OnText grammar police – passive voice is not taboo


Passive voice. Never use it, right? Passive voice schlocks up your writing and kicks off all kinds of warnings in MS Word’s grammar police function. Doesn’t it? No. Passive voice is not taboo, and many excellent writers use it effectively. You have to know the rules and know what you want to say.

I completely enjoyed an online lesson at NewsUniversity’s www.newsu.org school, operated by the Poynter Institute in Florida – a premier resource for journalists.

The class, Writer’s Workbench, is excellently compiled by Roy Peter Clark http://www.swopnet.com/misc/writing/writing_tools.html. His illustrations are crystal and his examples smash the ball home. I reevaluated. It isn’t that I totally avoid passive. I don’t. But I’m always aware of echoes in my head. Echoes of English, grammar, and writing teachers carping about passive.

Here are a few of the points Clark succinctly and luxuriously made about passivity.

“Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, (says Clark) uses the distinction between active and passive verbs to challenge an educational system that places the power of teachers over the needs of students. An oppressive educational system, he argues, is one in which:

  • the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
  • the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
  • the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.

In other words, an oppressive system is one in which the teacher is active and the students are passive.” (If they live passively, we should write about their passivity, to my mind. –mp)

Clark offers this from the Washington Post

Cartons of food and water were stacked in an airplane hangar in the devastated Aceh region of northern Indonesia after military transports delivered tons of supplies to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, which was mostly destroyed in the Sunday earthquake and tsunami that hit minutes later. (earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes, too, leave little room for us to be actively defensive.)

Claudia Suzanne, ghost writer/editor extraordinaire, tackles passive in her ghost writing course and book Secrets of a Ghost Writer. She says:

“Used correctly, passive voice can be powerful, invisible, simple declarative, or even artistic.

I was wrong. I’m sorry. (powerful)

Apparently, the human body is designed to forage for food. (invisible)

Used incorrectly, passive voice can be obscure, awkward, boring, or downright incomprehensible.

When we think about what has meaning in our lives it is our relationships. (awkward)”

Like any crafter’s tool, passive voice can be effective or can clutter your writing. It’s the old back-to-basics: Reread and edit your work until every word, every phrase moves your reader to satisfaction.

Think of other appropriate uses of passive voice and comment about them, won’t you? I’d love to see your take on all this.

More Grammar Police:

Matching verbs and nouns

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