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.
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.
Sometimes society’s vernacular creates its own economical language … and it’s often distinctly ‘active’ in phrasing. Consider these two examples:
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?”