! (not counting Yoda)”

  1. Oh my goodness…I love your picture! I struggle with the whole active/passive voice thing. I naturally write with the passive voice, and I also find that I like the way it sounds…I must be weird.

    1. Weird you aren’t.
      Sorry, still stuck on the whole Yoda thing. I think passive voice gets a bad rap it doesn’t necessarily deserve, and has its place depending on what you’re writing. In personal pieces written in the first person, it’s an effective way to stay away from starting sentences with “I” too often. As a humor writer, I use it a lot to build to the punchline or, in many cases, ramble until I figure out where I’m going with a thought… πŸ˜‰

  2. You did it again. Made me wake my whole family up because I was laughing while reading your article.
    I’m such a cheesy fan….I WAIT with baited breath for your NWOW posts (well, cuz it’s early and I haven’t brushed yet).
    Active and passive voice is something I definitely squash when editing. I drive my kiddos crazy when I review anything they write for school. Your message is a powerful one, wise Jedi. It applies for ALL types of writing: creative, non-fiction and even the e-mails we mindlessly send out everyday. I think I may have even written a post earlier this year that bashed that passive voice (how’s that for passive-aggressive-passive!)

    Thanks for the recap, reminder and dose of Yoda on a Friday morning. I appreciate all that you do!

    1. LOL! Thanks, Michelle πŸ˜‰
      I know this post was a bit of an oversimplification, but I 1) Wanted to show it’s easier to recognize and correct than writers may think, and 2) have never included Yoda in a blog post before.

      And I’m ALWAYS glad when I can wake other people’s family with laughs πŸ˜‰

  3. Does this work on dates as well? “Copulating in the back seat” is what we will be doing after dinner… In all seriousness, I never really thought about this passive/active concept. I will look out for frail and timid minded sentences from now on. Thanks!

  4. You’re one of them there (those?) fancy writers who like to follow rules and whatnot. You probably know how to punctuate properly. Big show off. I suppose a little instruction never hurt anyone, right?

    “Young writers are like good books. You can’t enjoy them until you’ve broken their spines.”

    Theresa Rebeck from her play Seminar, spoken by Alan Rickman as a corrupt writing professor who sleeps with his students.

    1. I can SOOO hear Alan Rickman deliver that line! Hahaha! He’s been one of my absolute favorites since the first “Die Hard” movie.

      And as for the rules, my editor is always getting on me about bending them. “Just because you’re a columnist doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the Newspaper Style Manual!” she bellows. I’ve always remembered something my freshman english teacher told me:

      In order to effectively break the rules of grammar, you have to know them first.

      1. I was lucky enough to hear Kurt Vonnegut lecture once and he said that writing programs ruin more writers than they do improve. He said that universities are guilty of scrubbing the individual voice out of writers in favor of a rigid set of rules. Bukwoski said the exact same thing.

        I was ALSO lucky enough to see that production with Rickman. The entire script is chocked-full of juicy bon mots like that one. Rickman delivered his barbs with the thick, syrupy sarcasm that is his ninja skill. One of the students was played by Jerry O’ Connell and he was great, as well. In it, Rickman slept with O’Connell’s girlfriend. Much hilarity ensued.

        1. I’ve heard that passage from Vonnegut as well (not live, sadly) and tend to agree. I think it’s that way with a lot of “higher education.” Being a guy who didn’t attend college, I’m probably a little biased though πŸ˜‰

            1. There are times I wish I’d had a chance to go, but I was to anxious to get started with my life. Oh, and there was no college money…

              Still, I became a regional chef for a large corporation after starting as a pantry cook, then became a restaurant management consultant, then went into journalism β€” all without a degree. I’m not exactly the poster boy for the importance of higher education!

              1. I don’t have any complaints, really. I ended up doing okay for myself. But the road would have been so much smoother if I had gotten a degree. It’s the touchstone by which you are judged by many potential employers and girls you’re trying to sleep with.

      2. His best Libe ever was playing the Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves

        “And cancel Christmas!”

        But he makes ‘Die Hard’ the masterpiece it is.

          1. That voice!
            Saw him decades ago on stage in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, electrifying and manipulative. Fantastic.

  5. I remember sitting in the bathroom for quite some time one day, when a quiet, disconnected voice whispered to me: “Use the Force. Let it flow through you.”
    Bad advice.
    I was laid up in bed for 4 days in excruciating pain.
    As I lie on my bed, the voice returned: “Perhaps I should have been clearer about what I meant by the Force.”
    My advice: Beware disconnected voices in your head.

    Oh, and glycerin.

        1. I actually spent some time researching it before I wrote this piece and tried to simplify things. Did I miss something? If so, I’m not too old or egotistical to be schooled.

          Just don’t make me clean the erasers please.

          1. It’s less to do with verb placement than object placement. Specifically, the object in an active sentence becomes the subject in a passive sentence.
            Active: I hit the ball.
            Passive: The ball was hit by me.
            If a form of “to be” (“was”) occurs before the verb (“hit”), it’s probably passive.
            And now I feel like THAT guy.

            1. That makes complete sense and something I sacrificed in oversimplifying the concept. Lessoned learned, Ross β€” and you’re definitely NOT “that” guy. I’ve seen him and he doesn’t have a beard.

              But I still think mine was funnier…

  6. the dynamics and shifting of content is subtle; the nuances of a well crafted sentence, like the undertones of expensive perfume or fine wine. Double entendres and innuendo, implied sub text, creating drama inside what may have been a banal statement.
    i loved this and am going to explore it in a unique context, in my own writing.

    1. In the end, unless you’re writing a manual on tire changing, it’s really about putting words together in a way that is lyrical, interesting and engaging. Over the last 20 years or so, exploring new ways to do each of those things, along with the re-purposing of old rules, have added new textures to the literary world and given writers more freedom. I’m flattered that I could inspire exploration in your own writing endeavors.

      I look forward to the results. And the wine.

  7. Everything is 80s song lyrics to me, so my first thought when reading this was the beginning to Jack Wagner’s “All I Need.” He sings, “Kissing you is not what I had planned.” Is that passive?

          1. Well, it came on my three cassette collection of Light Lovesongs ordered off the TV, so I’m glad to share it with you. It was just after “Nights In White Satin.”

  8. I am interested to read your response to Michelle because I know of one publishing house who pushes their authors to have an online presence. πŸ™‚

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