Dear Editor: Just Because It's Not Active...Doesn't Mean It's Passive

Good morning. *sips coffee* Welcome to my humble abode on the web. I've been writing for three years now, having started back in October of 2010. I've learned a lot in that time. Many things I struggled to learn on my own (marketing, finding my voice, time management) and many things I've learned from other authors, industry professionals, and editors. Please excuse me if the following comes off as arrogant. Or just snort and drink your coffee and think I'm an idiot for quibbling about inconsequential things. Totally up to you.

Everyone is full of advice for writers; even people who have never written a word want to tell me how to write. I listen, weigh, and use what I believe is valuable.

It's easy to dismiss some things, especially when you consider the source.

It's harder to say that a publisher or an editor is wrong, especially when you can tell that there's a kernel of truth in what they're saying. Sometimes, as a person with a degree or two in the English language, I stare at the comments on my manuscript pages, dumbfounded.

More than once I've said WTF?

More than once I've taken your comments to my colleagues and asked for an interpretation.

More than once, I've shaken my head and rejected your suggestion, because it just didn't make sense.

I've received comments that sent me off to find the CMOS, or any other grammar guide for elucidation. Sometimes I've searched in vain, and had to accept that things aren't the way they used to be, just because you said so.

But sometimes, it's not me; it's you.

For example... I occasionally get comments of "passive" in my margins. ( Is there a term for heavy reliance on "state of being" verbs? Maybe we ought to come up with one that's not already in use?)

Passive vs. Active. - Passive and active writing does not mean what you think it means. In order to BE passive, a verb must first BE active. An active sentence is one in which a subject performs an action. A Passive sentence is one in which an action is performed on the subject.

He ate peanuts. (ate is an action verb)
Peanuts were eaten by him. (were eaten is a passive construction of the action verb eat)

A BEING verb, does not convey action and cannot be passive.

He was nuts. (Nuts was he... hmmm rather poetic but hardly sensible.)
He appeared nuts.

I did not FIX the passive nature of that sentence by changing the verb from was to appeared. Appeared is a BETTER word choice, but it is still NOT active. It's a linking verb (expressing state of being), and any word I substitute for was in that context will serve the same function. Otherwise, the sentence doesn't make sense. (Now, shouldn't I be showing you that he's nuts and not telling you? Sure, but that's an entirely different post.)

I even have a list of verbs from one publishing company that they have deemed "passive". What they meant, of course, was "These words are commonly overused in one way or another so please don't use them in your manuscript more than once or twice."  I know this because I know that watch, listen and think are action verbs. I can use them in active sentences. I shouldn't use them in my ms, but for an entirely different reason than their supposed passivity.

The problem: When you tell me something is passive, you aren't actually referring to the voice. You're referring to the lack of action. Do I know what you mean? Well, I do NOW!

The solution: Tell me my passage is heavy on linking verbs, or that lengthy descriptive passages are boring. Tell me to break up the dull passages with actions, but don't tell me that it's passive. In grammar, passive does not mean simply inactive.

Simply put, an editor needs to use correct terminology. Otherwise, I think you don't know what you're talking about, and I don't trust your suggestions. 

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To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. ~e.e. cummings, 1955