19 feb. 2008

Nobody complains about the false sense of agency created through the avoidance of the passive voice. It is a cheap literary trick (though an effective one if used judiciously) to re-cast a static description to make it seem as though the object in the description were engaged in some activity, not just sitting there being described:

"The mountains rose abruptly from the rolling plains; dense groves of pine covered them, leaving only miniscule clearings that offered respite to bone-tired travelers..."

That kind of thing. (I ought to put that in my list of 1001 novelistic clichés!) In scholarly writing I find myself performing an analogous manoeuver once in a while. The defamiliarization the results from a reversal of perspective can be effective, though it can be distracting too (if overdone).

Imagine a description of a poet's accomplishments. She was educated at Yale; she was awarded this prize and that. She studied with blank and blank. If you recast everything to the active voice, you might lose focus on the poet: Knopf published her; Jorie Graham taught her... etc... The American Academy of poets showered prizes on her. What you really should be aiming for is a smoothly modulated effect, combining some intransitive verbs, some passives, and some transitive verbs in the active voice.

To follow up a comment by the inestimable Thomas Basbxll, the notion that "only those who teach freshman comp should be allowed to offer style advice" is, in my view, exactly the opposite from the way we ought to be thinking about such matters. Since those teachers see the worst writing, they might develop a distorted perspective. (Wouldn't teaching fourth-graders to play the clarinet lead one to a distorted idea about musical phrasing? Anything but THAT! You would say.) You see only the photographic negative of good style.

6 comentarios:

Tom dijo...

Am I the only one left in the world who likes description?

"The mountains rose abruptly from the rolling plains; dense groves of pine covered them, leaving only miniscule clearings that offered respite to bone-tired travelers..." These are cliches yes but the active voice is more accurate to the experience of the traveler. The landscape is a force and you interact with it. Otherwise you treat it like the experience of a reader.

Tom King

Jonathan dijo...

Yes. It can be effective--up to a point. Calling this particular kind of description a cliché is just a way of saying that it's an identifiable, reproducible technique.

Joseph Duemer dijo...

As someone who teaches freshman English, I can tell you that the unconscious use of the passive voice often produces virtually unreadable writing -- vague & abstract & without conceptual clarity either, which might be why you'd use the passive. I've found that asking students to get rid of the passive voice makes their writing clearer almost immediately, perhaps because it makes the grammatical spine of the sentence clearer to writers who have only a vague sense of syntax to begin with. One can then discuss those places in which the passive is appropriate, even necessary.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

I think, over all, I agree with Joseph. As a heuristic to clarify a piece of writing the rule "Don't use the passive voice" normally improves a text.

I do not agree with Dr. Nokes, however, that if you don't see poorly written prose everyday you don't have a legitimate opinion about style.

But maybe composition teachers ARE better qualified to make categorical pronouncements. Maybe we should say, "Never say never or always unless you are teaching freshman composition."

Freshmen, let's say, know what such pronouncements mean.

Jonathan dijo...

That's a very sensible perspective from Joseph and Thomas. I forbid the words "interesante" and "importante" in my Spanish composition classes. It just makes it easier to take those options off the table completely rather than see them 10 times each in each short paper. Into the void created by the absence of those words come better vocabulary choices.

My purpose in these posts is not to advise frosh comp teachers, but reflect on issues of scholarly writing, where once every page or two the use of the passive can be effective. Of course, there are still writers who overuse the passive voice even when they should know better. I just don't see the point in stringent passive avoidance for mature writers.

Anthony Robinson dijo...

I am in accordance with all of you. This particular "form" can be handy but most young compositionists would gain clarity by avoiding it and focusing on action & actor.

(Actually, Jonathan, it _is_ difficult to avoid using that graphic sign.)