I give out writing advice. Bloggernacle begins laughing.

Click on the link. On the other end of that link resides a newspaper column from the October 10, 2006 Daily Texan (the student newspaper of UT-Austin).

I should probably follow my own writing advice more. But, if avoiding the passive voice in your own writing interests you, you might enjoy it.

Or you might think of my many half dashed off (and barely comprehensible) blog posts and comments and decide to stay far away from any writing advice that would spill from my pen (or keyboard).

Whatever makes you happy.

29 thoughts on “I give out writing advice. Bloggernacle begins laughing.

  1. I should add that they changed my original title and made a few other small editorial changes here and there (for example, my original submission said a “Freddy Krueger-like demon”) – all without consulting me as they promised. Not that it matters all that much, but if you find any mistakes (such as their addition of a hidden “to be” verb in a sentence that did not have it before, thus ruining my last sentence), blame the student editors.

  2. Rather than attacking the mind-numbing passive voice, why don’t you start with lay and lie? I estimated tonight that not one in a million Americans know how to use and conjugate those two verbs.

  3. I just write ’em as I see ’em. Besides, I always screw up on lie and lay, whereas I can do okay avoiding passive voice. Play to your strengths and all that.

    (plus – in my experience as a writing tutor, more students come in asking for help “avoiding the passive voice because my teacher told us to not use it or else” than for any other specific problem).

  4. Ivan, this is a nearly infallible guide — oops, I mean, This nearly infallible guide will be kept on — No, I mean, Your nearly infallible guide strikes me as memorable and useful. Thanks for sharing it.

    Other pitfalls are words that informally replace is, am, are … and camouflage the passive voice, such as forms of do and get. As in “the arbiter of the action tends to get ignored or exiled.”

  5. If I can’t figure out what is grammatically correct, I write both words or I just think how I would say it in a conversation with a friend and go for it.

    But this is very good advice, Ivan, and I’m going to use it. Thanks.

  6. Ivan, regarding your #1 comments about the editors. I once had a letter published in Time magazine. The editors changed it so much that I hardly recognized it.

  7. Ivan,

    What stake are you in here in Austin? I moved here with my wife a couple months ago to take a job with National Instruments. We’re living in Pflugerville and go to the Wells Branch ward.

  8. I’m in the Austin ward of the Austin Oak Hills Stake – it covers the student family housing for UT-Austin as well as most of Austin proper.

    My guess is you might know some friends of mine named Jim and Emilie Laudie (Jim/James works at National as well) – they live in that general area.

  9. I don’t know Jim personally but he’s well known here. He attends a ward in Round Rock with one of my co-workers from the U, Sam Roundy. Good to see Austin well represented on ‘nacle!

    Next thing you know we’ll run into each other wearing Mormon Archipelago shirts downtown… although I presently don’t own one πŸ™

  10. But Ivan, without the passive voice, I don’t know how the church could continue to function. President Hinckley uses it a lot. “It was recently brought to my attention…”, “We have repeatedly been counselled to…”. And so on.

    And consider this:

    From time to time, it becomes necessary to express our appreciation. It is proposed that Ivan Wolfe be given a vote of thanks for his contributions to the bloggernacle at large. All in favor, please signify by the usual sign. Thank you. It appears that the voting has been unanimous in the affirmative.


  11. mark IV –

    well, I do acknowledge in the article that, at times, the passive voice can serve a useful purpose. Heck, I don’t want to lose Thomas S. Monson’s three part passive voice endings (Hearts were touched, memories were shared, talks were ended)!


  12. Ivan, I don’t understand the denigration of passive voice. Why should writing be always focused on the subject? All we’re supposed to read about is active go-getters who you should hire now?

    Passive voice has a transcendent character that active voice doesn’t achieve. Here are a couple well known passages using passive voice where that is what is called for:

    Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

  13. John –

    Uhm – those examples from the Lord’s Prayer aren’t passive. They are imperative, which in English is active voice (Jesus isn’t saying “Someone hallows your name” he’s commanding the name of the Lord to be hallowed). The second example is merely a linked set of nominative phrases (all considered active) until the very end (where “all things were made by him” is passive).

    So, your examples don’t really work, since for the most part they aren’t passive.

    The passive voice can be fine – in business writing, for example the standard advice is to use the passive voice to convey bad news. If you read my article all the way through, I admit it can be useful – and that Richard Lanham’s book is the best book on this subject.

    However, it is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay overused in most student and academic prose. I was merely trying to offer advice for poor, beleagured students whose teachers constantly tell them to avoid it.

  14. Ivan, my main question is why are teachers constantly telling students to avoid passive voice. Overuse seems to be the reason. On my examples, the second, from John, only uses passive at the end, as you say, but the only verb connecting those nominative phrases before “all things” was “was”, which you were also telling students to avoid. In the Lord’s prayer, those “fiat lux” imperatives look pretty passive to me. Names have to be hallowed and wills done by someone, but these imperatives were constructed to leave the someone out of it.

  15. John –

    they may look passive, but it isn’t. I can’t excuse your ignorance of grammar. That’s like saying “that looks like water, perhaps I’ll drink it” even though it’s really some deadly acid or poison. Imperatives always leave the subject out. For example, Second person imperatives that are found in places like cookbooks always say “pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Measure 2/3 cup flour” etc. – which really means “YOU should pre-heat the oven” – by their grammatical nature, imperatives leave out the subject. You can’t convince me the passive voice is okay by citing sentences that aren’t in the passive voice, sorry.

    The reason teachers tell students to avoid the passive voice is because, by and large, students have very little control over their own writing. And only people who really have control over their own writing can effectively use the passive voice. My simple rule is not absolute: It was meant as informal advice to help students gain control over their own writing.

    Here’s an analogy: When practicing Guitar, sometimes I practice without using my pointer finger, and I often reccomend this to friends as well. Does that mean I think no one should use their pointer finger when playing guitar? No, but doing so can show you how much you over-rely on that finger, and when you go back to using it, you’re a better player because your other fingers have become stronger.

    Same with avoiding the “to be” verbs: It’s a great way to learn how to gain control of your writing, as well as show you (or anyone) just how much we overuse the passive voice and “to be” verbs in general. Of course, once that’s accomplished, you can then go back to using it – only this time you will use it more effectively and only when needed, rather than as a default setting (as with most students).

  16. The cookbooks say “[you] preheat the oven,” not “the oven be preheated [by you].” In Latin, “hallowed be thy name” and “thy will be done” are rendered “sanctificetur nomen tuum” and “fiat voluntas tua.” Sanctificetur and fiat are plainly passive conjugations.

  17. John –

    ???? In the Greek (which is the language of the New Testament, not Latin) it’s aorist imperative. As for the cookbooks – well, that’s what I said, so it appears you agree with me.

    But I don’t even know why we’re arguing this. Please read Richard Lanham’s “Analyzing Prose” and then we can continue this.

  18. Dang it, Ivan, I’m not pointing to Latin as a source for the New Testament; give me a little credit. It’s just a language that has very identifiable verb forms, and the New Testament is a familiar text for us. As for aorist imperative, I know nothing of Greek, but looking up the term, aorist appears to be a matter of tense (such as present, perfect, future, etc.), not voice. (I see Greek has active, passive, and middle voice. Interesting.) Mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, etc.) is a third thing. Verbs can have imperative mood and either active or passive voice. In my Latin grammar, I’m looking at tables of active imperative and passive imperative conjugations side by side. You will have to tell me how correct this is, but I find one paper on the web identifying genetheto, the verb used in “thy will be done,” as aorist passive imperative of ginomai.

    Getting back to English, what do you identify as the subject of the sentence “Thy will be done”? I claim it is “thy will,” not whoever or whatever is supposed to make the Father’s will done.


  19. Actually, as I crack open my Greek new Testament, just to double check, I find that some of the phrases in the Lord’s prayer are passive imperative. Some just happen to use a “to be” verb for other reasons, but some are passive.

    So, you win there. Next time my students ask me how to write a prayer, I’ll tell them the passive voice is fine.

  20. Ivan,

    Finally, a bloggernacle topic upon which you and I both agree!

    One of my profs in grad school made us read a long article from the Atlantic or Harpers or something, in which the author presented a very thorough case for avoiding passive voice. Amazingly, not a single “be” form appeared anywhere in the article. Perhaps most importantly, none of us missed it.

    Which brings me to another point. While I applaud the author of the article, I’m not sure he demonstrates the underlying virtue of avoiding passive voice when possible. One doesn’t go about it by taking a sentence, like he does, and simply dancing around the “be” verb. It’s not a matter of the chair “being” in the room or the chair “squatting” in the room. The latter comes off as a little pretentious to me. If one really internalizes the avoidance of passive voice, one steps back further and thinks more rigorously, which would hopefully result in a sentence not wholly devoted to the chair. To me, the chair wouldn’t deserve a verb at all; one might notice it, or pass it, or sit upon it, or something. The chair “squatting” seems to be like passive voice hiding behing extra syllables.

    And of course, sometimes one simply can’t avoid passive voice. Usually one can, but every once in a while, as my prof counseled us, “something just doesn’t ‘seem,’ or ‘become,’ or ‘strike one as.’ It just plain ‘is.'”

  21. Jeremy –

    I know. Sometimes the chair doesn’t even need to be mentioned or else relegated to a subordinate clause or something. I had a 700 word maximum to work with, and I was told the article should be written in an informal style.

    But otherwise, I totally agree with your comment.

  22. Ivan,

    Stupid me. I, um, didn’t notice that the article was by you. If I had, I would have been rather more diplomatic in my critique. (And how silly my references to “the author” come across… ) Sorry. Certainly within a 700 word limit for a general audience, the example of the chair is perfectly adequate.

    Thanks again for addressing one of my pet peaves (one which will grow more peavish as I grade midterm essays in a couple of days…)

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