17 feb. 2008

There is nothing wrong with the passive voice per se. The idea of changing every passive to an active is ridiculous, because sometimes the agent is just not that important. Take the Johnny Burke lyric

A country dance was being held in a garden.
I heard a bump and then an "Oh, beg your pardon"
Suddenly I saw polkadots and moonbeams
All around a pug-nosed dream

Some would tell you to change to the active voice, just for the sake of avoiding the passive at all costs: "They were holding a country dance in a garden." But the "they" there is just a grammatical place holder; it's not doing any real work. You could make the country dance a subject in its own right: "A country dance was taking place in a garden." You've avoided the passive, sure, but to what benefit? The first sentence is setting the scene for the next one, which is in fact active and in the first person. Alerting the first sentence to say "They were holding..." would actually make the second line less effective.

Which is more effective?

1) "His first book of poetry was greeted with howls of derision."

2) "Howls of derision greeted his first book of poetry."

Aside from the stock phrase "to greet with howls of derision," which I would never use myself, the first is better. By recasting the sentence into the active voice, you are forcing yourself into putting the elements of the sentence in a less logical order. You want to know what happened to the book, not what the howls of derision did. Compare

3} My great-great-great grandfather was killled by Rebels in the Civil War.

4 } The Rebels killed my gggg in the Civil War.

Isn't 3 better? The fate of my ancestor is more significant than the agency of the Rebels. The anti-passive fundamentalists do not seem to realize that the passive can actually be preferable in cases like this. Of course, if there are more than three or four passive verbs per paragraph, or several in a row, your prose might acquire a leaden, sluggish feel, but that is another question entirely.

8 comentarios:

Mark Scroggins dijo...

Hmmmm. I can't see I've met any of the anti-passive fundies you cite; almost everybody I've read who writes on the passive voice concedes that it's perfectly appropriate sometimes. Problem with passive voice, as I encounter it in student (& esp. bureaucratic writing) is not merely the leaden pace it imposes on the paragraph, but the way it disperses agency. Too often writers of the passive voice are trying to displace agency from the sentence ("We admit that mistakes were made") or simply haven't thought thru the question of who's doing what.

Jonathan dijo...

It's a bit of a straw-man, I admit. But I've found a creative writing teacher on the web that doesn't let his students use adverbs. There seems to be a tendency to let certain precepts harden into fake "rules."

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

I think Dr. Nokes nails the reasoning (I'm not saying it is right) behind anti-passive fundamentalism: "those who do not teach freshman composition are forbidden to say anything about style, ever."

APF can probably be traced back to a simple experiment: what kinds of writing to freshman produce when they are forbidden to use the passive voice ever vs. when they are allowed to? The empirical answer to this question, I'm guessing, is that they write much better when the passive is not an option.

Once they've learned whatever they can by this means (i.e., as freshman), they can go on to learn how to use the passive effectively. The same probably goes for bureaucrats.

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

I think there is a difference between rules about adverbs for students and fake "rules". If you can get someone to follow a rule for a semester, you don't mind if they break it later in life when they need to.

Gary dijo...

I actually think 2) is better than 1), but would change my mind given a different cliche, or non cliche:

1) His first book of poetry was greeted by pink and blue aliens shaped like hard-boiled eggs dumped into a blender.

reads better than

2) Pink and blue aliens shaped like hard-boiled eggs dumped into a blender greeted his first book.

But, yes, placement does emphasize, and it's good to consider that, as you do in The Rebels example.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, if we are to be ruled in stylistic matters by those who teach Freshman composition...

Maybe we should forbid Freshman from using the letter e. Compare what they write without that letter to what they write with it.

Tom dijo...

Really? Rebels killed yr gggg? Rebels tried to kill my gggg. He survived. He was mustered around St. Louis, too. Survived many big battles in the west.

Tom King

Jonathan dijo...

No. It was just a sentence I made up. Sorry to disappoint.