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Almost Unsolicited Advice to Those Who, Like Me, Perpetrate the Writing of Sentences


I realize I am not blogging much, but I have hit the endgame of this novel. I am having a hard time bobbing to the top of it for a beta-fish sized sip of air, much less actually creeping all the way out of fiction like some sort of primordial be-finned something test driving lungs and seeing what life looks like in The For Reals. I am living submerged in The Pretends, these days. I will hopefully be done with this book and out and reabsorbing my gills in time for Thanksgiving.

I am here today on a saintly mission for Strunk and Wagnall, because Passive Voice keeps rearing its ugly, passive head at writers who are freshly of my acquaintance. On a list serve I enjoy someone recently posted that their writing group was telling them to murder “EVERY single ‘ing’ word” and replace it with the ‘ed’ version, and then the SAME question about ING v/s ED came up when I was trying to peaceably drink a grammatically untroubled snoggett of gin after a writer’s conference.

Digression: I have only recently rediscovered gin. Gin is a nice thing. It wants to marry lemons and have beautiful alcoholic babies. I have not drunk gin in more than two and a half decades because the FIRST time I tried gin I was in Europe, I was drinking alcohol for the first time in my life, and I OVERdrank gin, and once you overdrink a thing it leads to wildly humiliating Boobs Stuck Under The Bed In Paris stories and me NEVERNEVERNEVER wanting to smell that particular thing again, much less put it in my mouth.

But time heals all boobs, apparently, and recently I discovered the novels of Susan Rebecca White and I liked them SO much I stalked her and forced her to become my friend, and in return, she reintroduced me to gin via an enchanting cocktail called the Miller Thyme at what USED to be my favorite Atlanta Restaurant, Miller Union, which can no longer be my favorite because in its September 2010 issue, Bon Appetit magazine listed it as one of the ten best new places to eat in the country and now I can’t get a table, but man, can they cook a good bunny. SO. Now I take a DEEP BREATH, nod sorrowfully at Henry James who did that long sentence thing SO much less spastically, and STOP DIGRESSING.

This comes up if you google BEARS EAT A CLOWN

Yesterday I got a VERY ODD email from a complete stranger asking me about verbs, which, really? “Hi Joshilyn, I like your novels, I see on your bio you used to be an English teacher, can you please explain ING? verbs…” Ooooooookay! Now granted, maybe he means gerunds, the other confusing INGishly constructed object? But a gerund is really just an ING verb frontin’ like a noun, and considering the other two ING VERB queries that came my way recently, I choose to interpret this to mean the universe is sending me a message that I need to go to war against passive voice and other INGly verbages, lest I be haunted by verb questions nigh unto madness.

Now we all sing, oh oh ohoh, oh oh oh!!!! And put on our MC Grammar pants. Mine are ELECTRIC purple, but they also come in silver, metallic blue, and gold. *preeeeen*

If your writing partner tells you he or she is bothered by your ING verbs, you MAY be just diffusing the energy of a thing by WASing it to death, but you may be perpetrating passive voice. Both are naughty. But PassiveVoice, in which the object is verbing the subjecting, is worse. We hawt-grammar-pants-wearers much prefer ACTIVE VOICE, when the subjects VERBS the object.

ACTIVE VOICE: Bears ate the naked rodeo clown.

Here BEARS are acting upon a hapless, nude clown. This is a strong and exciting structure. Unless you are the clown. Then it kinda sucks.

PASSIVE VOICE: The naked rodeo clown was eaten by bears.

Here is a bleh version of that sentence, all excitement removed by the use of passive voice. The
OBJECT is now the subject. In other words, the thing acted upon (in this case, eaten) is in the driver’s seat. Letting the EATEN drive the sentence strips out a lot of energy.

KILL IT ALL, KILL IT, like bears killed that clown, unless you are very clever and know the rules and are craftily deciding to break them for deliberate and good reasons. I’ve seen it used, for example, to indicate things about character. I once read a story where the main character NEVER spoke in active voice, and it made for a weird, disjointed, removed narration. It worked, but only because the narrator was a masochistic sex slave who was only ever acted upon and never acted. The sentences reflected that. It was QUITE disturbing and hugely effective.

Once all the passive voice is gone, look at the scene. WAS diffuses theverb and slows things down. Which is fine if that’s what you WANT.

A GOOD WAS VERBING CONSTRUCTION: “When I got home, the psycjo-killer was sitting in the chair, sipping sweet tea.”

So does this. Although here The Batman Intervenes. Link takes you to this guys blog, and he likes Elric, so you KNOW he is okay by geekly me.

Twp of the folks who asked me about verbs were being told that the ABOVE would be an example of Passive Voice. It is not. This is ABSOLUTELY active voice.
The psycho killer, the subject, is acting upon the chair. Also, the WAS VERBING construction is GOOD here. It is a quiet, reflective moment, involving tea, and an implied lack of movement. He was sitting in the chair BEFORE you got home, and he is STILL sitting there. You do not see him move from standing to sit.

A BAD WAS VERBING CONSTRUCTION: The psycho killer was shooting Lawrence in the face.
Still active voice, so no one is going to release the bears on you. The killer is the one acting upon Lawrence’s face, but see how this reads…drippy and slow? It happens to FAST and BANGBANG-y for the structure to match the action.

It is better to say this: The psycho killer shot Lawrence in the face.

BOOM! Fast. Clippy. Strong verb. Active voice that reflects the mood of this sentence. Which is really what you want your structure to do.

And now let’s all take our pants off and go google “Bears eating a clown.” Because it’s the weekend.

15 comments to Almost Unsolicited Advice to Those Who, Like Me, Perpetrate the Writing of Sentences

  • JulieB

    Me too. I’m totally supplementing my textbook’s chapter with this blog.

  • Hysterical! I nearly shot my Pumpkin Ale out my nose reading your Parisian Boob Debacle.

  • Eleanor

    *Na-na-na-na-na* “Can’t TOUCH this!” (repeat)

  • Jessica

    I just emailed this to my husband. He teaches writing, and he luckily married the biggest grammar nerd in the entire word, so I tend to find fun things to help him describe active vs. passive sentences. I keep saying, “It’s simple. Do you have a form of ‘be’ (or even ‘got,’ these days) helping out the past participle? Then you have a passive voice.” (They wanted every “[form of be] + -ing” to be passive…but it is not! It’s just slower, progressive. 🙂 )

    When I was studying poetry writing, we were told to use -ing verbs to draw out the words and slow the reader down, if the poem necessitated it, and I agree with you the same is true of a good action sentence in prose. You don’t want to be -ing everything in site when the action is fast and furious and you want to move the reader along.

    Okay, okay…I need to go finish my laundry, or I will have nothing to wear to work this week. You, my dear Joss, have sucked me into grammar-land, but I must extricate myself and return to laundry-land instead. 😉

  • I love you! I loved English all through school and I bet you were the bestest of English teachers!

  • Christie

    MC Grammar is quite possibly the best idea ever. I feel he could be the School House Rock of the next generation. Who wouldn’t want to learn about comma splices from a grammar rapper in ridiculous pants? Grammar time!

    Although I made it all the way to my senior year in college before I learned that -ing verbs do not equal passive voice all by themselves. I was an English major and had worked in the Writing Center for three years, so this was deeply embarrassing.

    Your example is highly superior to all others I have encountered. Especially because it includes a picture of Batman fighting a bear.

  • Aimee

    This post was read by Aimee, and it was enjoyed by her.

  • I find that particular shot of MC in his pants more gruesome than the bloody bear faces. Batman is just HOT!

  • Lulu

    Grand discussion of passive voice! Those sweeping “Kill all the ‘be’ verbs or ‘ing’ verbs” do miss the point, don’t they?

    The mention of gin, however, made me shudder. I had an unfortunate encounter with gin in 1980 and still cannot look it in the eye. I actively avoid it. Bloody, clown-eating bears, I’m sure, would smell better to me than gin does. Bleah.

    (Do clowns mutter late at night, “Can’t sleep, bears will get me…”?)

  • Brian

    Actually, if you Goog ‘Bears eating a clown’ your post is now #3 (arguably 2nd) and moving up fast on “Eat Sleep Clown Teddy Bear – CafePress”. Obviously, you need to sell shirts to take over the first position. I suggest art by Maisy Jane, font by Sam and promotion extraordinaire by Scott. Mission assigned. Go. Done yet?

  • Oh, love, love bears eating the clown.

  • I’ll be teaching with these next quarter. And I’m blaming them on you.

  • I overdrank gin 1.5 decades ago so I have another decade to go before that will ever get into my mouth on purpose.

  • Kate

    Excellent examples of passive voice. I have been taught this concept over and over and I really do try to avoid it, but Word nonetheless tells me I have passive voice in most papers/stories/blog entries/etc . However, now, your examples will ensure I won’t do it anymore. Or, at least that I will do it less often.

    And gin DEFINITELY burns as much coming back up; possibly more. Like you, I learned it the hard way (though I have yet to return to it. *Shudder.*)