Passive construction is not the enemy

(This post had been scheduled to post on June 23. I rescheduled it for now because this is still a writing blog, and I’m still a writer.)

In 1918, William Strunk, a professor at Cornell wrote the original Elements of Style. At the time, it was little more than a pamphlet, privately published in 1919, then by Harcourt in 1920. EB White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) had been a student of Strunk’s, and expanded upon his old prof’s work. In 1959, Macmillan published the Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, we are all familiar with today.

Strunk and White–those paragons of all things grammar, had a lot of great things to say. They also had a lot of opinion and personal preference down as fact. One of them was the absolute mandate that we eradicate passive voice from all written work. Writers are taught to always choose the stronger verb, and that is a good, basic rule. Many of us do it instinctively without ever really knowing why we do so, why it sounds better. But knowing why always makes it easier. Alors…

She was running down the street.

She ran down the street.

That’s the difference we often think of when we think passive vs active. Really, that’s the difference between the past progressive and the past. But we all know that “was” denotes passive, and it’s often true. If there’s nothing after the progressive form, then it’s not necessary to use it. But-:

She was running down the street when the meteor hit her.

Would you write–She ran down the street when the meteor hit her? No, you wouldn’t. It’s awkward. See? How about this one:

She ran  slowly down the street.

She jogged down the street.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with either, but the first is passive and telly, while the second is stronger, and always preferred by readers, writers, and editors alike. But then there’s this kind of passive voice:

She kissed him.

She gave him a kiss.

They say completely different things, and this is what is meant by “sometimes passive voice is ok.” It’s never saying we should use the progressive willy-nilly, or an adverb when a stronger verb is available. Using the more passive phrasing is right when it changes the meaning of a sentence. In the first, it’s an open-ended thing. She kissed him. It might have been long and sensual, short and sweet. Those three words open the door wide, and context will give the reader the clues needed to decide what, exactly, they mean. It’s powerful, and infinite, and open to interpretation.

She gave him a kiss. What do you “see?” You get that it was a peck, done and over with. Context will show if it was reluctantly done, or innocently, coyly, seductively. But it was one kiss. Done and over. Let’s expand just a little.

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. He opened his mouth, to speak or shout or wail. She kissed him. The tension in his body eased. “Don’t go,” she said. And he didn’t.

Insert she gave him a kiss, instead. Yeah, doesn’t work so well in this context, does it. Now try this one:

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. She wasn’t ready, even if the tension in him proved his need. She gave him a kiss. “Good night,” she said. and ducked inside.

Insert “she kissed him.” Well, it works better than the other flip, but it doesn’t say it completely. She kissed him could have been longer, maybe with a little French action going on. But she gave him a kiss is the nervous peck easily envisioned. No guessing. Not up for interpretation. Sometimes, it’s what we need.

I tend to be more prescriptive* in my writing. The descriptive** route will often date a piece of work, make it less identifiable to readers a decade down the line. The same holds true with prescriptive grammar, because grammar rules change, and what we consider proper grammar now won’t be in a hundred years. Like split infinitives. Don’t get me started. You might be surprised to see which way I lean on those.


*prescriptive grammar: A set of norms or rules governing how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is actually used. 

**descriptive: An objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language.


Filed under Grammar

3 responses to “Passive construction is not the enemy

  1. Elizabeth

    Did you just write this? Because if you did, writing truly is your cloak and your dagger.


  2. Sometimes the passive voice is what is needed. But, I recast sentences to avoid a split infinitive if there is no other way. 😉


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I know how you feel about split infinitives, Renee! 🙂 I, personally, like the rhythm of them sometimes, but I unsplit all of them during edits of Seeking Carolina, because you alerted me to those readers who hate them like nails on chalkboard.


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