Adverbs and Passive Voice

Gingerly and discreetly, the adverbs were approached

You’ve probably noticed the use of adverbs has been renounced lately. All those ly words and more such as very, just, never, often, that are being looked upon with scorn, along with the use of passive voice. Meanwhile, see what I did there?

Yes, overusing adverbs in prose or poetry is lazy and reading it is boring, but so is reading verbose descriptions in order to avoid a simple adverb. Passive voice has suffered the same fate. It has been tossed out the window by many ‘experts’ in writing, but that’s a mistake. You’ll find it in all good books from the classics to contemporary literature. The “all or nothing” approach does not work.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King

“Adjectives are the sugar of literature and adverbs the salt.” Henry James

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Ernest Hemingway

What do you think? Yes or no?

Have a look at the examples below.

“She is quite the ballerina,” he responded dryly.

“She is quite the ballerina,” he responded. His voice was matter-of-fact, but the curl in his lip hinted at humor born in irony.

Which one works? Both may have merit depending on the context.

In the first example with the dreaded adverb, the mood and personality of the speaker are clear and concise, as is his statement. In other words, the writing matches the moment. The adverb works.

If the point is to lead the reader to consider more about the character and allude to a mysterious part of his personality that will play an important part in the plot, then the second example can work.

It comes down to intent

Avoiding adverbs completely or using them to fill the text are equally counterproductive to good writing. Good writing is balanced. The sentences are varied and the words are chosen to transport the reader and bring each scene to life. Ernest Hemingway is known for his clear, direct style, but he did not toss out all the adverbs. Sometimes, they are essential as in this passage from The Old Man and the Sea:

“They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen.”

And a matter of style for the story

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a style very different from Hemingway’s. Some critics have called it “purple prose” because they thought his language was so flowery it got in the way of the story. Needless to say, others do not share this opinion. Tolkien broke every so-called rule in writing, including using parentheses. Here’s an example from The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Frodo was the only one present who had said nothing. For some time he had sat silent beside Bilbo’s empty chair, and ignored all remarks and questions. He had enjoyed the joke, of course, even though he had been in the know. He had difficulty in keeping from laughter at the indignant surprise of the guests. But at the same time he felt deeply troubled: he realized suddenly that he loved the old hobbit dearly. Most of the guests went on eating and drinking and discussing Bilbo Baggins’ oddities, past and present; but the Sackville-Bagginses had already departed in wrath. Frodo did not want to have any more to do with the party. He gave orders for more wine to be served; then he got up and drained his own glass silently to the health of Bilbo, and slipped out of the pavilion.”

Passive voice

We are obsessed with getting rid of passive voice in writing. While texts that are constructed using mostly passive voice are an ideal replacement for sleeping pills, throwing them all out is another mistake. If you use any of the digital editing tools, you are already familiar with the dreaded messages about voice.

What is the difference?

Active: Susan milked the cows.

Passive: The cows were milked by Susan.

In the first example, Susan (subject) milked (verb) the cows (direct object). The doer of action did the action to the receiver of the action. It is active and immediate.

In the second example, The cows (subject) were milked (verb + auxiliary verb “be”) by Susan (prepositional phrase). The receiver of action had the action done by the doer of the action. It feels clumsy in this example and there is no sense of immediacy.

So why use passive voice at all?

Sometimes, we don’t want to state who did the action. It may be unimportant compared to the action itself. Let’s go back to the unfortunate ballerina for a minute.

Her name had been removed from the roster.

The person who actually removed the ballerina’s name is unknown. Identifying the doer is not important, nor is the identity wanted at this point. Passive voice is necessary here.

Using passive voice at the right time can add variety to your sentences and add to the rhythm of the story. When you run your manuscript through automated editing tools and warnings for passive voice pop up, have a look at each one and make sure it serves the right purpose. If there are too many, make some changes.

If you are wondering about editing tools, we’ll be talking about them in the next tutorial.

What would happen if we all wrote by the rules?

If writers kept to every modern rule in writing, there would be no adverbs, very few adjectives, no parentheses, and only active voice in every book. In other words, the style would be consistent and the only difference would be the story. Personally, I think this would be ideal for a library in hell.

Find your voice. Write sentences with purpose and weave them into the fabric of what comes before and after. Pay attention to rhythm and cadence. Your words should sing and if it means using adjectives and passive voice to fully explore the harmonies, so be it.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nellieanna Hay

    Language is to serve people’s purposes, not the reverse. Overusing any of its provisions suggests the reverse. But using it to express what one wants to express strongly suggests the former!

    1. Alexandra

      Yes, exactly! There are no hard and fast rules in writing—there can’t be. E. E. Cummings shocked a few people in his day, but it worked!

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