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"'The Frugal Editor: Do-It-Yourself Editing Secrets for Authors' is a complete course of instruction under one cover." ~ Jim Cox Editor-in-Chief Midwest Book Review

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

New Passive Voice Pet Peeve

I rarely watch TV but it seems when I do I hear something that is so grammatically ugly (or disingenuous) that I get ticked. This time I just had to tell you about it:

A little backstory first. I am re-editing and expanding the second book in my HowToDoItFrugally series (The Frugal Editor, Second Edition) and was just working on a segment about the passive voice, so I was primed for this experience.

So, this is what happened. I'm watching a pharmaceutical ad--and actually listening to--the voiceover that give all the possible side affects (usually in drone they hope no one will listen to!). These disclaimers that pharmaceuticals are required to run often use the passive voice but this one used a passive phrase I don't think I had heard before (or had not heard because they were doing such a good job of keeping me from noticing).

Anyway, it said "Occasionally things like, xxxx, xxxx, xxxx, and death can happen."

Excu-u-u-se me?  Can happen?  What a way to obscure and transfer responsibility.! Turn this around to make an active sentence and what they are really saying is: "Occasionally the drug causes death!"

Of course, passive voice isn't always a bad thing. In fact, in The Frugal Editor I show authors how to use it characterization of, say, politicians.  Do you think I should go back and make that "politicians and copywriters for pharmaceutical companies?"    
  Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:


John Yeoman said...

True, Carolyn, there are no Great Truths. Passive voice is fine for moments of calm - comfort breaks between scenes of tension. But active verbs add animation to crises. Like short sentences!

Larry Hewitt said...

Another peeve. Perhaps the most abused word in English, especially by the media, is IMPACT. To impact something is to strike it physically. Impact is not a synonym for effect. In news reproting, everything is an impact. Bureaucrats love this word, because it has no substantive meaning in this usage.

Lynnette Phillips said...

I don't know how many times I've heard this but just wasn't paying attention. Thanks Carolyn, my list of English language pet peeves has just grown.

Morgan Mandel said...

The trouble with using words so often in a different meaning than first intended is sometimes the powers that be give up and concede defeat, adding another meaning for the word, such as impact.

By listening to all of those pharmaceutical TV ads, I don't see how anyone would want to buy any of them. What is the use of advertising them on TV? Are people that desperate they'll ignore all those side effects?

Morgan Mandel

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

My goodness. I've been offline for a few days and come back to this. Seem to have struck a cord. Love the input on "impact," John. The lesson to be drawn is that--no matter how annoying passive can be (pharmaceutical ads being a prime example), if we listen we learn how to use them well and not so well. BTW, the pharmaceutical ads use them VERY well for their purposes. As they say, ______ happens and sometimes it gets thrown at us. "Happens," indeed! (-:

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