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Some years ago I joined an online writers' group. The group read and critiqued the stories submited by the members. I learned a lot (I dropped out of it when I found myself unable to find the time to write).

One writer in particular, with whom I developed a years-long email correspondence even after leaving the group, often criticized me for using "passive voice." Essentialy I'd write:

"I was born in the workshop of mad scientists. I don't know for a fact they were insane, but surely they must have been irrational. Otherwise they wouldn't have made me the way they did; or at all."

This other writer would call me out on using passive voice by saying "I was born...." She claimed the way I wrote it felt like things were happening to my characters, rather than the characters carrying out actions.

I understand this well and I've tried to correct it. However, what if the story calls for a character to be a passive actor in her own life? The line I just quoted is by a character who is enslaved to the whims of others (literally) through technology that imposes such control (yes, I write only science fiction). The more she tries to break free, the stronger the control becomes. So she winds up passively going through life, surreptitiously trying to break free (eventually she does, naturally). But in the events she relates, she is a passive spectator to whom things happen.

Other times the passive voice sounds better to me. This is a stylistic choice. Example:

"It was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered Joe's quiet solitude, but to him it felt like the sound and fury of an invading armada."

I could instead do this:

"The sound of an ordinary motor boat shattered Joe's quite solitude with the sound and fury of an invading armada."

I like the first one better, not to mention that in the second one I use the same word twice in one sentence.

Any thoughts on the matter?

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Your second sentence is better.

Stylistically, I don't like the passive voice, but that doesn't make it wrong in and of itself. It's not wrong to use it, and there are instances where it should be used. However, consistently using it does detract from the meaning and clarity of a writing. In order to avoid it, I think you are supposed to keep in mind that the grammatical subject of any sentence should be the actor of the sentence. When writing in the passive voice, this is not the case. The subject of the sentence is the object that the action is performed on, rather than the actor performing the action.

I think (someone correct me if I am wrong) that in your first sentence, the subject is "Joe's quiet solitude" but your actually talking about the motor boat, while in the second the subject is the "motor boat" and you are actually talking about the motor boat. Therefore, the meaning of the second sentence is more clear.

By the way, I think Rand uses the passive voice a lot, particulary when telling the history of someone like Gail Wynand or Francisco. That may be one of many reasons why she is frowned upon in English departments. I'll have to check on that though.

Edited by adrock3215
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I think (someone correct me if I am wrong) that in your first sentence, the subject is "Joe's quiet solitude" but your actually talking about the motor boat, while in the second the subject is the "motor boat" and you are actually talking about the motor boat. Therefore, the meaning of the second sentence is more clear.

In the first sentence the boat is the subject that shatters (undertakes an action) Joe's solitude. The same thing happens in the second sentence. I read them both and I see the same meaning: the damn boat is intruding on Joe's need to be alone (that's explained by the second sentence).

BTW my priamry intent as regards to style is to be clear.

By the way, I think Rand uses the passive voice a lot, particulary when telling the history of someone like Gail Wynand or Francisco. That may be one of many reasons why she is frowned upon in English departments. I'll have to check on that though.

Offhand I can't say for sure. Of course I remember the long flashbacks about Francisco and Wynand, but not the style.

And of course there are philosophical reason for Rand to be frowned upon in most English deparments.

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By the way, I think Rand uses the passive voice a lot, [...]

I know my word processor (MS Word) often reminds me that I should use active voice instead of passive. If Ayn Rand used it a lot too, perhaps it may have to do something with both of us (Ayn Rand and myself) having a Slavic language as our mother tongue. I found writing some things in active voice after I've written them in passive voice a rather unpleasant experience and not just because I had to do the same work twice.

Hence, I like D'kian's first sentence better. It makes more sense to me to write active sentences when describing what people do, rather than when describing what happens to them. Thus, I'll gladly say "Michael went to class" instead of "The class was attended by Michael" (ugh); but also I'd sooner say "His peace was disturbed by a loud explosion" than "A loud explosion disturbed his peace." It kind of puts man in the center of attention.

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In the first sentence the boat is the subject that shatters (undertakes an action) Joe's solitude.

Right, but the issue is that it is not the subject of the sentence. The boat is the thing that is acting upon Joe's solitude, but it is not the subject of the sentence.

The difference would be more clear if you had written in the first sentence: "Joe's quiet solitude was shattered by a motor boat." That would be the textbook example of passive voice, because the subject of the sentence is Joe's quiet solitude, and it has an action performed on it. In the active voice, since the motor boat is performing the action and Joe is being acted upon, the subject of the sentence should be the motor boat.

EDIT: Deleted. Sorry, source, I didn't read carefully enough before I replied!

Edited by adrock3215
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Yes, the first example is active while the second is passive, so you are not giving a counterexample here. In fact, you are showing disgust with the passive voice.

Please read the entire sentence...

Edit: The entire paragraph, for that matter.

Edited by source
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It would be useful to not use terms like "passive voice" which has a well-defined meaning. In the example "I was born in the workshop of mad scientists. I don't know for a fact they were insane, but surely they must have been irrational. Otherwise they wouldn't have made me the way they did; or at all", all sentences are in the active voice. You presumably must be talking about something totally distinct from the grammatical notion of the passive voice.

I suggest that your feeling that you like "It was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered Joe's quiet solitude, but to him it felt like the sound and fury of an invading armada" better than "The sound of an ordinary motor boat shattered Joe's quite solitude with the sound and fury of an invading armada" comes from the fact that the latter conveys more information (an strong element of contrastive focus signalled by the cleft construction "it was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered...", for example; the contrast between the actual sound level versus the effect). This has nothing to do with the active / passive distinction.

The active / passive distinction is exemplified by pairs such as "The boy saw the girl" (active) vs. "The girl was seen by the boy" (passive).

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The active / passive distinction is exemplified by pairs such as "The boy saw the girl" (active) vs. "The girl was seen by the boy" (passive).

That reminded me of the few opening lines from Frost's poem "Home Burial":

HE saw her from the bottom of the stairs

Before she saw him. She was starting down,

Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.

She took a doubtful step and then undid it

To raise herself and look again.

At first, she is the object being seen by him, but then the situation reverses and he is the object being seen by her. Not that it's entirely relevant, but I was just reminded of it by David's psot.

Edited by adrock3215
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It would be useful to not use terms like "passive voice" which has a well-defined meaning.

Hmm, now I take a closer look at it, "It was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered Joe's quiet solitude, but to him it felt like the sound and fury of an invading armada" is in fact active voice. I must have been confused by the "It was..." part. But then, so is D'kian's other example (active voice), which makes the choice be based on style, rather than on whether it's an active or passive voice.

I suggest that your feeling that you like [the first] better than [the second] comes from the fact that the latter conveys more information [...]

Could you show what is this extra information that the second sentence reveals, which the first does not? Here they are again, for quicker reference:

It was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered Joe's quiet solitude, but to him it felt like the sound and fury of an invading armada.

The sound of an ordinary motor boat shattered Joe's quite solitude with the sound and fury of an invading armada.

Thanks.

Edit: Added clarification.

Edited by source
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I think passive voice can be used effectively, though most readers find it jarring. In the novel I was working on, I had one character who was never really the actor of his own actions, but rather his god was. So, instead of saying something like, "I sailed the Seven Seas!", he would say, "Poseidon compelled me to sail the Seven Seas!" (although, I guess, in a sense, that's still active on the part of Poseidon). I guess he would have to say, "The Seven Seas were sailed at the behest of Poseidon!"

I sent out copies of the early version of the novel, but hadn't decided to use passive voice for this main character until most of the rough draft was completed, and my early readers picked up on it right away. "Isn't he doing anything?" they would ask. "No," I would say, "He is acting passively in obedience to his god -- he's not doing anything, he is an agent of his god. So, he is passive." What I toyed with was to have him speak in passive voice until he realizes he is wrong about obeying a god, and must take responsibility for his actions, and correct his ways, and thus changes to active voice. However, I think in active voice, so doing that would be very difficult for me. But it would really cinch the character of that guy.

English professors tend to go by a standard English rules book. That is, it is rationalism to say never use passive voice. If passive voice better conveys what you are presenting, then use it.

Part of the problem of passive voice is that it takes determinism seriously, in the sense that the character or actor or object is not doing anything on its own, but rather does it due to some external input. For objects, one might be able to get away with that, but for people it comes across as: What happened to his will? So, instead of saying, "I wrote this essay" I would say "This essay was written by me" making the essay the central focus instead of me, the actor.

A lot of scientific papers are supposed to be written in passive voice, supposedly to make them more objective. "The contents of the flask were poured into the beaker" instead of "I poured the contents of the flask into the beaker." This is done to remove the subjectivity of you doing it, because the same results ought to occur no matter who does it. "The radio telescope was tuned to frequency twelve, thereby revealing the red dwarf in sector nine." Well, who tuned the radio telescope and who observed the readings? Hey, it happened, that's all that matters.

Or, if you say something like, "The car was doing ninety miles per hour," instead of "I drove the car at ninety miles per hours." It's a way of distancing yourself from the action, or distancing your character from the action, which could be effective, depending on the context.

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The main reason to choose between active and passive voice is the *emphasis* you want to place on particular elements of the sentence, and Ayn Rand discusses this a fair bit in The Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-Fiction. If you look at these two sentences:

My solitude was shattered by the sound of a motor boat.

vs.

The sound of a motor boat shattered my solitude.

The first places more emphasis on the fact of *solitude*, whereas the second sentence places more emphasis on the noise and the motor boat. So you'd use the first one if you were, say, describing a scene where it was important to stress that your character was alone, whereas you'd use the second if the noise and/or the motor boat were the significant element.

The only reason to avoid passive voice is that it often leads to awkward formulations and can mess up your grammar very easily, so it's something to use sparingly when you can't figure out any other way to place the emphasis exactly the way you want it.

English professors tend to go by a standard English rules book. That is, it is rationalism to say never use passive voice. If passive voice better conveys what you are presenting, then use it.

It's not rationalism, it's classicism.

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Could you show what is this extra information that the second sentence reveals, which the first does not? Here they are again, for quicker reference:

It was only an ordinary motor boat that shattered Joe's quiet solitude, but to him it felt like the sound and fury of an invading armada.

The sound of an ordinary motor boat shattered Joe's quite solitude with the sound and fury of an invading armada.

Sure. In the second sentence there is a basic presentation of information. The use of "only" plus the cleft construction adds to that the element of contrastive focus and evaluation, where the boat is recognized as being an objectively insignificant source of sound, but that source of sound has an unexpected and noteworthy effect. The "but" clause they spells out what that effect was. This structure sets up a tension between "objective fact" and "effect", which then implies something else (which we don't know from these two sentences) -- we expect to find out why exactly this guy is acting so strange.

As Jenni points out, actives and passives shift emphasis, to the point that passives without specified agents can be used to avoid assigning responsibility. Always pay attention when you hear "will be paid" -- wait for the "by so-and-so".

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Sure. In the second sentence there is a basic presentation of information. The use of "only" plus the cleft construction adds to that the element of contrastive focus and evaluation, where the boat is recognized as being an objectively insignificant source of sound, but that source of sound has an unexpected and noteworthy effect. The "but" clause they spells out what that effect was. This structure sets up a tension between "objective fact" and "effect", which then implies something else (which we don't know from these two sentences) -- we expect to find out why exactly this guy is acting so strange.

That's it exactly.

The point, as you'd learn later on in the story, is that Joe really likes to be alone. He finds a small, uninhabited island in the Adriatic (a rock with some vegetation, really), where he can enjoy his solitude in peace (Whether he just goes there to read books, or to paint, or sculpt, or write or something else is yet to be determined). So he goes to great lenghts to be alone, completely cut off from other people, and then there's this boat, naturally implying people, coming in. That shatters his quiet solitude as much as if a full carrier battle group would.

So there's the sound of a motor boat, but to Joe it might as well be the full strenght of all the navies in the Mediterranean about to enter into action. The intent is to establish how much Joe is upset by a simple motor boat.

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English professors tend to go by a standard English rules book.

I'm going to disagree here. As evidence I present to you the worship of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and all the other writers who totally ignore grammar.

Now, I will give that there is a definite split in modern English departments between the more modernistic professors who think form is everything, and the old-style professors who want to preserve the language from what they perceive to be the onslaught from modernism. Harold Bloom, preeminent literary critic and Yale English professor, definitely belongs to the latter category. He's gone so far as to label the nasty deconstructionists and most of the other 20th century movements in literary criticism as the "School of Resentment". Incidentally, his words have a tremendous amount of weight in most English departments. Whether or not it's enough weight to stem the influence of form-based literature is debatable, but he's definitely my favorite critic.

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I know my word processor (MS Word) often reminds me that I should use active voice instead of passive.

Word keeps hassling me about sentence fragments. Example: "We want to strike once and for all. The last rebellion. That's what we want to do." And Word will say "The last rebellion" is a sentence fragment. I know it is. I mean there is a subject, but no action or object. But that's how people often talk. In this instance the character is giving a title to his planned action: The Last Rebellion.

If Ayn Rand used it a lot too, perhaps it may have to do something with both of us (Ayn Rand and myself) having a Slavic language as our mother tongue.

My native language is Spanish, which has a completely different syntax than English. Even though I've been reading and watching TV and movies in English almost exclusively for the past 25 years, the native tongue does get in the way. There's no way it won't How you learned to speak shapes how you think when speaking. It takes an effort to shift into a different mental mode when using English, although it becomes a lot easier with practice.

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When it comes to my writing, especially creative writing, I turn off all the automatics of my word processor, except for the spell checker. One thing I find especially annoying is it trying to format my paragraphs as I type, or trying to format bullets points, but I would find it really annoying for it to try to tell me how to write.

I'm not really sure it would be rationalism or classicism for an English professor to do things the set rules way. I think it would depend on his motivation. If he wants to follow rules for the sake of following rules, he would be an intrinsicist, and probably a rationalist in that his logic is tied to a specific format untied to the reality of usage. Classicism would be driven from the motivation to do writing like someone from the past -- i.e. to write like Shakespeare -- thinking that this person from the past set the standard, whether he was effective or not in conveying what he meant.

Syntax is very interesting, and I do notice someone's method of speaking has a lot to do with their native tongue. I can't quite pin down what the difference is, but my boss' dad and my current boss are Korean, and sometimes the way they try to explain something to me is frustrating, because they tend to overload the crow with items or details before telling me what needs to be done with those items. I keep wanting to say, "Stop...what do you want me to do?" My former boss was really bad about giving me a long story before getting to the point when correcting me; like I think he thinks in terms of adages or fables and wants to give one to me to learn from before telling me what the point is.

Aristotle made an interesting comment about the nature of language, stating the subject and predicate ought to be presented as cause and effect. That is, one ought to say, "The fish swam" [fish cause / swam effect], so I think his influence is alive when talking about active versus passive voice. So, using his layout for language, one wouldn't say, "Swimming was done by the fish." But I think it depends on the context. I can imagine someone saying, "Swimming is done by fish; walking is done by dogs; flying is done by birds." He could do this in order to focus on the actions, rather than focusing on the animals.

Added on edit:

When I copied and pasted the above essay to my email program to send it to myself, the underlying MS Word tried to say that the first sentence was a sentence fragment. I don't think it is, which is one reason I turn off those annoying automatic suggestions. "When it comes to my writing, especially creative writing, I turn off all the automatics of my word processor, except for the spell checker." Is this a sentence fragment?

Edited by Thomas M. Miovas Jr.
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When I copied and pasted the above essay to my email program to send it to myself, the underlying MS Word tried to say that the first sentence was a sentence fragment. I don't think it is, which is one reason I turn off those annoying automatic suggestions. "When it comes to my writing, especially creative writing, I turn off all the automatics of my word processor, except for the spell checker." Is this a sentence fragment?

I'm not sure if it's a fragment or not, but I am certain that it is a poorly constructed sentence, and I hope that you don't write that way in your professional correspondence.

I would maybe phrase it something like:

With the exception of the spell checker, I turn all the automatics of my word processor off when I write creatively.

Either way, writing on a message board and writing for something else are going to be different. Really, the form of your writing should be adjusted to meet its purpose.

Edited by adrock3215
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The use of "only" plus the cleft construction adds to that the element of contrastive focus and evaluation,

Then you made a mistake. You said "I suggest that your feeling that you like [the first sentence] better than [the second sentence] comes from the fact that the latter conveys more information...", where you should have said "...comes from the fact that the former conveys more information..."

That was the source of my confusion.

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Aristotle made an interesting comment about the nature of language, stating the subject and predicate ought to be presented as cause and effect. That is, one ought to say, "The fish swam" [fish cause / swam effect], so I think his influence is alive when talking about active versus passive voice. So, using his layout for language, one wouldn't say, "Swimming was done by the fish." But I think it depends on the context. I can imagine someone saying, "Swimming is done by fish; walking is done by dogs; flying is done by birds." He could do this in order to focus on the actions, rather than focusing on the animals.

It depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it. For example a character accused of taking part in a rioting might reply "There was rioting done, but none of it was done by me." That's partly sarcastic and the syntax makes it a bit harder to understand the meaning, which would indicate the character is angry or upset at the accusation.

Context does matter a lot. I've noticed I write dialogue much differently than I write the narrative, for instance. Dialogue needs to take into account the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the various characters (or they all wind up sounding alike).

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This other writer would call me out on using passive voice by saying "I was born...." She claimed the way I wrote it felt like things were happening to my characters, rather than the characters carrying out actions.

I've never seen what the problem is with it if it's intentionally used for style.

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