Pass the idiot

Dear Ms. Snark,

Recently an army of writers attacked my manuscript. One of them mentioned that I had a tendency to use a ton of passive verbs. I checked my manuscript at several Internet locations, and found that my passivity rate hovered about 32%. After two weeks of sleepless nights, I managed to removed over 300 occurrences of was/were, should/could, etc. Needless to say, I felt darn excited.

But alas, I decided to check passivity rate among some popular published authors. I scrounged up full chapter excerpts and plugged them into the good, ol' passivity reader, and found that most of the authors had verb passivity rates over 25%, with most coming in around 32%.

Did I just waste 50 hours of my valuable time turning simple, easy to read sentences, into complex piles 'o junk?

Chapter 1 of Daughter of the Blood, by Anne Bishop, comes in at 32% passivity. The first chapter of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury lands home with a 31% passivity rate. I even found the Wizard of OZ, and a Stephen King excerpt, to have a 56% passive verb percentage.


Please help us understand. Are passive verbs bad? If so, why are most published books crammed full with 33% passive verb sentences?

Passive verbs are what they are.
Like handguns, they're only dangerous if you don't know how to use them or you fire them off in a crowded sentence cause you don't know any better.

I don't run your pages through a passive voice meter or any other kind of litmus test. I read it. If it sounds slow and turgid, I don't analyze why, I say "this sux" and send you a form letter.

I find it hilarious that you picked the first chapter of The Sound and The Fury for comparison. Have you read it? Faulkner I mean. I'm going to assume you've read your own work. Did you remember it's in the first person point of view of "an idiot" ?

Perhaps you meant to be humorous (or if you were Bella Stander-humerous). We could be amused but at this point, passive is our position of choice.


Twill said...

What most people are talking about is not passive voice - subjects being acted upon - "John was struck by the ball."

They are usually talking about past progressive and past perfect tenses - "John had been playing the game every day but hadn't gotten any good at it."

These past tenses come up when writing in summary mode. Telling rather than showing, summarizing rather than dramatizing.

Current style gurus take a cue from movies - which can't do anything *but* dramatize, since montages of telling are hideously expensive and modern audiences seem to hate voiceovers. Such gurus say that there should only be enough summary to get you from one scene to another.

I understand the reasoning, since often when I read a novel that is heavy on summary, even really funny and touching and relevant summary, I feel like I am waiting for the real story to begin.

Nonetheless, the assumption that there is ONE TRUE METHOD of writing is obviously crap. Just be aware of the difference between an immediate statement and a continuing statement. Between a general, flat verb and a specific, active verb.

The city was at the head of the river.

The city squatted at the head of the river.

Different feel, different uses.

Dick Margulis said...

Let's assume for the moment that an automated grammar checker provides an accurate count of passive vs. active verbs. I highly doubt it, but let's assume it anyway.

First, the majority of writers under the age of forty have never properly learned to distinguish a passive verb from an active verb. Even people that age who edit for a living seem to think that the passive voice has something to do with the semantic content of the sentence or the moral character of the subject. Um, no, it's just a grammatical distinction, and if you never studied grammar, how do you expect to make a technical distinction?

Second, and more important, the Strunk and White suggestion that active verbs make for punchier prose is not a moral or aesthetic absolute. It's just a suggestion, and for people who are prone to indirection and false modesty, it's probably a pretty good suggestion. But for anyone with an ear for language, it is perfectly normal for a fair portion of sentences to have passive verbs. Even Elements of Style (i.e., Strunk and White) has plenty of passive verbs scattered throughout.

In other words, as Miss Snark keeps telling you, if you just write well and don't let any cockamamie rules get in the way, you'll do fine.

ORION said...

Along the same lines I hear "No one likes first person POV" and "Don't write present tense."
I broke both those rules and I didn't hear my agent OR editor complain.

A Paperback Writer said...

May we also point out here that Faulkner was not exactly known for his short, easy-to-read sentences. There's one sentence in the middle of Intruder in the Dust that is 4 and a half PAGES long.
I've always suspected that this is why he and Hemingway were at odds.
If you're going for readability, you don't bloody heck compare your structure to Faulkner's!

Mark said...

Or Pynchon. I'll take Hemingway who said, "I know those ten-dollar words, I just use the other ones."

Anonymous said...


Just because there's a "to be" verb in the sentence doesn't make the sentence passive. *sigh*

I wrote up a huge rant on this a long time ago. Here's the link (also linked in my name):


Know it, learn it, love it.

Or something.

Kit Whitfield said...

When you say 'Internet locations', do you mean you posted it on websites and asked people to read it, or that you ran it through programs available on websites?

If the latter, be careful. Computers understand the literal rules of grammar, but they don't know beans about good writing style. I had to switch off my grammar check years ago after I realised that every time it wanted me to rewrite a sentence, it was suggesting something pedantically correct and stylistically horrible. Listening to computers can produce some really clunky writing. You're better off using your own ear to see what feels right to you.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally with you, Gerri. Most people who decry the passive verb don't even know what one is.

People who think the sentence "He was a doctor." is a passive sentence don't understand passive verbs.

Now, it is true that you can use stronger verbs than is/was/should have been in many instances, and that stronger verbs make for better writing. But those verbs do not automatically mean you've written a passive sentence.

There's a time and place for passive verbs. Really. But if you don't know what they are, you won't know when and where that time and place is...

Nonny Blackthorne said...

"To be" is not passive, and it isn't the Devil, either. (Even if enough writers treat it like it is.)

Should it be overused? No. But the reverse extreme is just as bad because you end up using more words to explain something mostly unnecessary than saying "he was [whatever]."

There's a time and place for "to be," and more writers ought learn that instead of decrying its use.

Anonymous said...

Gerri, we understand the difference between passive sentences and passive verbs. This discussion is about passive verbs, NOT passive sentences.



Upload your doc at this link...

Nonny: all "to be" verbs are passive, non action verbs. They are verbs that descrive a state:

will be
have been
has been
had been
can be
could be

Anonymous said...

You have to be careful not to overuse the passive voice, which is not the same thing as not using it at all. A lot of times, I think people internalize guidelines for good writing and make them hard-and-fast rules that they apply without thinking.

For instance, we're all warned against using adverbs too often -- a punchy, precise verb is always better -- but a lot of people go on to believe that the adverb is inherently evil. I was reminded of this while re-reading Portrait of a Lady recently, because Henry James loved the adverb, oh yes. Half-a-dozen applied to dialogue tags per page, in some places. And few of us could ever aspire to prose that thoughtful and clear.

In short: It's good to keep the guidelines in mind, but also to remember that they're guidelines, no more. It's all in what you do with it.

Jo Bourne said...

>>>One of them mentioned that I had a tendency to use a ton of passive verbs.<<<

One person?

My advice would be to find and join a sympathetic and knowledgeable critique group. There are many.



for instance.

Or folks will suggest others.

Do not worry about what one person says
unless you greatly respect that opinion,
or the same thought has been niggling at the back of your own mind.

When three or four folks mention a problem, then worry about it.

Otherwise you will spend all your time worrying about some unconsidered, off-hand comment
instead of writing.

Jo Bourne said...

Hi S. Williams --

There is a way of classifying verbs,
(one of many ways one can classify verbs,)
that calls the verbs either 'active' or 'passive'.

I don't think this is what anyone is talking about here.

One can also place verbs upon a continuum.

Some verbs (imagine them off to the left,) are cool, gee-whiz type verbs like 'implode', 'exsanguinate' and 'litigate'.

Some words are kinda everyday verbs (think of them in the middle of our continuum,) like 'wonder', fulfill', and 'relax'.

Some verbs are dull and uninteresting, (they lie to the right, of course,) like 'was', 'does', 'could', 'sit', 'lie', 'walk', 'have', and so on.

One should not write exclusively with such dull, lusterless verbs.

A discussion arises because folks persist in calling the uninteresting verbs 'passive', instead of calling them 'dull', 'ordinary', 'inexact' or 'boring' or any of the roughly 7000 words they could use instead of 'passive' and make their point with dispatch and clarity.

The concept of 'passive verbs' confuses folks,
who think you are talking about 'passive voice',
a grammatical concept,
rather than dullness
which is a value judgement.

'George exsanguinated the virgin.'
is active voice.
'The virgin was exsanguinated by George'
is passive voice ...
but it does not employ a passive, hackneyed, flabby-fingered verb. Thus, passive voice but not passive verb.

I wish everybody would just stop talking about 'passive verbs' and call them dull.

Anonymous said...

s william:

There's no such thing as a passive verb. Passive and active are a form of sentence, not a function of the verb.

Verbs come in three types: Active, Helping(or auxiliary), and Linking.

What you've listed are verbs that are used as linking or helping verbs(to be, to have and all the alternate forms that you've listed), or are helping verbs called modals. Modals(could, would, might, may, will, ought to, etc.) add conditional statements to express uncertainity or certainity. They most definitely DO add meaning to a sentence! And "to do" is an action verb!

Buy a good grammar book. Learn what verbs are and what they do.

You've got active/passive verbs confused with content/function words. You're complaining that these words don't add CONTENT, not that they're passive! And you'd still be mostly wrong. Linking verb sentences really should be rewritten.

The sky is blue.

The blue sky stung my eyes.


The blue sky was clouding over.

This sentence is NOT passive. It's past progressive. The "was clouding" is a TIME marker. Gotta have it if the action is ongoing.

Minimize function words. Maximize content words. BUT YOU CANNOT ELIMINATE FUNCTION WORDS ALL TOGETHER!

All the modals that you've got listed are semi-function words. There's a huge difference between:

The blue sky was clouding over.


The blue sky might be clouding over.



Issues like this are why I hate grammar reviewers with a passion. Too many times they don't know what they're talking about, but just parrot what they think they've learned.

You cannot use a computer program to count words. Statistics on verbs are meaningless without context. Throw away the stupid computer program. Read. See context.

*picks up thumping stick and waits for the next person to torque her off*

Anonymous said...

Dick, Dick, Dick, enough with the ageism already. Wasn't it your generation that didn't trust anyone over thirty?

We editors under thirty may never have diagrammed a sentence in a one-room schoolhouse, but our brains are still bright, and shiny and plump, able to identify and fix problems with voice, style and (yes) grammar in a single bound, flexing our tight, supple, twenty-something abs all the while.

A Paperback Writer said...

s. william--
Do get yourself a Quirk and Greenbaum or Warriner's or something.
Could, Should, and Would are modals, not verbs.
To Be is not "passive" as is. It is a linking verb, which shows existence or state-of-being. It is also intransitive, which means it never takes an object (it can't, since an object receives action, and a linking verb cannot show action).
"Passive" is not a verb; it is a construction.
"Bob was here" is in active voice. Bob is not being acted upon, even though there is no action in the sentence. "Bob built the house" is also active, but "The house was built by Bob" is passive -- even though "built" is still an action verb (not a linking verb).

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as a passive verb?


I understand the mechanics of the English language, thank you.

Passivity, or non-action, can be a verb state.

Two sentences:

1) John was hungry.

2) John ate his french fries in two minutes, and then stuffed the entire cheeseburger in his mouth.

Which has action, and is thusly MORE active? Which TELLS, and thus carries the weight of inaction?

Can I get a can of duh for those lacking common sense.

Active verbs express action, passive verbs tell, instead of show.

Do I need to pull out a dictionary and define active and passive for you?

BTW, my list included verbs and connotations that surface in "to be" sentences.

You know this...or do you?

Pass the idiot my foot.

Tom Hunter said...

I just checked Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and it came up with a passivity of 33% for its 68,020 words. Seeing this, I would bet that recommendations regarding the appropriate passivity are like ratios of good/bad chloresterol. Avoid the extremes.

Anonymous said...

s williams


No, you're still wrong about the verb being active or passive. You're trying to blame boring vs. exciting writing on verbs, and I'm not gonna let you do it.

John was hungry.

Yah. That's a boring sentence. Not passive. But definitely blah. But it's NOT the verb's fault!

John was hungry enough to eat an elephant--or two, or so he claimed.

See? Same three beginning words? Much more interesting. Still has a to be verb. Now try this:

John ate quickly.

Oooohhh! It's got an action verb! And it's just as bad of a sentence as John was hungry!

Showing vs. telling is SO not a verb issue. Showing vs. telling is about point of view and/or details and/or pacing.

Oh, and leave the poor adverbs alone. Blaming them for the ills of writing is just as bad as blaming verbs. Not their fault.

See, in the end, no one part of a sentence holds the blame for being dull or exciting. Truthfully, nouns, adjectives, and sentence structures carry far more weight in the show vs. tell argument.

Go ye thereforth, s williams, and learn of the concepts of connotation and denotation, as well as the concepts of function and content words. I'd offer to let you sit in on the two lectures where I discuss this stuff except I'm no longer teaching college English composition.

Oh, and don't waste your time with the dictionary in this arugment. Dictionary definitions mean N-O-T-H-I-N-G. We're not in generic word meaning mode. We're in a specific field called grammar, and the definitions are different here than they are out in the general world. The reason you're being jumped on is because you're using the wrong termonology. That's why you've been repeatedly told to get a grammar book. Until you have a common language with those of us who have learned, studied, and/or taught grammar, you're gonna continue to be jumped on with both feet.

Here's you a can of common sense. You need it more than we do.

Word Verification: avspit. Perfect sentiment.

Rei said...

As others have pointed out, not only is this site not counting passive voice, but it's also poorly coded. It can't handle MS Word97 files written by OpenOffice (kind of ironic, since it seems to be Unix-based), and most importantly, it seems to just plug your file (with your filename) directly into the commandline of their script. Which means that anyone likely can run commands on their computer. Which means that it is likely easily hackable.

I've emailed the site's administrator, and hopefully they'll take care of the problem. :P I hope I don't get in trouble for figuring out and reporting the problem, since figuring it out required a few test commands.

Anonymous said...

Tell Faulkner to join a crit group.

Or don't.

I told Hemingway to join one of those damn things and he went and shot himself.

By the way, is Miss Snark associated in any way with MS Word?