Passive writing and passive voice

From Rick:

Last time I answered a question about whether the word “had” fell on the list of words we should avoid overusing in our writing, words like: really, just, actually, very, in fact, looked, seemed, looked like, there (as in “there is/was).

I mentioned that I have one list of over a hundred of these so-called “weed words” that one should watch for being overused. While some of these words are worse than others (like “just” and “very” and “looked”) any of them can become annoying rather quickly when overused. We have to be careful we don’t use them so much that they begin to stand out for the reader.

Of all the words on that list, “had” is NOT among them, and I told you the reason for that. “Had” is a legitimate part of the past perfect verb tense, which is used to denote something that happened farther back in the past. Here’s one example:

>>> I remember that night we came home from the movie and someone had painted obscene words all over our garage door.

If we remove the past perfect from this sentence, the meaning changes.

>>> I remember that night we came home from the movie and someone painted obscene words all over our garage door.

Now, instead of saying that the painted words were already on the garage door when we came home, the sentence says that the door was possibly painted sometime after we came home, which is not the same thing.

The past perfect usage is not always this clear cut. How about this example:

>>> When he got to the store, he realized he forgot his wallet.

While that may seem okay and we might speak that way, the verb tense of “forgot” is wrong.

>>> When he got to the store, he realized he had forgotten his wallet.

Why is the second version more correct? It has to do with the timing of events. In the first version, all the events are showing as happening at the same time: got to the store, realized, forgot his wallet. However, forgetting the wallet happened before he got to the store and realized he did not have his wallet.

However, we can write the sentence differently to make the past perfect unnecessary:

>>> When he got to the store, he realized he did not have his wallet.

But if we write it as in the example below, we need the past perfect because not putting the wallet in his pocket happened before he drove to the store.

>>> When he got to the store, he realized he had not put his wallet in his pocket.

The reason I wanted to drive those examples home was to show you, briefly, that while we can sometimes avoid using the past perfect by rewording the sentence, the use of “had” as part of the past perfect is not optional.

To drive this home: You cannot simply remove “had” from your writing and always keep the same meaning. Here’s one example where you could possibly cut the past perfect (as in the second version):

—She had always hated football jocks. Then she met Ryan.
—She always hated football jocks. Then she met Ryan.

The second version is less precise. The first version tells us she held a particular attitude in the past, but that attitude changed at the point when she met Ryan. Language gives us the ability to express the timing of events, which is what verb tenses do. “Tense” as it applies to verbs derives from the Latin word meaning “time.”

Here’s the link to the discussion thread article I cited last time. I’ll be quoting from it again here:

OVERUSE OF “HAD”?

I particularly liked one comment about why it’s important to know grammar: “Without the had it would not be past perfect. Verb aspects are not ‘advanced writing’ or anything. While it is good to practice editing, you should not give advice until you know the rules of grammar—I mean, you can, but you will make yourself look bad… This stuff is pretty basic.”

Writers who believe that they can ignore grammar and punctuation do so at their own peril. You should not rely on an editor (assuming you use one) to catch and fix everything.

Now let’s deal with the question of whether the use of “had” constitutes passive writing. Last time I said I was going to discuss the difference between passive writing and passive voice. Many writers confuse the two terms. As writers, we’re told to avoid passive writing, but it’s not always made clear what this means, and I find that even some of the advice articles get it wrong because some of the examples given to illustrate passive writing are passive voice, and passive writing goes beyond that.

What’s the difference?

“Passive voice” is a grammatical term that refers to the subject of the sentence being acted upon (passive voice) versus doing the acting (active voice). Some examples will make this clear:

ACTIVE VOICE:

—Lightning struck the house.
—A masked man robbed the bank.
—The police had already cordoned off the accident site by the time the ambulance arrived.

PASSIVE VOICE:

—The house was struck by lightning.
—The bank was robbed by a masked man.
—The accident site had already been cordoned off by police by the time the ambulance arrived.

Do you see the difference? In the active voice, the subject of the sentences (lightning, masked man, police) are the ones performing the action indicated by the verb. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is what’s being ACTED UPON. Simply put, the sentences are being inverted by reversing position of the subject and object and changing the verb into a passive voice. The sentences still mean the same thing, but they’re being expressed differently.

You might have noted that the third example uses the past perfect tense so you can see that past perfect is not inherently passive, as some advocates of excising “had” from writing have claimed.

One respondent in the discussion thread article asked this question:

“Is it correct to say that overusing ‘had’ with the past perfect tense is ‘passive writing?’ I read one article that suggested that, but only one.”

And another person responded to that with:

”I wouldn’t call that correct at all. It’s not in the passive mood; it doesn’t indicate a character acting in a passive manner; there’s nothing “passive” about it in any technical sense that I can see. It’s just the pluperfect. (I walk to school. I walked to school yesterday. I had walked to school the day it caught on fire.) I’m not even sure how you would express the pluperfect in English without using ‘had.’”

“Passive writing” has nothing to do with grammar. Certainly it can mean that the writer is using passive voice too much, but passive writing more precisely refers to writing that is either stagnant or is less engaging to the reader. This can result from too much telling, too much backstory or information that doesn’t advance the story, or writing with less active verbs, often too much reliance on “to be” forms (is/was/been) and has nothing to do with the use of the past perfect tense.

The passive voice has its place. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist in the language. If nothing else, it allows the writer to vary sentences. And people often speak in the passive voice. For example, in conversation we’re just as likely to say “A tree in my backyard was struck by lightning” as we are to say “Lightning struck a tree in my backyard.” The only difference might be how the rest of the conversation went.

“I once saw lightning strike a tree,” John said. “The tree exploded rather spectacularly.” (ACTIVE VOICE)

“A tree in my backyard was struck by lightning last year,” Mark said. “Just left a char mark on it.” (PASSIVE VOICE)

No one is going to bash you for writing occasional sentences in the passive voice, and sometimes they work better in a given situation.

But passive writing is more than just using passive voice, although the passive voice often shows up in passive writing. While various forms of the verb “to be” often show up in passive writing, it’s not the only verb that leads to passive or static writing. A number of verbs are considered weak verbs (become, feel, seem) and creep into writing, and one needs to watch for their possible overuse.

The use of “there is/are/was/were” generally leaves to weaker and passive sentences:

—When she entered the room, there were more people than she expected. (WEAK)

—When she entered the room, it was filled with more people than she expected. (NOT REALLY AN IMPROVEMENT; ELIMINATES THE “THERE” BUT NOW IT’S PASSIVE VOICE “WAS FILLED”)

—When she entered the room, she saw more people than she had expected. (BETTER AND ADDS THE MORE APPROPRIATE PAST PERFECT)

—She entered the room. She hadn’t expected to see that many people. (MORE ACTIVE WRITING OVERALL. THE “WHEN SHE ENTERED” IN THE PREVIOUS SENTENCES IS LESS STRONG THAN SAYING IT THIS WAY. YOU DON’T NEED THE “WHEN” CLAUSE. THIS VERSION PUTS THE READER MORE FIRMLY IN HER HEAD.)

The use of active verbs takes the passivity out of writing. Some strong proponents of active writing would exorcise most or all occurrences of what they consider the evil “to be” verb forms. As with anything, one can go overboard and end up with sentences that stand out because they feel forced in the same way that purple prose stands out. I’ve seen some excellent stories ruined by this approach.

Below I present two versions of the same passage. The first overuses “was” and results in a more distant feel to the writing. The second makes some minor changes and improvements to sharpen the writing without going too far.

* * *

[VERSION 1]

Adrian was kneeling on the pavement of the Detroit RiverWalk. He was next to the railing and bars that separated him from the water and was holding the razor blade over his left wrist. Above him one of the overhead streetlights was reflecting off the blade. He was cold because all he was wearing was his favorite T-shirt that said “You’ve Mistaken Me For Someone Who Gives A Shit.”

The empty bottle of cheap wine was standing nearby. One of his sometime friends thought maybe he deserved a present today because it was his seventeenth birthday and all. The wine wasn’t bad and it was enough to give him a light buzz and relax him. Of course, the wine was probably stolen, like most of the things he got from anyone who gave a shit about him.

He was surprised he was cold. He was expecting the wine to warm him up more than it did. It was cheap wine, and he wasn’t buzzed enough. Maybe all those bets he’d won for being good at holding his liquor had made him immune.

Most of his friends were no better off than he was. No, that wasn’t completely true. Some of them had parents that were still alive, for whatever that was worth, even if they were abusive or drunks—or both.

He stared down at the razor blade that was less than an inch above his wrist. “Is this a coward’s way out?”

[VERSION 2]

Adrian knelt on the pavement of the Detroit RiverWalk, next to the railing and bars that separated him from the water, and poised the razor blade over his left wrist. Above him one of the overhead streetlights reflected off the blade. He shivered. Tonight was a little cool for his favorite “You’ve Mistaken Me For Someone Who Gives A Shit” T-shirt.

The empty bottle of cheap wine stood nearby. One of his sometime friends had thought maybe he deserved a present today, it being his seventeenth birthday and all. He’d tasted better, but it had given him a light buzz and relaxed him. Of course, his friend had probably stolen the wine, like most of the things he got from anyone who gave a shit about him.

He shivered again. He’d expected the wine to warm him up more than it had. Real cheap wine. Not enough of a buzz. Maybe all those bets he’d won for being good at holding his liquor had made him immune.

Most of his friends were no better off than him. No, that wasn’t completely true. Some of them had parents still alive, for whatever that was worth, even if they were abusive or drunks—or both.

He stared down at the razor blade less than an inch above his wrist. “Is this a coward’s way out?”

* * *

We haven’t eliminated all the “was” uses in the second version. The second-to-last paragraph contains five was/were uses, which might seem excessive in only two sentences. But let’s consider the narrative voice is Adrian’s. If we recast those sentences to eliminate “was/were,” we’ll end up with something that’s totally out of place and screams “AUTHOR INTRUSION!” and pulls us right out of Adrian’s head because this is almost internal monologue.

But I did eliminate a bunch of “was/were” forms. One thing you might notice—given the discussion of the past perfect tense earlier—that there are quite a few “hads” in here. Because this passage is written in narrative past tense (meaning that the past tense reflects events occurring in the present for the character), the past perfect is needed whenever Adrian is reflecting on events that happened before the present moment.

If we sought to remove most of the “hads” from this passage, we would not be showing the proper time sequence of events in it. We could argue that at least two of those sentences could be written without the past perfect and we could get away with it here only because these are basically thoughts in his head:

One of his sometime friends thought maybe he deserved a present today (instead of “had thought”)

Of course, his friend probably stole the wine (instead of “had stolen”)

These are cases where the past perfect could be considered optional, and it’s not wrong either way. It depends on how the writer wants it to come across because a slight difference exists between them.

I think I’ll end there. This is certainly a subject that a lot more could be said about, but my main purpose was to make you aware of the terms “passive voice” and “passive writing” and what each means. Don’t be afraid to use the passive voice in sentences when it’s called for or when the sentence simply reads better that way.

Above all, don’t obsess over eliminating every weak verb in your writing because if you do, I can almost promise that you’ll make things worse, in addition to driving yourself crazy.

–Rick

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