Active versus Passive

                  A clue about what to write … was not available to me
                                                            By Jeff Salter

            Right off the bat, you’ll notice that my subtitle is a convoluted ‘passive’ version of “I didn’t have a clue what to write about.” 
            It’s also a statement of fact:  I’ve never completely understood the entire ‘active-passive’ deliberation, despite years of grammar classes.  But it’s a timely discussion, because my beta reader points out frequent examples of sentences I’ve bogged-down in passive construction … when ‘active’ would be significantly better.

 Poor Elmo
1. His face muddy and bloody, Elmo found himself in the far ditch after being struck by the truck which had been the last vehicle through that busy intersection.
            This phrasing certainly does NOT give much ‘action’ to a scene which was obviously filled with movement and incident.
2. The heavy truck ran the red light and slammed into Elmo with enough force to propel him into the ditch across the curving road. 
            Version No. 2 is ‘active’, but from the standpoint of the truck (not Elmo). 
3. Elmo flew completely across the narrow road after the gravel truck collided violently and then sped around the curve without stopping.
            While No. 3 places the ‘active’ spotlight on Elmo and adds other details, it omits mention of the intersection … which probably does not matter.  Because we know the truck sped away, there’s also a hint that the collision MAY have been intentional.  If this were a murder mystery, it probably was on purpose.  But in a different genre, maybe the driver didn’t even see Elmo.

 Is Romance Active or Passive?
            Many will agree that if the romance is alive, it is probably ‘active’ … and should be related that way.  Consider these iterations of a kiss:
4. If Elsa had not already waited for three long weeks to feel what his kisses were like, she might have been surprised when Swen burst in the room, swept her into his arms, and covered her lips with his own.
            This awkward construction has TWO subjects:  Elsa and Swen … but the whole scene feels weighed down.  It focuses so much on Elsa’s wait and her readiness for the kiss … that one of the key actions – Swen bursts in and grabs her – is almost lost in the sentence.
5. Finally, after three long weeks, Swen embraced Elsa and urgently kissed her.
            This version focuses on Swen’s embrace and kiss — Elsa’s readiness is only implied.  Depending on whose POV is running, this may be viable construction.  It’s straightforward and ‘active’, but not very ‘romantic’ … probably too economical.  One detail we lose is Swen’s burst into the room.  Is that important to the scene?  Depends on what room she’s in.  Was she imprisoned?  Hiding?  Sleeping?  Bathing?
6. Scarcely able to breathe in his strong and urgent embrace, Elsa searched Swen’s fiery eyes before she merged her lips to his … and knew immediately that it was worth the three weeks of patient pursuit.
            This version shifts the focus back to Elsa.  The first phrase is somewhat passive but the remainder is active.  We’re (again) missing the burst-into-the-room element, but we know it was sudden nonetheless.  Plus, we have a new detail:  the pursuit.  Who pursued whom for three weeks?  From the POV, it’s implied that Elsa has been pursuing Swen … but maybe he pursued her as well.  Or, perhaps he chased her for a while and then she turned the tables.  In any case — though it seems Swen initiated the embrace leading (finally) to this kiss, it’s Elsa who makes the culminating move.

 Economical Language
            Sometimes society’s vernacular creates its own economical language … and it’s often distinctly ‘active’ in phrasing.  Consider these two examples:
7. Whazzup?
            Obviously, this interrogatory could be phrased passively:  “What’s been occupying your time and attention lately … even up to this very minute?”  But that’s rather formal, isn’t it?
8. Git ‘er done!
            I realize some people have attached negative and sexist overtones to this imperative expression, but I believe it applies more broadly to the accomplishment of varied activities … whether that be drinking a beer, consuming a meal, completing a task, or diving into a complicated project.
            Its passively phrased version might be:  “Before any more time elapses, why don’t you – [or we] – initiate the activity which will be required for completion [of whatever is at hand]?”  I think you’ll agree that construction drains much of its immediacy.

 Consulting an Expert
            I confess:  in order to wrap my brain around today’s topic, I did consult an expert – the ‘grammar girl’ (Mignon Fogarty) – though the examples, above, are my own.  Here’s her link:  http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/active-voice-versus-passive-voice.aspx

 What Are YOU Writing?
            This exercise is incomplete, of course, and I’m not a licensed grammarian … but tell us if you’ve discovered a latent tendency toward passive construction in your own writing.
            Or, to phrase it (passively):  “Has it been impressed upon you that some of your sentences could be instilled with more of the ‘active’ sense … if only your passive phrasing were less abundantly featured?”

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About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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26 Responses to Active versus Passive

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I ‘actively’ work at making my sentences, well, active. What I mean is, I’m conscience of how each sentence is worded and how each sentence flows into the next. Unfortunately for me, since I write historical romance, I sometimes over write.
    Great (and cute) post, Jeff.

    Jenn!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Jenn. Gosh, you’re here EARLY this week.
      I need to train my eye & ear — as you evidently have — to be conscious of the sentence construction. I’m afraid my eyes search for typos & my brain scans the text to establish whether the territory is covered.
      Until somebody points out the passive construction, I’m often blissfully unaware.

      Like

  2. crbwrites says:

    Funny! I’m active most of the time, but sometimes too frugal. Writing is a balancing act.

    Like

  3. Micki Gibson says:

    You do realize how paranoid I am about my comment, right? OMG did I just write something passively? Is passively even a word? I almost feel like I’m back in Mrs. Young’s ninth grade class going through that workbook. “Circle the active sentence. A. The dog was hit by the ball thrown by Jesse. B. Jesse threw the ball and hit the dog.” All I’ve got to say is that someone needs to keep balls away from Jesse.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      LOL, Micki.
      I started to mention (K-12) grammar classes in my column, but then I would have had to add that I also took grammar in College! Yep, as an English Major, we took an advanced grammar class … which I hated. We studied THEORY … if you can wrap your head around that. One of our first assignments was to read the INTRODUCTION to the Webster’s dictionary. Every tried to wade through those 15 pages? YUCK.

      Like

  4. LOVE it. That last sentence sounds amazingly lawyerly which we all know can be very passive/aggressive! LOL!

    Like

  5. I try not to “write passive” but there are times I break that “rule,” just like I do most of those darn “rules,” LOL. Last night when I read over my draft I found this:
    “The room was bathed in afternoon sunlight, *rest of the sentence*”
    and I changed it to
    “Afternoon sunlight bathed the room in an earthy glow, *rest of the sentence*”
    So, yeah, *raises hand.* LOL.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Well, that’s a good illustration. I like the second version better, but I don’t have any problem with the first. My brain must be wired to equally appreciate the less active ‘voice’ in description.
      You know, I just thought of something: I’ve spent nearly 50 years writing poetry. Lots of poetry is NOT active voice. Much of the imagery is passive. Perhaps that’s why much of it feels natural to me.

      Like

  6. There are times when I have gone back over what I have written and realized that it was in a passive voice and so I changed it, however, I have found that it changes the piece, the very nature of the story. Many of the stories have been memoirs with quotes from the people involved. Changing it changes the tone.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Very good point, Tonette. Sometimes, in live, things happen TO us … rather than we — or our characters — always being the actor.
      In sports terms: sometimes you’re on offense … and sometimes defense. Two parts of the same game.

      Like

  7. Laurie Ryan says:

    I know I have to do an editing pass just to “activate” my passive sentences. Sigh. I don’t know if writing active will ever become instinctual. Thank goodness for editing phases. Ugh! Did I really just say that?

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Yes, you did, Laurie. LOL.
      No matter if I’m in an editing phase or not … I still don’t think it comes naturally to me.
      But my brother (& beta reader) surely catches them!

      Like

  8. Things that make you go hmmmmmm. I loved your article this week and it is making me think…..I know that’s dangerous, but I gotta give it a try.
    Because I cut my teeth on early romance writers like Barbara Cartland and Kathleen Woodiwiss, I will sometimes slip into a more formal-passive mode of writing. Since I write thrillers, that’s a big NO NO!
    All that being said, I think, as with anything else, it should be taken in moderation. Know the rules, recognize their appearance in your writing and then KNOW WHEN TO BREAK THEM. (Sorry for the shouting) I truly believe that with some stories, there are times when a “passive” voice fits the bill better than being active. The trick, and the true talent, is to be able to discern when that time is here!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Absolutey, Stacey — the key is to know where and when … and why.
      [I don’t mind you shouting — LOL]
      The ms. I just finished (# 7) is romantic suspense … my first effort in that category. The scenes my brother was helping me tighten were the climactic action sequences. He was absolutely correct that most of those constructions should be active and brisk.

      Like

  9. Tonya Kappes says:

    I love grammar girls and their news letters! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Glad you made it in, Tonya. You must’ve been busy milking the cows this morning. Usually yours is my very first comment on Thursdays.
      Yeah, the grammar girls present things very concisely. I stumbled onto their site.

      Like

  10. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Passive vs active voice isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be. One of the tricks I use is slipping into first person POV when checking a passage. Helps with creating immediacy. A clue for me is when I try using too many words to describe an action or reaction. It means I have too many buffers between the reader and whats going on. Put me on the spot, let me feel it, not watching from behind the rock or across the room.

    Sia McKye’s Thoughts…OVER COFFEE

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      “not watching from behind the rock or across the room”

      I’ll try to remember that image, Sia. It’s a very good point.
      Immediacy and being on the spot. yes!
      Thanks for sharing.

      Like

  11. Lisa Kessler says:

    Great blog Jeff! 🙂

    Great examples too…

    Lisa

    Like

  12. Lois Grant says:

    As I am not a creative writer I don’t think that I have ever worried about whether or not a sentence I have written is passive or active. What I do worry about is ending sentences with prepositions..

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      LOL, Sug. Yeah, I sometimes dangle participles too.
      Occasionally, it’s on purpose. When I’m writing dialog, I try to ‘sound’ like normal folks speak. And most of us do not TALK with the inverted construction often required to move the preposition from the end. It looks and sounds stilted.

      Like

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