The Open Door, Grammatically

I’ve been reading a new novel written by a colleague, and it’s a fine piece of writing. He knows his way around the techniques of writing but, as happens once in a while for me, the reading taught me a lesson. You see, being a writer is as much a curse as it is a blessing; I can’t to save me read for pleasure any more. I’m always trying to learn something from the way a writer uses words, structures a story, uses grammar rules to his/her advantage. Or not.


The lesson this reading taught me has to do with the use of passive voice. (Now, if you’re a reader only and think I’m going to go technical on you, bear with me. What I have to say here just might enhance your future reading.) Consider the two sentences below:

The skyscraper was built, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (passive voice)

(                ) built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.    (active voice)

Passive voice is just fine, given its intent. Normal grammar dogma tells you to use passive voice if your intent is to write formally. This is great in business when you don’t want to give details that might provide a certain judgment on the subject at hand. Then notice the active voice option above. It gives you the same information as the previous sentence but, as the parens indicate, something’s missing. So let’s fill in the blank below:

A small-time developer built the skyscraper, and it’s now the pride of Baltimore.

See how active voice begs for specifics? How, when that one blank is filled in, you have the makings of a story? I.e., How did the small-time developer get the job? Was the developer able with his/her resources to build such an edifice? Was the public against it? Did no big-time developer want the job? And if so, why? And so on.

So, writers, know you intent in structuring sentences, and write accordingly. Readers, if you see a bit of writing laden with passive voice, you may be heading into troubled waters, reading-wise. Or it may just bore you to tears.


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