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Authors: Roy Peter Clark

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BOOK: Writing Tools
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4. Experiment with both voice and tense. Find a passage you have written in the active voice and in the past tense. Change the verbs to the present tense and consider the effect. Does it seem more immediate?

5.I described three uses of the active voice: to create outward action, to express inner or emotional action, and to energize an argument. Look for examples of all three in your reading and for opportunities to use them in your writing.

So the gold standard for writing advice is this: use active verbs. Those three words have been uttered in countless writing workshops with such conviction that they must be gospel. But are they?

Check out that last paragraph. In the first clause, I use a form of the verb
to be,
in this case "is." In the next sentence, I use the passive voice: "have been uttered." In the final sentence, I resort to another form of
to be,
in this case "are." My point is that you can create acceptable prose, from time to time, without active verbs.

Why, then, does voice matter? It matters because of the different effects active, passive, and
to be
verbs have on the reader and listener. I'll call on John Steinbeck again to describe this true-life encounter in North Dakota (the emphasis is mine):

Presently I
a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wire fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground. The man
a dark hat, and jeans and long jacket washed palest blue with lighter places at knees and elbows. His pale eyes
were frosted
with sun glare and his lips scaly as snake-skin. A .22 rifle
against the fence beside him and on the ground
a little heap of fur and feathers — rabbits and small birds. I
up to speak to him,
his eyes
wash over
sweep up
the details, and then
into their sockets. And
I found I had
nothing to say to him ... so we simply
at each other, (from
Travels with Charley)

I count thirteen verbs in that passage, twelve active and one passive, a ratio George Orwell would admire. The litany of active verbs heats up the scene, even though not much happens. The active verbs reveal who is doing what. The author sees a man. The man wears a hat. The author pulls up to talk with him. They brood at each other. Even inanimate objects perform action. The rifle leans against the fence. Dead animals lie on the ground.

Embedded in all that verbal activity is one splendid passive verb: "His pale eyes
were frosted
with sun glare." Form follows function. The eyes, in real life, received the action of the sun, so the subject receives the action of the verb.

That's the writing tool: use passive verbs to call attention to the receiver of the action. When columnist Jeff Elder described the extinction of an American species, the passenger pigeon, in the
Charlotte Observer,
he used passive verbs to paint the birds as victims: "Enormous roosts
were gassed
from trees. . .. They
were shipped
to market in rail car after rail car. ... In one human generation, America's most populous native bird
was wiped out."
The birds do nothing. They are done unto.

The best writers make the best choices between active and passive. A few paragraphs from the one cited above, Steinbeck wrote, "The night was loaded with omens." Steinbeck could have written, "Omens loaded the night," but in that case the active voice would have been unfair to both the night and the omens, the meaning and the music of the sentence.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire uses the distinction between active and passive verbs to challenge an educational system that places the power of teachers over the needs of students. An oppressive educational system, he argues, is one in which:

• the teacher teaches and the students are taught;

• the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;

• the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.


In other words, an oppressive system is one in which the teacher is active and the students are passive.

A strong active verb can add dimension to the cloud created by some uses of the verb
to be.
Strunk and White provide a nifty example. "There were leaves all over the ground" becomes "Leaves covered the ground." A four-word sentence outworks seven words.

In graduate school, Don Fry helped me see how my prose wilted under the weight of passive and
to be
verbs. Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph began, "It is interesting to note that," or, "There are those occasions when" — pompous indirections bred by the quest for an advanced degree.

But there are sweet uses of
to be,
as Diane Ackerman demonstrates in defining one difference between men and women:

The purpose of ritual for men
to learn the rules of power and competition.. .. The purpose of ritual for women
... is
to learn how to make human connections. They
often more intimate and vulnerable with one another than they
with their men, and taking care of other women teaches them to take care of themselves. In these formal ways, men and women domesticate their emotional lives. But their strategies
different, their biological itineraries
different. His sperm needs to travel, her egg needs to settle down.
astonishing that they survive happily at all. (from
A Natural History of Love)

"Domesticate" is a strong active verb. So is "needs" in the sentence about sperm and egg. But, mostly, the author uses the verb
to be,
what we once called — promiscuously — the copulative verb, to forge some daring intellectual connections. Here, then, are your tools of thumb:

• Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors.

• Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim.

• The verb to
links word and ideas.

These choices are not merely aesthetic. They can also be moral and political. In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell describes the relationship between language abuse and political abuse, how corrupt leaders use the passive voice to obscure unspeakable truths and shroud responsibility for their actions. They say, "It must be admitted, now that the report has been reviewed, that mistakes were made," rather than, "I read the report, and I admit I made a mistake." Here's a life tool: always apologize in the active voice.


1. Read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and discuss his argument that the use of the passive voice contributes to the defense of the indefensible. As you listen to political speech, notice those occasions when politicians and other leaders use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for problems and mistakes.

2. Look for brilliant uses of the passive voice in the newspaper and in fiction. Conduct an imaginary debate with George Orwell in which you defend the passive.

3. Revise your passive and
to be
verbs into the active, and notice how the emphases in your sentences change. Pay attention to the changed connections — the cohesion — between one sentence and another. What additional revisions do these changes require?

4. The poet Donald Hall argues that active verbs can be too active, that they can lead to macho prose ("He crunched his fist into the Nazi's jaw") and cloying romanticism ("The horizon embraced the setting sun"). In your reading, look for examples of such overheated prose and imagine useful revisions.

The authors of the classic Tom Swift adventures for boys loved the exclamation point and the adverb. Consider this brief passage from
Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight:

"Look!" suddenly exclaimed Ned. "There's the agent now!... I'm

going to speak to him!" impulsively declared Ned.

The exclamation point after "Look" should suffice to fire up the young reader, but the author adds "suddenly" and "exclaimed" for good measure. Time and again, the writer uses the adverb, not to change our understanding of the verb, but to intensify it. The silliness of this style led to a form of pun called the "Tom Swiftie," in which the adverb conveys the punch line:

"I'm an artist," he said easily.

"I need some pizza now," he said crustily.

"I'm the Venus de Milo," she said disarmingly.

"I dropped my toothpaste," he said, crestfallen.

At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it:

The blast
destroyed the church office. The cheerleader gyrated
before the screaming fans. The accident
severed the boy's arm. The spy peered
through the bushes.

Consider the effect of deleting the adverbs:

The blast destroyed the church office. The cheerleader gyrated before the screaming fans. The accident severed the boy's arm. The spy peered through the bushes.

In each case, the deletion shortens the sentence, sharpens the point, and creates elbow room for the verb. Feel free to disagree.

A half-century after his death, Meyer Berger remains among the greatest stylists in the history of the
New York Times.
One of his last columns describes the care received in a Catholic hospital by an old blind violinist:

The staff talked with Sister Mary Fintan, who has charge of the hospital. With her consent they brought the old violin to Room 203. It had not been played for years, but Laurence Stroetz groped for it. His long white fingers stroked it. He tuned it, with some effort, and tightened the old bow. He lifted it to his chin and the lion's mane came down.

The vigor of verbs and the absence of adverbs mark Berger's prose. As the old man played "Ave Maria":

Black-clad and white-clad nuns moved lips in silent prayer. They choked up. The long years on the Bowery had not stolen Laurence Stroetz's touch. Blindness made his fingers stumble down to the violin bridge, but they recovered. The music died and the audience pattered applause. The old violinist bowed and his sunken cheeks creased in a smile.

BOOK: Writing Tools
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