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:
“Passive voice” is what we will be talking about this week.
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.
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!
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 — 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 — 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…?
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.