Getting Back to Active (Voice)

volcano“It’s back to work that I want to go,” Grammar Smith said.

“Lieutenant, you are still suffering the effects of your deep undercover assignment,” Dr. Query said.  “You helped save the world but at great personal cost. You just don’t come back from that very quickly.”

“I’ve been working really hard at it, though. I really think I’m ready.”

“Yes, you’ve made great progress. However, I think you need a little more time.”

“But we just stopped a major passive voice outbreak. There’s still work to be done,” Grammar pleaded.

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” Dr.Query said. “You’re just not quite ready.”

Will Grammar Smith be able to detox from passive voice? Will she be able to get back to actively fight against English language abuses? Will Dis Connect ever stop eating doughnuts?

Stay tuned…

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Act Now to Save the Sun

eclipse gifDetective Dis Connect was worried. He hadn’t heard from Lieutenant Grammar Smith in two weeks. Smith was deep undercover pursuing Peter Passive  and his group of energy sappers.

Things were getting dire. Passive’s network of followers had grown to critical mass. Their ennui was starting to affect the world, maybe even the universe. Experts reported that the lack of active voice was starting to influence the sun. Things were going to turn dark, very dark. People needed to avoid the passive voice.

Grammar was supposed to contact Dis with the location of Passive’s largest group of disciples. The Department of English Language Offenses could then take action.

Dis hadn’t heard a peep from her.

Riinnnnng! Riinnnggg!

This was it.

“Hello,” Dis answered.

“Peter Passive’s group was infiltrated by me,” Grammar said.

“Where are you?”

“The location is unknown by me.”

“Grammar, why are you talking so funny?”

“It is the sun that is the target. Light will be blocked by the group’s inertia.”

“Grammar, come in from the cold!” Dis was desperately concerned. “You’re starting to become one of them!”

“Texts, tweets, and posts in active voice must be sent out immediately by grammar geeks everywhere. Saving our world can only be done this way.”

“Grammar! Where are you? I’ll come get you.”

“The forces of active voice must be sent out today by grammar geeks. You must unite them!”

The line suddenly went dead.

As worried as he was about Grammar, Dis had more important things to do.

Sergeant Metaphor came running into the squad room as Dis hung up on his first call to Grammar Geeks of the World.

“Det. Connect! Look out the window. The sun! It’s starting to go dark.”

Would Dis’s efforts be too late? Will Grammar be able to escape the lethargy Peter Passive had trapped her in? Would the Grammar Geeks of the world be able to pump out enough active voice sentences to save the planet?

Do your bit. Bring back the sun.

Weekend Wrinkle: Punctuation & Road Signs

PunctuationandroadsignsHow many of us can’t seem to use punctuation marks correctly? How many believe they won’t ever get it right?

Now, how many have passed their driver’s test?

Punctuation is a lot easier if you think of the different marks as different road signs. Of course, there are rules to go along with these signs, rules we ignore at our peril. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t always strictly follow the rules. (Take it from a “lead foot.”)

stopsignPeriods [.]are like stop signs. They bring the reader to a complete stop.

Exclamation points [!] are like caution signs.caution

crossroadsQuestion marks [?] are like crossroads signs.

Commas [,] are like yield signs.yieldsign

Semicolons [;] and colons [:] are like four-way stops. allwaystop

detourParentheses [()] are like detour signs.

Dashes [–] are like lane shifts.lanneshift

Okay, so you get the basic idea. It’s not a perfect system, but it’ a good way for me to remember proper punctuation.

A Time for Every Word

TimeAn old friend from my newspaper days called me up a little while ago.

“You’ll never believe what happened,” she said.

She is in the process of training someone to take over her communications position as she transitions from semi to full retirement.

“The new person wrote a press release, and it needed a lot of help,” my friend explained, “I told her, ‘You can’t wait until the end to put in the main idea; bring it up to the beginning. This information is in the wrong place, and this isn’t correct.’  I stopped suddenly, and it came to me in a rush: I sounded just like you!”

My chest filled with pride. Years of effort had borne fruit! I was not a grammar prophet crying in the wilderness. (Stage direction: a tear of joy trickles down my face.)

One big mistake I see from lots of people who are writing to publicize their products, services, or events is burying the important stuff in a sea of dreck. They are so caught up in setting the scene and painting a pretty picture of what’s going on, that they forget they need to place what they want the reader to remember right up front.

It’s like those commercials we find so cute or funny or interesting, but can never remember what product they’re advertising.

People have to remember they’re competing in a Pacific Ocean of information. Readers want quick access, or they’ll float along to somewhere else. There’s a reason journalists are taught to lead with who, what, where, when, and how. There’s a reason they write in active, not passive, voice.

This doesn’t mean we can’t be a little creative. We just need to stay on point.

On the other hand, I can’t condemn too harshly those who insist on filling pages with useless verbal flourishes. They help keep Mona (my dog) and DC (my cat) in kibble.

Editors Against Passive Voice

I’m prejudiced. Yes, I admit that I hate passive voice.Passive Voice Boot

Unfortunately, so many people out there just love passive voice. Leading the charge are academics and government workers. (I’m leaving out lawyers; that’s a totally hopeless verbal morass best ignored.)

Let me explain. Passive voice occurs when the thing or person a verb acts upon becomes the subject. We can usually tell it’s happening because a form of the verb to be with the past participle pops up:

The long, boring text in passive voice was read by the editor.

As an editor, I am obligated to try to convert writers to the active side. It’s a struggle. I tend to collapse in a heap after a long ordeal with passive voice, large clumps of my own hair peeking out through my clenched fingers, tears of frustration building in my eyes. (Is it possible for woman to end up looking like Perry White from the ’60s show Superman? I sure hope not!)

The problem is, we’re all programmed to think that writing in passive voice makes us sound “smart” since that is how all the mucky-mucks in academia write. If passive voice really were the “smart” way to write, we’d all read college textbooks for pleasure. (“The abnormal psychology book was read by me, and excitement was generated!”)

So many fall into the passive voice trap. One area is business writing where convoluted writing, along with jargon and trendy phrases (topics for another day and another tirade) can actually hurt the bottom line. No one in business has the time to decipher writing that seems to have stepped out of the 1700s where folks wrote in a form equivalent to a bad Latin translation.Time is money, and muddy, unclear writing causes confusion and mistakes.

Sure, sometimes we need to write in passive voice but only when the noun or pronoun taking the action is the important piece in the puzzle:

John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.

How insidious is passive voice? When I was managing editor for a newspaper chain, I had one writer (who had a graduate degree, mind you) who consistently wrote in passive voice – for news stories! I constantly had to rewrite all that writer’s stories. Ticked me off big time!

“What’s the big deal?” you ask. “What’s so terribly wrong with sounding smart?”

It’s wrong because it’s selfish writing. People who are more concerned with sounding intelligent are full of themselves. We should write to clearly convey a message or a meaning. We write for the audience, not for ourselves. We should use passive voice only when necessary, not as the prevailing tone for all our writing.

Folks, use the active voice! It is so much more interesting and effective.