To Be Or Not To Be

My Endless War Against Passive Voice

Dreyer’s English arrived in the mail last week. Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House, has already sold 600 quintillion copies of this book, subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” Last I checked, the publisher ordered a fifth printing.

As a writer, I feel like Eric Idle in that old Monty Python sketch. “Does she like pictures?” and “What’s it like?” Nudge nudge.  I’m lucky to squeeze one edition out of my books, let alone five.

 

As a reader, the book tells me everything I need to know, including the difference between “evoke” and “invoke”.  Dreyer answers all the questions we didn’t know we had, and does so with good humor and a slightly hectoring tone. He crafts rich and syntactically-perfect sentences. I can’t consume too much of it at once. When I read him, I feel like I’m taking a thick dose of hot chocolate, probably best savored a few sips at a time.

Editor’s Lament

As an editor, I hold a different set of interests in Dreyer’s work. Since a mysterious hooded figure hired me to do this job nearly six months ago, I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the best writers who are willing to return my emails. However, some stuff continues to bother me.

Late last year, I wrote a Facebook post that stated my writing preferences. People had been sending me too many overlong sentences stuffed with emdashes and parenthetical phrases.  I called for clear ideas, stated simply. Someone shared that post. And his friends unloaded on me. How dare I tell them how to write, they said. A simple period couldn’t contain their grand ideas. They needed their parentheses and their semi-colons to make their points. Most of these geniuses worked as rock critics, making them practitioners of some of the worst professional writing allowable by law. I ignored these fools, who know not what I see every day.

But passive voice really lodges in my editor’s craw. I see a lot of verbs every week. Too many of them, including the one in this sentence, are a version of “to be.” Sometimes, writers send me pieces with more than 50 percent passive voice. It makes me scream. It’s not “the film was directed by Ryan Coogler.” It’s “Ryan Coogler directed the film.” Get it, people?

That Is The Question

Dreyer offers a simple test. Writers should attempt to add the words “by zombies” to the end of their sentences. If the sentence still holds together then it’s passive. So when one of my hypothetical writers includes the sentence, “this book is to be savored,” I can add “by zombies” and understand it’s a weak construction.

And yet I see it constantly. Why say “the book was written by me,” when you can say “I wrote the book”?  “The car was driven by Sigourney” easily becomes “Sigourney drove the car.”  Or, if it’s a self-driving car, then, “The car drove Sigourney.” Do you see how simple it is? I wonder why writers have so much trouble. Laziness? Panic? Confusion? Do I need to stage an intervention?

Dreyer actually says there’s nothing wrong with passive voice. Strong disagree from me, but he claims that sometimes it’s a good choice, because sometimes the emphasis needs to fall somewhere besides the subject. He includes the nice example: “The floors were swept, the beds were made, the rooms aired out.”

OK, fine. Every writing rule contains within it an equal and opposite rule. But most of the time, when I see passive voice, I sense weakness and uncertainty. I like writing that shoots lasers from its fists, or heat from its eyes. Dreyer, our new guru, tends to agree.

“Many a sentence can be improved by putting its true protagonist at the beginning,” he writes. Though he also warns against cowardly uses of the active voice, like in the sentence “a car rammed into counter-protesters during a violent white nationalist rally.” He calls that sentence a “moral failure.” But we shouldn’t allow fear of the New Right to serve as an excuse for grammatical passivity. Watch me easily adjust that sentence to suit political reality, while also keeping it active as heck.

A murderous asshole who’s now in jail forever rammed his car into counter-protesters during a violent white nationalist rally.”

Behold: genius at work. Ironically, though, because I deployed so many examples of passive voice in this piece, it currently sits at 11 percent passive. I consider that a personal disaster, and an actual moral failure. But I vow to prevail in this constant and authentic struggle against the forces of evil and passivity.

Say no more.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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