November 01, 2006

How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing

In one of the NaNoWriMo forums, Elrina asks for help on "How to Avoid Passive Tense?":

Okay, I admit it. I am a shameless user of passive tense. I've been involved with a power-struggle with one of my writing profs on campus (creative nonfiction class) about the tense, and I think it's finally time for me to concede. However, she seems to think that I should just inherently know other ways to word things. And, of course, there's the issue that I don't think I quite understand passive tense, because the things she's been marking as "wrong," are not passive tense as I was taught. I guess I tend to say things like "I was doing this," "there were these things," etc.

A specific sentence I've been playing with recently:

"Thomas was relieved when the car finally pulled onto the highway."

So, any thoughts would be awesome.

Well, Elrina, here are a few thoughts.

First, there's nothing wrong with "Thomas was relieved when the car finally pulled onto the highway". At least, there's no grammatical or stylistic reason for you to reword it.

Second, that sentence is probably not really an example of the passive voice, unless you mean that Thomas was relieved in the sense that his replacement arrived for duty. If you mean that Thomas was relieved in the sense that he felt a lessening of anxiety, then the construction is an example of what the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls an "adjectival passive". CGEL observes that "adjectival passives are passive only in a derivative sense". (More on this in a later post, or go read pp. 1436-1440 of CGEL if you're curious and impatient. A clue: you can say "Thomas was very relieved when the car finally pulled onto the highway", but not "Thomas was very run over when the car finally pulled onto the highway".)

Third, your other two examples -- "I was doing this" and "there were these things" -- are definitely not passives in any sense at all. If your writing prof is really telling you that things like this are wrong because they're in the passive voice, then she's certainly ignorant and probably incompetent.

Fourth, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with using the passive voice. All the best writers do it, some of the time. See the list of posts at the bottom of the page for some examples -- if you're eager, go here to find some examples of passives in the writing of E.B. White, who was the White in Strunk & White, or here, to examine the passive practices of professor Strunk himself..

Fifth, and least important, the traditional terminology is "passive voice", not "passive tense". The term tense deals with ways of expressing concepts of time, like present and past; the term voice deals with ways of arranging the arguments of a verb, as in "The ninja explained the concept of passive to the writing teacher" (which is an example of active voice), vs. "The concept of passive was explained to the writing teacher by the ninja" (which is an example of passive voice).

There's also aspect, which deals with ways of expressing action (or being) in respect of its inception, duration, or completion. Putting voice, tense and aspect together, we can create a little paradigm of some variations on one of your examples.

I do this. [active voice, present tense]
I am doing this. [active voice, present tense, progressive aspect]
I did this. [active voice, past tense]
I was doing this. [active voice, past tense, progressive aspect]
This is done (by me). [passive voice, present tense]
This is being done (by me). [passive voice, present tense, progressive aspect]
This was done (by me). [passive voice, past tense]
This was being done (by me). [passive voice, past tense, progressive aspect]

So your example, the one in bold, was in the active voice.

Speaking of ninjas and writing teachers, the ninja is this cartoon by Nic Bommarito seems to know her grammar:

Of course, we here at Language Log don't recommend or even condone the murder of English professors, though we do feel that some of them ought to sit in on a linguistics course or two, or maybe read a good student grammar. And if you want to be able to stand up to them, Elrina, you might invest in such a grammar yourself, and perhaps in a good usage guide while you're at it. What's in those books might even help your writing, but in any case it'll help you keep your writing teachers from wasting your time.

Following Elrina's question, the NaNoWriMo forum has three pages of interesting answers. These make it clear that most people believe that "passive" has something to do with whether or not the subject is an agent, and perhaps also something to do with overall dynamism, vividness or concreteness. For example, "Corvus" defends the use of passive in this way:

While I do not advocate a sudden embracing of the passive voice, I do advocate a less strident opposition to it. It's not always the wrong voice. For example:

"The horrific thought occured to me that I was on the wrong train, headed for Paris instead of Berlin."

I challenge the reader to reconstruct this idea in active voice and maintain the flavor.

That challenge is hard to meet, since the sentence is already in the active voice. The issue for Corvus seems to be that the subject of the main clause is "thought" rather than "I".

In another comment, "Cpt. Nemo" suggests switching Elrina's problem sentence from

Thomas was relieved when the car finally pulled onto the highway.

to one of

Thomas felt relieved when the car finally pulled onto the highway.
Thomas gave a sigh of relief when the car finally pulled onto the highway.

and "paintbyletters" responds that

The third is definitely the most active, because Thomas is acting. I, as the reader, sigh in relief right along with him. OTOH, to tell me that Thomas felt relief or was relieved distances me from Thomas. I don't care quite as much, and overuse of passive verbs will have a cumulative effect on your reader's interest in your characters.

I don't care at all, myself. I've given up, for the moment, on wishing that people would use grammatical terminology in a coherent way, and instead, I'm asking myself whether any of this writing advice makes any sense. Specifically, I wonder whether there's any evidence that a narrative is better if it has a higher proportion of verbs that denote actions, whose subjects are human agents.

Let's do a quick sanity check, by looking at the openings of a few successful novels, pulled (literally) off the shelf at random. Exercise for the reader: what proportion of the clauses have a verb denoting an action, with an agentive subject? Would these novels have been better if that proportion were higher?

It was August, and it shouldn't have been raining. Perhaps rain was too strong a word for the drizzle that blurred the landscape and kept my windshield wipers going. I was driving south, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. [Ross Macdonald, The Far Side of the Dollar]

The Channel Club lay on a shelf of rock overlooking the sea, toward the southern end of the beach called Malibu. Above its long brown buildings, terraced gardens climbed like a richly carpeted stairway to the highway. The grounds were surrounded by a high wire fence topped with three barbed strands and masked with oleanders. [Ross Macdonald, The Barbarous Coast]

The law offices of Wellesley and Sable were over a savings bank on the main street of Santa Teresa. Their private elevator lifted you from a bare little lobby into an atmosphere of elegant simplicity. It created the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen. [Ross Macdonald, The Galton Case]

Moran's first impression of Nolen Tyner: He looked like a high risk, the kind of guy who falls asleep smoking in bed. No luggage except for a six-pack of beer on the counter and the Miami Herald folded under his arm. [Elmore Leonard, Cat Chaser]

A friend of Ryan's said to him one time, "Yeah, but at least you don't have to take any shit from anybody."
Ryan said to his friend, "I don't know, the way things've been going, maybe it's about time I started taking some." [Elmore Leonard, Unknown Man #89]

The marriage wasn't going well and I decided to leave my husband. I went to the bank to get cash for the trip. This was on a Wednesday, a rainy afternoon in March. The streets were nearly empty and the bank had just a few customers, none of them familiar to me. [Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions]

He -- for there could be no doubt about his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it -- was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair of a cocoanut. [Virginia Woolf, Orlando]

I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive. [Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness]

Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. If the first reports are to be believed, Joseph Ricardo died as he had lived. [P.D James, The Children of Men]

My quick count says that out of 39 tensed verbs, 7 (or about 18%) denote actions and have an agentive subject. Two of the seven are "said" -- hardly the most dynamic action around -- and if we discount those, we're down to 13%.

Do you see any places where the text would be improved by substituting some active-voice transitive verbs denoting actions, with human agentive subjects? I don't. The next time someone tells you to "avoid passive", -- apparently meaning that you should use verbs denoting actions with human agents as subjects -- why not ask them to define their terms, and to back up their advice with some evidence?

Other LL posts on passive voice:

"Passive voice and bias in Reuters headlines about Israelis and Palestinians" (12/17/2003)
"The passivator" (4/6/2004)
"Two out of three on passives" (5/8/2004)
"Hey folks, 'passive voice' != 'vague about agency'" (5/31/2004)
"Tossing technical terms around" (8/5/2005)
"Voice confused with tense at the Economist" (3/13/2006)
"Diagnosing soup label syntax" (6/29/2006)
"Passive aggression" (7/18/2006)
"How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why?" (7/22/2006)
"The ancient roots of passive avoidance" (7/23/2006)
"When men were men, and verbs were passive" (8/4/2006)
"The direct and vigorous hyptic voice" (8/5/2006)
"Free verbs" (8/5/2006)
"Avoiding passive for dummies" (9/25/2006)
"School shootings and passive constructions" (10/10/2006)
"The passive in law" (10/16/2006)
"If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all" (10/31/2006)

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 1, 2006 07:05 AM