Thursday, February 5, 2009

Finding a Purpose for Passives

Most writers who listen to any writing advice at all, know to avoid passive voice. It’s an excellent piece of advice, because what most writing mentors mean when they say it is “strengthen your weak writing.” The writer who receives this advice doesn’t quite know what to do with it, though. They usually go on a hunt, brutally murdering all passive construction in their writing. However, what writers need to understand is there is a difference between the esoteric concept of passive voice (i.e. weak, mushy writing) and passive construction. Passive construction is a concrete grammatical process, which can be utilized to create focused, strong writing. I hope this blog entry will give writers a tool for working with passive construction in their writing.

The first thing I need to do is define passive construction. It is not simply using be verbs. The sentence I just wrote used a be verb as its main verb, but it was not passive construction. The hallmarks of true passive construction in English are threefold: (1) the direct object is “promoted” to the position of subject, (2) the verb takes on an auxiliary be verb, and (3) the main verb becomes intransitive (not requiring a direct object). The former subject may not be mentioned in the passive sentence at all. However, when it is, it does not become the direct object but usually becomes the noun in a prepositional phrase starting with by.

For example, look at the following active transitive sentence: Kalayna slew the dragon. The sentence has a subject, Kalayna, a transitive verb, slew, and the required direct object, the dragon. To passivize the sentence, we first promote the dragon to the position of subject. Now the sentence is about the dragon, not Kalayna. Second, the main verb takes on an auxiliary be verb, was. Third, the verb is transformed from a transitive into an intransitive, slain. We end up with The dragon was slain. I know you’re asking “but what about Kalayna?” If a writer wanted to show who did the slaying, she could say, The dragon was slain by Kalayna but acknowledgement of the former subject is not necessary in passive construction. The point of passive construction is that it focuses the reader’s attention on the receiver of the verb’s action, rather than on its cause. Writers can use this function to their advantage.

Strong writing does, in fact, use much more active construction than passive, and it is a good rule of thumb to slay passives. That said, I think passives in a first draft can serve a good purpose in strengthening our writing. Let’s say you found the sentence, The dragon was slain by Kalayna, in a manuscript. Your first reaction would probably be to replace it with the active construction, Kalayna slew the dragon. But think about the function of passive construction. It focuses attention on the receiver of the action. When you wrote that passive sentence, your mind focused on the dragon. Why? Before jumping in with the first active construction that comes to mind, a writer should ask herself two questions, (1) “what is this sentence doing?” and (2) “where should its emphasis lie?” Maybe you want to put Kalayna at the fore: Kalayna slew the dragon. Then again, you may want the reader to focus on the dragon: The dragon was slain or The dragon was slain by Kalayna. There is a third option, though. Kalayna may not be important to the scene and you do want the reader to think about the dragon, but you still want an engaged, active tone. Therefore you could use a completely different intransitive verb: The dragon died. That last option may never have come to mind if you had not thought about why you used passive construction in the first place.

1 comment:

haricot vert said...

this makes me want to delve deeper into my first drafts and not just cut without wondering why i chose to say what i did how i did. :)