To Be or Not To Be 2

“Jeeves shimmered in with the glass, and stuck it competently on the table.”
“Jeeves filtered in with the tea. ”
“He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jellyfish.”
“He trickled into my room one morning with a good old cup of tea and intimated that there was something doing.”

My Man Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

The above are all sentences from one story in a collection by P.G. Wodehouse. I had always wanted to read a little Wodehouse, mostly because I like saying the last name, but when I stumbled on this collection in the free kindle section, I was unprepared for how fun and light and vintage-y his writing is. It’s completely enjoyable.

What I am highlighting today is how action verbs work to both sustain my interest and create a kind of mystique in a character. Here, we see that Jeeves can shimmer, filter, move unnoticed, and trickle. These are all strong qualities for a valet or butler (I’m not sure which as I’m neither British or rich). If I’m going to hire such a person, I want him to be quiet, and if he arrives shimmering with a glass, even better.

Stories, essays, and books filled with passive “to be” verbs don’t hold my attention long. (Hat tip here to alert passive voice aficionado who brought the errors of my passive ways to my passive attention.) He was going. She is pretty. We are at the store.

Better examples of the passive voice would be:

The banana was smushed by the angry gorilla.
The writer was informed of her mistake.
The hills were avoided by the runner because hills are stupid.
My Man Jeeves was written by Wodehouse.

Examples 2 and 4 above show that passive voice works in some cases. And in fact, sometimes it is the only way to communicate. According to grammar, scientific writing employs the passive voice out of necessity. At other times, such as in the above exapamples, the sentences explain exactly what they mean to say. There is no reason to change the second, while the fourth could be made active.

It would be hard to imagine, and in fact impossible to write, how Jeeves shimmered in the passive voice: “The room was shimmered into…” Is hardly sensical. The agent is Jeeves, and he shimmered. The passive voice would say, “The tea was brought in by Jeeves.” If you can tie the action directly to the do-er, do it.

I’m not going to go into transitve verbs and participles, because that’s not the point here. If you’re interested, see the link above or try the editing quiz at the same site. Alternatively, you could troll the internet for honest mistakes and leave passive comments.

So what?

How do we get rid of these boring verbs and awkward sentences? We assassinate them. We edit them out of existence. They must occur, in any writing. They help move the story along. Not every action needs to be a clue to character or dense with meaning. Sometimes you just need “to be.” I would argue that passive TONE is one that uses too many forms of the infinitive “to be,”

Readers, Try this:
As you read, anything, notice how you react when you come across a coven of “to be”s. How does the writing seem? Do you want to pay attention, or do you find yourself skimming are the sentences smooth and evocative or do the jolt along like a broken roller coaster?

Writers, Try this:
Choose one recently written paragraph and look for passive verbs and passive voice. Decide which ones can be replaced with more noticeable, invigorating verbs. Alternatively, write a paragraph with ONLY to be verbs. Then write a paragraph with none. These are all ways to practice tone, voice, and strong action.

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2 thoughts on “To Be or Not To Be

  • Andrea Cumbo

    Great explanation . . . and you provide balance in your perspective. It’s not always wrong to use passive voice, but it makes our writing so much stronger when we use mostly active.

  • kt_writes

    See? You’re such a fabulous writer you couldn’t even get yourself to come up with true examples of the passive voice! Thanks for these good reminders.