Archive | February, 2011

I Mean, If You Want This Post To Be About Passive Voice, I Guess That’s Fine

20 Feb

No holiday brings out the passive-aggressive nature in people like Valentine’s Day does.  A poor, nervous boy presents his date with a bouquet of tulips, and she takes them, silently, lips pursed in a tight smile.

“Do you like them?  Are they okay?”

The fake smile stays; the eyes grow wider, bordering on bulging.  “Sure. Wow. Yeah, no, they’re fine.”

“What’s wrong? I thought you liked tulips.”

“No, yeah. I do.  I mean, usually you get roses for Valentine’s Day, but these are fine.”

“Okay, good.  So you’re happy.”

“I mean, I’m not upset.  I didn’t say that.  It’s just, I know Rachel got roses.  And chocolate.”

“Aren’t you allergic to chocolate?”

“That’s DOGS, Peter. DOGS are allergic to chocolate.”

“But you don’t like chocolate, do you?”

“Well, not really.  I’m not saying I’m mad, I’m just saying you could have at least gotten me chocolate.”

“I’m going to go ahead and break up with you.”

[A clap of thunder, and it starts raining.  Peter yanks his hood up over his head and turns to walk away, as the opening notes of LeAnn Womack’s 2000 smash single “I Hope You Dance” begin to play.  Are those raindrops or teardrops dripping down Peter’s face?  Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.]

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is passive aggression.  The girl who won’t just openly say, “I’m sad that you didn’t get me roses,” but will instead, for the rest of the day, insist–without smiling–that things are fine, all while dropping backwards hints that maybe things are not fine.  It’s a sneaky, manipulative, backwards way of communicating, and girls–I hate to admit–are VERY good at it.  It’s like we’re Bob Ross, and passive-aggressive communication is our pastel landscape.

Writing in the passive voice is not always as annoying, but it can be.  All sentences come in one of two voices: passive or active.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one performing the action.  “Bob Ross painted happy little trees” is an active sentence.  Bob Ross is the subject, and he is performing the action (“painting”).

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon–the action is happening to him/her/it.  “The happy little trees were painted by Bob Ross” is a passive sentence.  The “happy little trees” are the subject, and they are being acted upon (“were painted”) by something (“Bob Ross”).

Passive sentences always include a form of the verb “to be.”  These forms include am, is, was, were, are, or been.  To be clear–a sentence with one of those verbs is not necessarily passive.  The sentence “I am writing this article” uses the verb am, but it is still in active voice.  But if a sentence lacks one of those verbs, it isn’t passive.

Passive sentences also often–but not always–include the word “by.”  Since, in passive voice, the subject is often being acted upon by something, it makes sense.  The sentence “The happy little trees were painted by Bob Ross” includes both a form of the to be verb (were) and a by phrase (by Bob Ross).

Why does any of this matter?  Because there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to writing in active or passive voice, and unless you know what you’re looking for, you won’t be able to use that information to edit your own writing.

As a rule, the majority of all writing should be in active voice.  Sentence after sentence written in passive voice can be tiring and confusing.  Subjects get lost, meanings are muddled, and overall, passive writing becomes quite frustrating to read.  Writing in passive voice is not a grammatical error, but over or unnecessary use of it is a stylistic mistake.

Writers often use the passive voice as an “easy way out” in their writing.  A student writing a paper about feminism may claim that “Women are not given the same rights in the workplace.”  But who isn’t giving the women these same rights?  Their bosses?  Their co-workers?  Customers?  Men?  Themselves?  That sentence could mean a thousand different things, but as it is, the sentence is weak, and–as far as I’m concerned–nonsense, unless the writer tells me who is not giving these women their rights.  It’s easy to rely on the passive voice when a writer wants to make a claim he knows he has no real support for.  So don’t do it: go find some support for your argument, and then tell the reader exactly who is doing what to whom.

There are times, however, when using the passive voice can work to a writer’s advantage.  Some examples include:

1. When the subject of the sentence is unknown.

If you’re a newspaper reporter (ha! I of course mean a “news blogger.” The printed word is obsolete.) writing a story about how a municipal building was graffitied the night before, you may not know how did the tagging.  It would be unprofessional guesswork to make up a subject (“Cincinnati’s municipal building was graffitied last night by a group of disgruntled nuns.”), and so, in this case, it’s a better choice to use the passive.  Saying “Cincinnati’s municipal building was graffitied last night” keeps the attention on what is known and important, even though the subject is yet unknown.

2. When the object is more important/interesting than the subject.

“Our baby girl was delivered at 4:20PM yesterday evening.”

This sentence puts the focus on the important/interesting part of the sentence: the baby girl.  This is preferable over, “Some Doctor–Doctor Jacobs maybe?–delivered our daughter at 4:20PM.”  Unless friends and family know Doctor Jacobs, they’re likely more interested in the baby than in the name of the doctor.

“72,000 carcinogens have been found in RC-Cola’s secret recipe.”

In this example, the striking part of the sentence is the number of carcinogens found in RC-Cola.  By making the sentence passive, the writer puts all of the emphasis on the more important part of the sentence.  It would not be incorrect to say something like, “Researchers have found 72,000 carcinogens in RC-Cola’s secret recipe,” but stylistically, the passive voice gets more to the point.

Also, I should point out that I made that fact up.  As far as I’m aware, RC-Cola has no carcinogens in its recipe.  But there has GOT to be a reason that it tastes so bad!

Until next time, keep your writing in the active voice unless an unknown or unimportant subject calls for the passive.  And let’s not forget about Peter from our introduction, who is, as we speak, still walking away in the rain, thinking about his life, about Valentine’s Day, about passive-aggression, and about how, when he gets home, he’s going to learn how to play “Good Riddance” on his guitar.

That’ll get her back, Pete.

That’ll get her back.

In the Meantime …

16 Feb

Due to an extended Valentine’s Day-induced sugar coma, and a desire to be extra-prepared for next week’s post, Thesaurus Rex is a bit behind for the week.

In the meantime, as a follow-up to last week’s post, check out one of my favorite lists in the world.

And that’s saying a lot, because right in front of me, I have just written a list that says “Spaghettios, coffee, and then an even bigger can of Spaghettios.”

Like A Simile

8 Feb

When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a (terrible) poem about a boy I liked that ended with the line “I love you like a simile.”  I never gave the boy this poem, maybe because I realized that “I love you like a simile” didn’t actually mean anything.  Just like all of those meaningful glances he gave me in Biology apparently didn’t mean anything, either.  And all of those beautiful words he spoke to me … if you can’t assume that a boy loves you when he says, “Hey, you’re in my seat, will you move?” then what can you assume?!

The simile is a rhetorical device that–if used well–can make your writing bright and sharp, like a new knife (see what I did there?).  Most people know what a simile is (a comparison between two things using the words like or as), but few are confident enough with similes to use them well or effectively.

With the exception of some very specific Creative Writing assignments, similes aren’t an item you’re going to generally find on rubrics.  Devices like similes are rarely a requirement of collegiate level writing.  I never expect to see a rubric that says “Write a fifteen page paper explaining the logic behind the Microsoft model.  Make sure you use 1″ margins, cite all sources, and keep those similes coming!”  That’s not a real assignment, but here’s one simile for fun: “A Microsoft computer is like Communism: it should work, but for some reason, it just doesn’t.”

However, just because similes aren’t a general “requirement” of writing, it doesn’t mean that knowing how to use them won’t improve your writing.  It will.  Writers who never use effective similes are like American Idol without Simon Cowell: just really boring.

Like I said, the simile is a simple concept.  Take one thing and compare it to something else, using the words like or as as the hinge of the sentence.  But why do it?  Because it breathes life into words that may otherwise be dull.  Tell me that the ice broke and it was loud, and I’ll think, “Okay.  Those are all words I’ve heard before.  The ice cracked.”  But tell me that the sound of ice breaking was like knuckles cracking, and I can hear it.  There’s nothing wrong with saying that the ice cracked and that it was loud, but unless I’ve actually heard ice crack, I have to sort of imagine it for myself.  But by taking the crack of ice and tying it to the crack of knuckles (with the word like), all of the sudden, I’m in the scene, hearing the ice cracking, because it’s been compared to something I understand.

Too often, writers use cliched similes.  Sharp as a tack, quick as a fox, happy as a clam; tight as a drum, clean as a whistle, as easy as pie.

Boring.  Boring boring boring.  As boring as a flesh-colored TV playing C-SPAN floating in a dish of vanilla ice cream being eaten by a khaki-wearing Droopie Dog as he tells you about his kid’s nap schedule.  If you’re ever tempted to use one of these cliches, don’t.  There’s no leeway.  Don’t.  No–stop arguing–don’t.

A simile should bring something fresh and new to a sentence.  A cliche does the opposite of that.  Many of these were at one time interesting comparisons, but their status as cliches disqualifies them from ever being interesting again.

Writers also get tripped up, I think, because they think that all of their comparisons have to lofty and ethereal.  Her eyes don’t need to look like the sun (by the way, that would make her a yellow-eyed cat person), and his teeth don’t need to sparkle like diamonds in the moonlight (unless he’s Kanye West … except that in his case, his teeth would be literal diamonds sparkling in the moonlight of his ego).  Forget about all the similes you’ve heard or think you’ve heard, and think of commonplace events or things in your life that appeal to the senses.  Maybe her eyes don’t look like the sun … maybe they’re milky and brown like the milk in the bowl after you’ve finished all of your Cocoa-Puffs.  Sure, that’s a little weird, and there’s nothing particularly mystical about Cocoa-Puff milk, but the image I see when I read that is much stronger than the one I imagine when I hear that her eyes were like the sun.

Always bring your similes home to commonplace things.  Make comparisons no one has made before.  Tie images together that have never before been bound, and your writing will sparkle like a vampire’s skin in a Stephenie Meyer novel.

Speaking of which, let me say once more that if you write that the beautiful girl sparkled like the sun, then she either has yellow cat eyes that you cannot look into directly, or she is a vampire, and then either way, you’re only safe during an eclipse.

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