Why you should look for a spell of bad weather

Word count: 743 words

Reading time: 3 minutes

Have you ever struggled with the passive voice? Here is a tip for avoiding that problem.

Readers ask me about grammar, a lot. I don’t quite know why. I’m not the Grammar Girl or anything. I make more than my share of grammatical mistakes. And my wonderful copy editor has saved me from a boatload of embarrassments. (Note: she is not responsible for anything in this column. Words that are offered gratis can’t actually afford copy editors!)

But I like to write, and my parents raised me to use language carefully. So, I’m guessing (hoping?) I don’t make quite as many mistakes as some others. The research I just completed to write today’s column, however, has me worried.

I wanted to write about the passive voice. But grammar is complicated. Wikipedia just revealed to me an entire category of words I’d never even heard of before.

For example, did you know “argument,” is a linguistic term? Neither did I! I thought it was something my kids had before dinner, like an appetizer. Linguistically, however, it means “an expression that helps complete the meaning of a predicate (verb.)” Subjects (the person who is doing the action in a sentence) and objects (the thing having something done) are therefore both arguments.

Why do you need to know this? Well, in grammar, voice is what describes the relationship between the verb and its arguments. And just as there is black and white, pro and con, there’s also active and passive voice. Here’s an example of a sentence written in the passive:

The violin solo was performed.

As you can see, the reader doesn’t know who performed the solo. (To make the sentence viable, the writer has turned the object into the subject. While this doesn’t make for a compelling sentence it’s grammatically okay because both subjects and objects are arguments.)

But you can transform the sentence into the “active voice” – and make it a much richer — by naming the performer:

Mary Chu performed the violin solo.

Since the dawn of time – or at least since the days of George Orwell – experts have been urging writers to use the active voice.

Trouble is, most real-life sentences are never as simple as Mary Chu playing the violin. Take, for example, these sentences created by writer Nancy Franklin in a March 23, 2009 New Yorker article on fraudster Bernie Madoff:

Madoff said, “When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme.” As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him.

That’s finely written paragraph to be sure, and I’ve put the presumed passive in bold. But it’s not passive! It may be unclear and weasely but the pronoun “it” refers to the Ponzi scheme and the verb “end” is simply made conditional by the word “would.” What’s fascinating is that this error – calling something “passive” that wasn’t — survived the famously rigorous New Yorker editing process. If they can’t get it right, who can?

My advice? Instead of focusing on the passive, which might give you a headache, work on making your writing as concrete as possible. Writers get into trouble when they are vague and imprecise.

Take for example the phrase, “there will be….” The subject-argument (a noun) is “there” and combined with the verb “will be” it might sound passive. But it’s not. The real question is: what, exactly, is the “there” that’s there? I get no picture in my mind when I read that. To me, it’s a blank. Not passive; just empty.

Effective writers concentrate on painting pictures for readers. Nancy Franklin understands that when she uses the colourful phrase as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him. When I read that I immediately think of Pig Pen (a character on Charlie Brown) and the cloud of dirt in his wake. If you’re older, you may think of Joe Btfsplk, from Lil’ Abner, who always had a rain cloud over his head. If you’re younger than I am, perhaps you think of something different – but, regardless, I bet you get a picture.

Grammar is important. Making writing colourful is even more so.

[Photo at top of page courtesy Captain Subtle, Flickr Creative Commons]