Edited because in my first Batman example, someone pointed out the word “pounded” made them think of something other than hitting and resulted in unintentional hilarity!
Anybody remember this?
Schoolhouse Rock Verb: That’s What’s Happening!
If you don’t remember Schoolhouse Rock, you’re too young, and I’m truly sorry. You missed out!
Verbs tell us like it is! They tell us what’s happening, what the character is doing. How we use them makes the difference between exciting and boring, ho-hum writing.
What’s going on in this sentence?
- The Joker was pummeled hard by Batman’s fist. The crimson paint of his smile was enhanced by the blood from his mouth.
If you said, “Those sentences are passive,” congratulations.
Who is doing something in this passage?
Batman’s fist, or rather, Batman, since he pummels the Joker. Joker just sits there and takes it. Batman is the subject of the sentence, and Joker the object. In passive construction, the subject of the sentence receives the action, instead of performing the action.
To keep the sentence from boring people to tears, you must remove the passive verbs and replace them with active verbs. Active verbs tell readers what happens. They have more flavor and color.
Using active verbs, the subject performs the action on the object, like this:
- Batman pummeled the Joker. Joker laughed. Blood from his mouth enhanced his crimson-painted smile.
Batman acts upon Joker. He does something. The blood is the subject of the second sentence. It adds to the red paint Joker likes to wear on his mouth. The active sentences give a more dynamic feel to the passage, and we can see better what Batman is doing and how he does it.
Notice that the active construction takes fewer words. Hard is unnecessary, because pummeled tells us how Batman hit Joker. So is fist, since we know Batman pummels with his fists. Active verbs tend to be more descriptive.
It’s not bad to use passive language sometimes. It sounds more formal, for example, as in a police media liaison officer reading from a prepared statement.
- The Joker was beaten by an unknown assailant. It is believed the Batman may be responsible.
Official police reports are almost always written in passive language. Besides formality, it maintains distance and a neutral tone. Also, they don’t know who beat the Joker, so an actor is not present in the sentence.
- All the stolen jewels were dissolved. (By what? By who? Again, we don’t know.)
You can also use that construction to establish character. One Joker henchman telling another would probably not use the same language to describe the incident.
- “Yeah, the Batman bashed his face in,” George said to Lenny. “And I heard he laughed the whole freakin’ time.”
George’s story is plain and simple, using active language because that’s how most people speak. He’s a down-to-earth character and doesn’t need to make a formal report.
A newscaster speaking of the same incident might use a bit of active language in his newscast:
- “Sources say an unknown assailant beat the Joker badly. Police suspect the mysterious vigilante known as the Batman,” the handsome blond anchor said.
Or, he might not:
- “Sources say the Joker was beaten badly by an unknown assailant. The mysterious vigilante known as the Batman is the police department’s prime suspect,” the handsome blond anchor said.
Which one sounds better? The active one does. Not only that, but it takes less time to say. I imagine news people wouldn’t want to have to rush through their copy. They make more mistakes that way.
You can find some resources about active and passive language at these websites:
Purdue Online Writing Lab
Essay Writing Assistance – Columbia College of Missouri
Here’s a great one with lots of examples:
Thanks for providing this great refresher.
You’re welcome! :)
Great post. I’m always wading through my WIP trying to stomp out passive language. Thanks for the great links.
Me too, Raquel. I found one just today and this is like the tenth pass through this damn thing!