Heat All Around

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Back in the days when

Dinosaur poop was far more prevalent than the human stuff, I learned a form of the

English language...and regrettably, being the overwhelmingly adoring mother that I am, I passed it on to my offspring.

I must say

MY form of this language is not as difficult to decipher as say the language used with such ongoing praise for the likes of

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE...may I take a moment here and thank Mrs. Whitney, my eleventh grade English teacher at

Council Rock High School. She did not force us to go cross-eyed over the convoluted prose of Shakespeare...instead she had us reading

GONE WITH THE WIND. I'll suffer through the "Fiddle-de-dee's" with much more adoration than Shakespeare's far more classic approach to literary genius any day.

GONE WITH THE WIND was the first HUGE book I'd ever read, and I can still see me sitting in my parent's front living room,

curled up in the upholstered rocking chair reading with such glee it took me only one weekend day to read it cover to cover,

I HATED the end, but oh how I loved that book AND that teacher.

What has that got to do with this posting on my dinosaur poop?

I was enchanted by GONE WITH THE WIND but I couldn't begin to tell you if it was

a passive voice or not. In fact I'm not exactly sure WHAT a passive voice is...and because I am that loving creature, a MOM, I passed on my confused comprehension of the English language to my daughter. 

(I'm not all that sure about my son since his language of choice is Japanese, and he would ask his sister how to spell English words like "a" and "is". So I don't know if I warped HIS approach to committing the English language into a storytelling medium.)

What IS passive? And what exactly IS NON-PASSIVE?

We both want to learn, but just as it is hard to teach

old dogs to go from

barking to

meowing, Kat and I are struggling to understand what we are doing wrong.

What makes a story that

SEEMS to have the tension of the moment, passive?

I have had my "Was's" and "had's" exorcised to the point they no longer existed only to have them put back in again during a later process.

What IS a passive voice? And what exactly IS the alternative?

I go now and try to decipher this mystery and hopefully learn whatever it is that is NOT supposed to be there...but I fear that I am one of those old dogs that just cannot grasp the mechanics of



lionmother said...

The way I had it described to me is any time you describe something that was happening it is telling. Telling is passive voice.

Showing and telling have nothing to do with voice, but with verbs used. Strong action verbs show. State of being verbs or weak verbs tell. Using helping verbs when using the action verb is better is telling. It's better to avoid passive voice whenever possible.

Here are examples:

The boy was running across the road. Telling
The boy ran across the road. Showing

This is courtesy of Vivian Zabel.

Do you see how something can be passive? Instead of saying He had gone to the store. Say: He went to the store.

J Q Rose said...

Yeah, what lion mother said. I'll send you the list of villain words Karen Mc gave me if you don't have it. Perhaps it is something Lea gives the editors? And it is HUGE list, but it sure helped me weed out the passivity (?) in my story. Next let's tackle Point of View (POV). That is my nemesis.

Jim Hartley said...

The explanation of passive is more like:

"Joe opened the window" is active, but

"The window was opened by Joe" is passive.

In the first example, the subject of the sentence. "Joe," is performing the action, hence it is active.

In the second example, the subject of the sentence, "the window," is NOT performing any action; rather it is having an action performed on it. The subject is just sitting there, hence it is passive.

The issue here is that the active sentence is "stronger" than the passive sentence and carries the story better. Hence one should, in general, use active sentences and avoid passive ones. There are exceptions, of course, but use them sparingly.

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

oh, groan, I hate pov worse than passive.

Heather Haven said...

I'd like to put in my 2 cents as to the reason these words sometimes get put back in by our editors (which is another kettle of fish than what is being discussed above). Most good editors understand that words like 'was' and 'had' serve a function and have their place in our language. When they are deemed necessary, they get thrown back in. For my part, often I find I use a passive word because I'm in a hurry, brain-dead or need to move on with the story. I usually try to go back and find a word or phrase more exciting. Between using the word 'that' too much, my passive verbs, and trying to figure out what the hey I mean in the first place, I tend to rewrite a lot. But writing is rewriting, isn't it?

lionmother said...

Many times editors will take out a word and then when the second edits come back the writer adds or changes the sentence. Then you have to put the original word back into it. It's almost a case of being too helpful. The example Jim gave is a good one to show the difference between active and passive too. Always be thinking how you can put the reader into the story.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Lin,

Funny post! Do you think in pictures?

Anyway, check out my article at


for what I hope is a clear explanation, along with lots of examples.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Lin - Lionmother, Jim, Heather, and Lisabet. All clear explanations...and I'd like to see JQ's HUGE list of words.
Thought provoking post, Lin.
kay dee