I’m currently reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Though not quite finished, I’d recommend the book to anyone who does even a modest amount of writing in his daily life. The book isn’t a typical “how-to” grammar guide; instead, it reads like a memoir meets wise-old-uncle advice column, mixing anecdotes from King’s life with solid, “here’s how I see it” and “here’s what worked for me” styled writing advice.
I thought the following passage both amusing and informing, and thought I’d share.
Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.
Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess it does.
The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?
I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them. What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake! Fuhgeddaboudit!
Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man—who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea—sweeter and more forceful, as well—might be this: My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it. I’m not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we’re out of that awful passive voice.
You might also notice how much simpler the thought is to understand when it’s broken up into two thoughts. This makes matters easier for the reader, and the reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void. And it’s no walk in the park being the guy on the receiving end. “[Will Strunk] felt the reader was in serious trouble most of the time,” E. B. White writes in his introduction to The Elements of Style, “a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone trying to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.” And remember: The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer. Please oh please.