Thursday, November 03, 2005

The passive voice

is celebrated in an Open Letter.

Writing my second novel and revising it in a series of subsequent drafts (and the month of November is going to see another major rewrite), I actually came to love the passive voice. It had been so thoroughly drummed out of me in my younger years that I could hardly draft a sentence without immediately rewriting with an active verb. And this is all very well, as a general rule. But it can be taken too far.

Working for Let's Go Travel in the early 90s, for instance, I learned to love and loathe in equal measure the active-verb thing: in travel guides, coffee-shops stand on corners and travel lodges perch on hillsides and ... by the time you've written pages and pages of this, you are racking your brains for the most absurd verbs you can get away with (can a bar "lounge" at the intersection of street X and street Y? can a museum "lurk" behind a row of cottages?), and you're simultaneously disgusted by and addicted to the active-verb habit.

The trouble is that sentences rewritten in this way draw attention to themselves. It turns out that especially when you're writing in the third person, it's often more sensible to work in a lower-profile way and use the passive verbs when you need them.

(Link via Nico, who also recommends the open letter on Starbucks Italian.)


  1. Mare drummed the passive voice out of me, and now I do it to everyone else. Although I'm getting back in the bad (?) habit of using it...


  2. I think it must be used judiciously, like some very pungent spice. (Though food is spoiled for me if it includes dill in particular or nutmeg more generally if it's savory, like the bad kind of creamed spinach.) It's like the "show not tell" rule in fiction-writing; it's a useful rule of thumb, particularly when you're learning how to do stuff, but it will only take you so far and after that all rules must be abandoned.