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Passive Voice in Description : Conversation question • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

Passive Voice in Description

Every month in Writer's Digest's InkWell section, we pose a question related to the writing life. Tell us your thoughts.
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DrG2
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Passive Voice in Description

Postby DrG2 » Mon Apr 21, 2014 4:51 pm

Sometimes I use passive voice in description. What do you think of the following three choices (resist the urge to rewrite them, if you can)?

1) His desk was heaped with mountains of old manuscripts and correspondence.


2) Mountains of old manuscripts and correspondence covered his desk.


3) His desk was a refuse heap. Mountains of old manuscripts and correspondence covered every square inch.


#1 is passive voice, but the reader immediately knows we are talking about his desk.

#2 is active voice, but desk is the last word of the sentence even though the writer wants to describe the state of his desk.

#3 Uses two sentences, one to bring attention to the desk, then a second to describe the clutter. They are somewhat repetitive, though, and obviously use more words.

TerryRodgers
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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby TerryRodgers » Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:08 pm

I like #2. Simple and clear.

LilliesCarol
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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby LilliesCarol » Tue Apr 22, 2014 3:31 am

I must agree with Terry. I like #2 as it is straight forward and allows the reader to clearly get the picture.
Long, long afterward in an oak I found the arrow still unbroke
And the song from beginning to end, I found again in the heart of a friend
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

James A. Ritchie
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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby James A. Ritchie » Tue Apr 22, 2014 10:07 am

Number one is what we used to call "false passive" in college. The to be construction of "was heaped" is passive, but the action of the sentence doesn't really matter, and it's apt description you're after, not action.

I usually dislike such description because it generally comes across as dull to me. I like the description of two better, not because it's active, but because I think "mountains" works better than "heaped", especially when up front like that. It paints a better mental picture.

Three is problematical because it's two sentences, and the second is technically a fragment. It might read better than the other two if you made it one sentence: Mountains of old manuscripts and correspondence covered every square inch of his desk.

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MookyMcD
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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby MookyMcD » Tue Apr 22, 2014 11:16 am

I prefer 2 as well, just from a reading perspective and having only seen that sentence. No. 1 is a decent example of one of the times passive is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable, though. Passive lets you keep the subject and focus the desk -- which, being a desk, is going to be the recipient of, and not doing, the verb.

Also, 2 could be the best sentence. I don't have enough context to know. If, for example, you are describing the room by moving from one piece of furniture to the next or something, keeping the subject "desk" could work best in terms of the paragraph's flow.

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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby cynfranks » Tue Apr 22, 2014 11:51 am

I like number #2.
Ask yourself, "What would Dickens do?"



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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby L4_LFC » Tue Apr 22, 2014 12:20 pm

I like both one and two, but when I read number one, I read it with a different tone than I did number two. I found number two to be very direct and clear, but it sounded more harsh in my head. Which sentence sounds best to you when you read it as part of the paragraph?

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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby MookyMcD » Tue Apr 22, 2014 12:33 pm


James A. Ritchie
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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby James A. Ritchie » Tue Apr 22, 2014 3:10 pm


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Re: Passive Voice in Description

Postby MookyMcD » Tue Apr 22, 2014 4:52 pm

There is a difference between being the first sentence of a novel and being posted here in isolation from any surrounding material. My point is simply that the best sentence when looking at a sentence as a standalone entity may not be the best sentence for any given paragraph, page, chapter, or novel.

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