09 July 2008

The Dreaded Passive Voice, and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed by It

Reader, I'm sorry I've been neglecting you. I'm up to my waist in questions of emotional logic and over-parented characters (don't even ask) and character arcs and plot twists. In other words: BO-ring! Instead of putting you to sleep with descriptions of my incredibly exciting days (I work! Every day! And I write! Every day! Sometimes I drink tea instead of coffee! It's madness!!), I thought I'd repost a story I wrote last spring, which originally appeared on the StoryStudio Chicago blog, Cooler By The Lake.

The Dreaded Passive Voice,
and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed By It

This spring, the Bad Habits met up in Barbados for Sister Nadia’s wedding. The four of us – Sister Alison, Sister Mary, Sister Nadia, and I – lived together our senior year of college, in a house we called “The Funnery Nunnery.”

The Funnery Nunnery

We became known as the Fun Nuns, and then (after we beat everyone in town at darts) the Bad Habits.

Sister Mary Mary, Sister Mary Nadia, and Sister Mary Alison,
with honorary Fun Nun Sister Mary Dan

Sister Nadia is from Barbados, and in college we used to joke about her wedding, complaining about how we’d all be forced to travel to Barbados for it, and what a terrible burden that would be. Little did we imagine that the day would come when the Fun Nuns would indeed reunite on the beach.

Our first night

It was the first time we’d been together in six years. Sister Nadia, now living in Ethiopia, had only been back to the States once since we graduated. Sister Mary, Sister Ali, and I all live in different cities, and don’t usually get to see each other more than once or twice a year. But here we all were, happily ensconced in a Beach House. While Nadia stayed with her parents, Mary, Ali, and I worked in secret to make a scrapbook for her, The Tale of the Fun Nuns, to let Sister Nadia know that though she was leaving the convent, she’d always be our sister. I spent the days before I left gathering pictures, making photocopies, and spending WAY too much money on markers, stickers, and paper. In the Beach House, the girls and I gathered around the kitchen table, mere feet from the ocean, cutting and gluing and decorating and chatting to the soundtrack of Bajan Radio. It was bliss…

The Beach House

…until the very last day, the day we had to write the text for our lovely, hilarious history of the Fun Nuns. We had thirty or so pages of pictures and stickers and glitter with little scrolls on each page for the text to complete the fairy tale motif. We knew roughly what each page would say, but we hadn’t written the exact words yet. When we started writing, to my utter HORROR, Sisters Mary and Ali wanted to write the ENTIRE book in PASSIVE VOICE.

Needless to say, I kind of freaked out.

They read the draft aloud. “Beer was drunk… hygiene was maintained… mountains were climbed… friends were made with critters great and small… thoughts were thunk…”

“Thoughts were THUNK?” I asked. “That’s not even ENGLISH.”

“It’s cute!” they said.

“It’s passive voice! It’s terrible! No no no. Write it in active voice!” (In my defense, I was an English teacher for years, where I picked up a nasty little habit of demanding changes in sloppy writing. I know, I know, it’s obnoxious, but come on! Before they give you a license to teach English, you have to sign an affidavit swearing your loyalty to the active voice.)

“We don’t know how,” they said.

“This is the story of the Fun Nuns,” I said. “So: they drank beer, they brushed their teeth, they climbed mountains, they made friends with critters.”

“That sounds dumb,” the Sisters complained. “We like it our way.”

Beer was drunk

“Girls,” I said, “Nadia’s mother was already making fun of us for being terribly stupid despite our fancy university educations.” (This is true. The problem was that a dressmaker was making the bridesmaids’ dresses before she actually met the bridesmaids, which meant that the girls needed to send their dress measurements months ahead of time. Seeing as how most women of my generation acquire clothing by going to the store and picking out something that’s already made and already fits, the girls had no experience taking their dress measurements. One of them sent a measurement from the nape of her neck to the front of her belly button, with a note that said, “But I can’t imagine what you’d need this number for.” The mothers laughed for DAYS.)

“This is a book that Nadia will show people all over the world. We don’t want them to think that we’re ignorant Americans who don’t know any better than to use the passive voice.”

“You are really blowing this out of proportion,” they said.

Things were getting awfully tense at the Beach House. These were my best girlfriends in the world. I didn’t want to make them mad, but I honestly couldn’t drop it. “Everyone knows that passive voice is a crutch for shady people who don’t want to take ownership of their own actions. That’s not us! I mean, beer was drunk and thoughts were thunk? WE drank that beer, damn it! WE thunk those thoughts. WE incorrectly conjugated those verbs! They were crazy times! We don’t need to be embarrassed about our actions! We don’t need to hide behind the passive voice! If the book is in passive voice, then it’s like the world was happening to the Fun Nuns. But this is our story! We went out into the world! The mountains weren’t just climbed by anyone – WE climbed those mountains! The critters shouldn’t be the subject of this sentence, we should!”

We drank that beer!

I tried to pull our honorary Fun Nun, Brother Carlos, into the argument, but since English was his second or third language, it was a losing proposition. He and I got into a tangled discussion of voice while trying to find a common ground between his good English and my bad Spanish. Pretty soon, I felt everyone in the room glaring at me like I was completely off the hook. Brother Carlos asked nicely, “This is very important to you, yes? But the other way sounds good too.”

Brother Carlos stays out of it

Finally we reached a compromise. Sisters Ali and Mary could have a section of passive voice inside the text, as long as the entire story wasn’t in passive voice. Sister Molly could have her active voice at the beginning and ending of the story, and flip quickly past the passive voice pages. And Brother Carlos could have the left-over glitter dumped all over him (but that’s another story).

Of course the book turned out beautifully, and of course Sister Nadia loved it, and of course we all got a little weepy when we read through it together.

Sister Nadia and The Tale of the Fun Nuns

“Still,” I said that night, “if I ever get married, you girls had better skip the passive voice section.”

“If it will make you happy,” they said, “an active voice book will be made for you by us.”


Tony said...

Many times during my technical writing class, I was told by my instructor to never use passive voice.

Many, many times during my technical writing career, I have used passive voice.


Also, I split an infinitive up there.

Ali Brown said...

Aren't the rules allowed to be broken once they are known?