Abusing the passive voice means zombies to me

I have a new way of making bad writing more entertaining and keeping my own writing from being bad*.

If you see a phrase that uses the passive voice, or, heaven save you, you’re about to use the passive voice to obfuscate, add the phrase “by zombies” to the end and reconsider.

President Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union address, after Iran-Contra:

“And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.”

Improved by this technique:

“And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held by zombies in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made by zombies in trying to do so.”

Example from an article I was reading today:

“No longer deemed an exotic, esoteric or mystical activity, meditation has become a mainstream activity.”

Improved by this technique:

“No longer deemed an exotic, esoteric or mystical activity by zombies, meditation has become a mainstream activity.”

Because apparently some people are confused about this, the passive voice is when a writer hides the subject of a verb. She might do this for mendacious reasons as in the first example, or because her vision of good writing is clouded by cliche and fear of specificity, in the second.

Sometimes I use the passive voice when I’m writing to protect someone else–“The plane tickets to DC were not bought on time” or “The DNS SPF record was incorrectly modified”–but that’s a cowardly use of language, and though polite and to a certain extent kind, it is not good writing.

I am afraid of becoming a bad writer, of writing text that kills language. Toni Morrison’s calls of that kind of “statist language” in her 1993 Nobel Lecture sticks in my mind when I begin to write poorly:

[A] dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.

For my New Year’s resolution this year, I committed to writing at least 300 words every day. And I’ve done it, every day except for one, when I was awake for 36 hours flying from Beirut to Amman to Istanbul to Washington DC. But if I only count days as periods of time which end with me sleeping in a bed, and not on the surprisingly comfortable benches in the Amman airport, I’ve kept my resolution so far.

I write every day, for hours, at work and sometimes I write well. But I realized when I was visiting family in California before the New Year that I was not getting better at the kind of enlivening language I believe Dr Morrison would want to constrain and combat and perhaps conquer that writing which “actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.”

So I write on my own, for myself and some of my friends. Because I’m afraid of being a bad writer.

Afraid enough to insert random zombies into my proof-reading habits.

*ht to the tumblr followers who put @johnsonr‘s tweet from last fall on my radar.

Inspirational Quote:

“She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise.”–Dr. Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture

1 Comment

  1. I am bothered by the examples of your writing which seems to be a more careless journalistic style than an object lesson. Granted, I was educated long ago in a more formal style, yet it does offend me to just ignore minimal connections between one sentence and the next while continuing a list of issues or objects.

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