It is raining… by zombies?

Have you heard of the “zombie test” for determining whether a sentence contains passive voice? It goes something like this: if you can add by zombies after the verb and have the sentence make grammatical sense, the verb is passive.

Y’see, there are people who will scream at you that every use of a “to be” verb is passive voice, and every time you use one, you’re a Bad Writer ™.

They’re wrong.

Take the (admittedly bland) sentence, It is raining. Can you add by zombies and have it make sense?

No, you cannot.

(No, not even you over there. Stop being deliberately dense.)

There are people who will scream at you that had is also passive. They’ll tell you the first sentence in this paragraph is passive… and this one, too.

This sentence is passive by zombies.

Nope. Doesn’t work.

Well, what about was, then? Surely it’s passive voice; a thousand or more high school English teachers and university creative writing professors can’t be wrong about something like that.

(That weird sound you just heard is the bell that rings when I hit my sarcasm quota for the week.)

Passive voice happens when the thing you’re talking about is receiving the action of the verb rather than performing the action itself.

Passive: The brains were eaten by zombies.

NOT passive: Zombies were eating the brains.

And here’s another thing you need to know about verbs: Just because a sentence doesn’t contain a super-duper, over-the-top exciting action verb doesn’t mean it’s passive, or even just a bad sentence. Sometimes it is best to say a character ran rather than to say she scampered or zipped or raced or whatever. (The previous sentence is not passive. You can see that now, right?) There seems to be a sort of general-verb version of “said” bookism, a horrible disease that makes (usually newbie) writers want to replace every instance of said with a super-duper, over-the-top speech word that probably isn’t even appropriate. “Brrrraaaaiiiinnnnssss,” the zombie chortled whilst scampering through the town. Don’t be that kind of writer.



About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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14 Responses to It is raining… by zombies?

  1. Sheron says:

    Amen, brother. I totally agree and have had the zombie rule quoted at me also until I feel like biting off heads.
    I met a newbie writer who wanted every verb to be unique and juicy. In her zeal, she often didn’t get the meaning right. Then there is John Scalzi’s “Red Shirts” where he uses only said. For me it got really irritating.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The zombie rule doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I very much wish MORE people were aware of it and knew how to apply it properly. That way, we’d see a lot fewer false accusations about passive voice.

    I’ve heard some people say “asked” MUST be used instead of “said” for questions in dialogue, as if the squiggly mark at the end weren’t enough to indicate that the character is asking something. (Never mind that it’s possible and even better sometimes to leave the tag off completely, so obviously “asked” isn’t necessary.) I’ve also heard that “said Angie” is incorrect because we wouldn’t write “said she.” It’s not grammatically incorrect, just awkward according to how English is usually written. *shakes head* There are a lot of nonsense “rules” out there.


  3. Quintessential Editor says:

    I love this concept. It’s the first I’ve heard of it too, which is strange because this is the kind of grammar tool I love. I mean come on, there are zombies…

    “Regarding said,” Corey coughed (just playing). It’s funny you mentioned this. One of the places I dump book collage designs I create is on Pinterest. Since what I’m sharing is writing oriented, I place them in a “Writer” category. Every time I go on there I see no less than five graphics with, “Said is Dead” emblazoned on top of them. Then they list 500-zillion alternatives to use instead of said. I wonder where this aversion to said came from?

    I sometimes wonder if it’s because so much of writing happens in creative commons now. Places where anyone can post “constructive” comments and if they stick around long enough they are branded an expert. It’s weird.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing this. I haven’t re-blogged (or pressed, or whatever it is we do) a post yet, but this one might be my first.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Have you ever noticed how many of the words on those “substitutes for ‘said'” lists are IMPOSSIBLE as speech tags? How does one weary a sentence, or smile it, or shrug it, or grieve it? It would help if more people understood the difference between a tag and an associated action. Anyone can smile WHILE speaking, but that doesn’t mean they can smile the words — a smile is not done with the voice at all, just the face.

      I have no idea where the “‘Said’ Is Dead” campaign originated, but I’d like to know so I can metaphorically smack the person/people responsible upside the head with a metaphorical cyber-fish or something. (In other words, have a typical Weaver-style bloggish rant about it.) And it probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the anti-adverb movement. (I have to laugh at any writer who claims, “I never use adverbs — NEVER!” Um, yeah… except ‘never’ IS an adverb, doofus.)

      Liked by 3 people

      • Quintessential Editor says:

        I explained this to a client on Upwork pretty much exactly the same way you just did. My son had just been born and I ventured into freelancing. The job was a general content edit and I was doing a free demo chapter. Trying to build my portfolio I bid something like .025 c/word. I didn’t get the job and the reason listed was, “…lack of current knowledge regarding dialogue attribution.” Since then this issue has been a peeve of mine.

        All this being said, I’ll stalk the interwebs with a metaphorical cyber-fish and join the smacking campaign.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. I’ve fixed the link to the “said” bookism post, in case anyone was looking for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Zombie Test & Passive Voice (ReBlog) « Quintessential Editor

  6. Sheron says:

    Tell me what is right and I’ll try to adhere to the rule, but nowadays so much is like the nutritionists that say, “butter is bad…oh, no…it’s good. Or eggs…” Don’t get me started! Every idiot has an opinion and then spouts it out like a God-given rule.

    A current editor red-lined my descriptive tags saying I should eliminate them and use behavioral clues instead. That’s the new thing. I think a balance of all the above is best. The writing and story should guide you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I don’t think so,” she said, laughing.
      “I don’t think so.” She laughed.

      The latter is much preferred by some, but it can be awkward and choppy if used too often or when the described action isn’t really separate from the speaking. Alas, some editors latch onto whatever Latest Shiny New Rule they’ve heard about and wield their red pen aggressively to make everyone do likewise whether it’s appropriate or not.

      You’re absolutely right: good writing needs balance, and doing whatever is right for the story being written. (Occasionally, even bad grammar/punctuation may be what’s right for a particular story. I know some people would have a fit at an editor saying that, but the marks on the page serve the story, not the other way around.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As one of the legion of grammatical troglodytes out there, I salute your efforts to learn us a thing or two! Thanks for a great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. While not a huge fan of zombies, personally, I do like this idea. It also makes me feel like the sentence is being chased by zombies and therefore is in trouble. Yes? Yes. I will go with that. :p

    Though, I really wanted to point out your last paragraph regarding overuse of ‘fancy’ words. I see this far too often in books and it just makes me want to scream. However, it’s still worse when all the diction matches and then suddenly the author throws in a word that seems so out-of-character for the book that it literally makes me pause.

    And I understand the want to be ‘fancy’, I do. It’s fun. It makes you feel intelligent. Yet, it’s not always the best option, especially when you write post-apoc or dystopian(as I do.) It took me some time, but I have come to terms with the fact that speech in my book will not be nearly as eloquent as I like to consider myself (whether I actually am or not is a different subject. >.>) But the story will be better off now and more appropriately voiced with this realization.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not a fan of zombies, either.

      Your interpretation of “passive voice is being chased by zombies” is a good way to look at it. A passive-voice sentence is too slow; the zombies will catch it if it doesn’t become active.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Sometimes, he gets help explaining why “Show, don’t tell” isn’t a damn LAW of writing. | North of Andover

  10. Pingback: Sometimes, he shares what another blogger has to say about “passive voice” that isn’t passive. | North of Andover

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