“Passive voice” does not mean “negative statement,” either.

In anthropology, they’re called post-processualists. I’m sure they’re called something else in discussions of literature, but the mindset is the same: “This is factually true because this is how I feel about it.” (If you’re a sci-fi nerd like me, you may have heard the last bit of the previous sentence as if it were spoken by Dr. Daniel Jackson — actor Michael Shanks — in the “Groundhog’s Day” episode, officially titled “Window of Opportunity,” of Stargate: SG-1.  Fun-fact tangent: There’s a real-life anthropologist named Michael Shanks, and I’m fairly sure I once heard my clone-sibling tell me that he’s a post-processualist.)

Well, let me tell you something you may not want to hear: How you feel about it is fine when it comes to opinions about story meaning and whatnot, but there are some fairly solid definitions of terminology when it comes to, say, grammar and punctuation, and you feeling differently about what those terms mean doesn’t change the facts.

The thing that set off this little “grammar rant”: passive voice. Whether you despise it with every fiber of your being or think it has a valid place in fiction writing, the definition of passive voice remains the same. If the subject of the sentence is on the receiving end of the verb’s action rather than performing the action, the sentence is passive. Passive voice has nothing to do with how informative the sentence is, or whether you think the verb has sufficient zing. Negative statements are not passive voice. Bland sentences are not passive voice. Uninformative/vague sentences are not passive voice. The previous three sentences are not passive voice, and neither is this one.

I can sort of understand where the notion came from that an uninformative sentence is passive voice… Again, I blame teachers (this includes people who do writing workshops  or write books on How to Make Fiction) who don’t really understand what they’re teaching, and thus don’t explain it properly to their students (or the people who paid good money for the workshop or book on writing). Yes, one of the “problems” with sentences that are legitimately passive voice is that they don’t tell you who/what did the action, only who/what the action was done to. It’s not that they’re uninformative, but rather that they don’t give the same sort of information the reader gets from active-voice sentences.

There’s a handy passive-voice test that you may have encountered, often called the “by zombies” test: If you can add by zombies after the verb and still have a grammatically correct sentence, the sentence is almost certainly passive. The book was read by zombies. The book was not read by zombies. See? No difference. On the other hand,  I didn’t do by zombies. Um… Nope. Not passive. Sorry. It’s not an informative sentence when seen out of context, but many sentences are a bit uninformative when seen out of context. Doesn’t make ’em passive, though.

You may wonder, Why does any of this matter? Because I can’t mind my own business and avoid having an opinion (supported by facts) about writing and how to do it. I dislike seeing incorrect information spread, even when the person spreading it 1) means well, and 2) almost certainly doesn’t know any better. We’ve got a whole bunch of writers — newbies and somewhat experienced alike — who are being taught all sorts of incorrect things about writing, because the people who do know better are told to shut up: “Yeah, that’s just your opinion. This is how I feel about it, so it’s true.” (Ever notice how people who use that justification seldom allow the other’s opinion to be as valid as their own? “My opinion is fact, and yours is bullshit.” *rolls eyes* Back it up or back down, Shumway.) And, as a result, we get even more writers (and readers) who have no frakkin’ clue what’s going on, and the problem is not helped at all by some writing-advice blogger saying, ‘Negative statements are passive voice, and passive voice is bad writing.’

This is (part of) why we can’t have nice things.

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 six 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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3 Responses to “Passive voice” does not mean “negative statement,” either.

  1. I have heard the “by zombies” test. I had not heard the negative test.

    I will confess I purposely use passive voice in business writing all the time, particularly when it was someone at a higher pay grade than mine that did a thing that didn’t turn out well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There shouldn’t even BE a “negative test” (and as far as I know, there isn’t one), because a negative statement isn’t automatically passive voice. It’s not even more likely to be passive voice because it’s negative; any overlap is purely coincidental.

      Passive voice is actually preferred for some kinds of writing, such as scientific papers (I know this because I edit/proofread all my twin’s anthropology papers), because it’s all about the science, not the scientists. (One of my twin’s professors where he got his undergraduate degree was a grammatically ignorant anti-passive-voice fanatic who insisted even a sentence such as “It is raining” is passive voice and thus Bad Writing. I hated her so much…)

      There is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice. And as you already know, it’s sometimes the far safer/wiser choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes a passive statement is the most efficient way to deliver critical information which would take too many words otherwise. You can dramatize the information, provide a little story in a nice sentence with a subject and object and lots of nice clauses – but all you’ve done is dress up the spoonful of information in unnecessarily thick gravy.

    I’m all for wonderful language – IF it doesn’t stifle the story. I would never write a long procession of passive sentences (I’d end up sounding like a computer or HVAC manual). But it isn’t always smart to be frilly. I think I’ve learned that from reading the classics.

    And that’s why passive statements are possible!

    Liked by 1 person

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