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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Don’t Be Passive Part 2


A Guest Post by Lori Lake and Response by Rosanne Bane

Warning: Grammar jargon ahead. But the information is worth the mental challenge because how we use language (grammar) profoundly impacts our preceptions of reality. So fire up your neurons.

Lori Lake generously gave me the tremendous gift of thoughtful and valuable feedback to my post “Don’t Be Passive, Get Active.” I want to share Lori’s insights with you because we can always use a brush-up on the rules of our craft. I also invite you to read my response to Lori’s response, which brings all this grammar talk back round to the central theme of this blog: Writer’s Resistance.

Hi, Rosanne,

I pore over your missives with great glee, and most of the time they totally resonate with me. This one, however, is problematic because some of the examples you give are not really passive constructions. Past TENSE in some cases, but not passive. Only “I am experiencing writer’s block,” and “I’m always distracting myself…” are sentences that can be called particularly passive, and they’re not egregious.

The presence of is, am, are, was, were, have, and had is not indicative of passive voice or passive construction. This is where some English teachers sort of blew it back when we were in school. They alerted us that these were “no-no” words, when in fact they’re some of the most useful – and prevalent – words we use in both writing and ordinary speech.

How else can one say “I am blocked” or “I am tall”? Or even “I am writing, or “I’m not writing”? The construction of the verbs indicates continuity – that action is happening over time, which is the very opposite of the idea of passivity.

Or how about these examples:  “I was once a circus performer.”  “I have pneumonia.”  “I’ve got a secret.” “My dog had a terrible case of rabies.”  “You were twelve when that happened, right?”  “If you’re a doctor, no doubt you’ve been to medical school.”

Some of the sentences are in past tense, but none of them are passive. Why? Because is, am, are, was, were, have, and had ARE the verb. There is no connecting verb (is experiencing, was sitting, am belaboring, etc.) to turn them in to the form of “to be” that you’re citing.

One way to determine whether a sentence is passive or not is to:

  • Identify the subject – the actor – of the sentence.
  • Identify the verb – the action – of the sentence.
  • Examine whether the subject/actor performs the action or is acted upon.

If the subject/actor performs the action of the verb, the sentence is active. (“I am fifty now.”   Or   “You are aging.”) If the action/verb combo does its work without the subject being much of a part of it, the sentence is passive. (“Aging in this household is happening fast.”  Or  “My new age is hated by one and all.)

Passive voice moves the object of a sentence to the forefront, and the doer or actor (and sometimes even the action) takes a backseat. But don’t confuse passive voice with past tense. Passive voice generally is in past tense, but not always. Voice focuses on the Who of the sentence; tense focuses on the When.

Further Examples of Active v. Passive and Tense

Tense Passive Active
Present Simple Exercises are being done at the gym. Athletes exercise at the gym.
Present Continuous A kite is being flown by Joseph. Joseph is flying a kite.
Past Simple The best kite was built by Jim. Jim built the sturdiest kite.
Past Continuous Jumping jacks were being done by my friends when I got started. My friends were doing jumping jacks when I got started.
Present Perfect Over fifty kites have been crashed by us in the past week. We have crashed over fifty kites in the past week.
Future Intention With Going To A phone call is going to be received by Sally from the gym owner. The gym owner is going to call Sally.
Future Simple The new kites will be purchased on Saturday. I will buy the new kites on Saturday.

I hope that all makes sense and this impromptu grammar lesson doesn’t offend you. I DO understand the message you are giving, which is to own – specifically – what we’re doing to ourselves that causes writer’s block. And sometimes that block is caused by language and the way we think of ourselves in relation to the writing. So I “got” the message but was mightily distracted by some of the content.

And by the way, I’m happy to report that I’m writing again. Present tense and active. <g>

Lori

Dear Lori and Readers,

Thank you for the grammar information – I, like most writers, can always benefit from brushing up on the tools of our craft. And you’re right: my “trigger” of identifying passive voice by looking for a form of the verb ‘to be’ does not always accurately indicate the passive. I stand corrected (well, actually I’m sitting, so I sit corrected).

However…

Without going too deep into the grammar, which could cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over, I think the source of why I consider all the examples in my previous post passive while you (Lori) would call only some of them passive lies (or sould that be lays — this is why grammar spooks me sometimes) in the fact that I don’t consider the “am” in “I am blocked” an intransitive verb.

Readers: DON’T GLAZE OVER! Hang in there, I’ll explain that quickly and painlessly and then bring it all back to the question of writer’s resistance. Think of intransitive verbs as “existential” verbs, that is, they describe a state of being: “I am lonely” or Lori’s example “I am tall” or “The dinner was delicious.” There is no active alternative for the ‘to be’ (“Loneliness pervades my being” or “Delicious describes the dinner” is just silly).

When ‘to be’ is used in the passive construction there is an active alternative if we identify who or what performed the action. For example, “I was attacked” is passive; the active version is “Joe attacked me” or “An unknown assailant attacked me.” This is because “attacked” is a transitive verb. According to Margaret Shertzer in The Elements of Grammar, “transitive verbs show action, either upon someone or something” (p. 26).

Someone did the “attacking” on the “I” in “I was attacked”; there is no one or nothing that does the “talling” in “I am tall.” “Attack” is transitive; “am” is intransitive.

I consider “block” a transitive verb – someone is doing the blocking. When we say “I’m blocked” about writing, the person doing the blocking is almost always the speaker. From my perspective, “I’m blocked” is not an existential (intransitive) statement of who or what I am, the way “I am tall” is. It is a statement of what I do to myself. In my opinion, “I’m blocked” is passive (the way “I was attacked” is passive); the active form is “I block myself.”

This is the point I wanted to make: Too many writers think that being blocked is something that just happens to us. It’s not. It’s something we do to ourselves. That perspective gives us the power to change; we can stop blocking ourselves.

Two Postscripts for the Philosophically Inclined

1: A mind-bending bit of research related to all this: Research shows that our thoughts profoundly influence our emotions. In the simplest terms, think of happy things and you’ll feel happy; think of sad things and you’ll feel sad. So maybe “is happy” isn’t an intransitive statement of what a person is. Maybe we should say “I think happy” rather than “I am happy.” Hmm…

2. At WisCon (a feminist science fiction convention), I heard a linguist discuss how passive formations like “A woman was attacked,” which are typical in our media:

  • maintain our perception that women are passive (because women are linked so often with passive voice constructions)
  • and at the same time, make women somehow responsible for the attack because “a woman” is in the position in the sentence that is usually reserved for the “actor” of the sentence.

There is a difference in how we perceive the woman in these two sentences:

  • “A woman was attacked in the park last night”
  • and “An unknown assailant attacked a woman in the park last night.”

In the first case, there just a hint that maybe the woman shouldn’t have been in the park. Hmm again…

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4 Comments on “Don’t Be Passive Part 2”

  1. rosannebane May 6, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Glad to hear it! Thanks.

    Like

  2. kitesurf school May 6, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Thanks for disclosing such precious information as it will be of great use for my older daughter.

    Like

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  1. Want a Shot at a Free Copy of Around the Writer’s Block? « The Bane of Your Resistance - July 30, 2012

    […] Don’t Be Passive Part 2 […]

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  2. 2010 in review « The Bane of Your Resistance - January 4, 2011

    […] Don’t Be Passive Part 2 March 2010 2 comments 3 […]

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