At the moment, I’m reading On Writing by Stephen King.
It turns out Mr King has an irrational (or perhaps entirely rational) hatred of the passive tense. And adverbs.
For those who don’t know, verbs are either active or passive. When a verb is active, the subject of a sentence (often a person) is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject – they are passive. Here’s an example:
The chicken was cooked by Jenny
Jenny cooked the chicken
Which sentence is preferable? Well, arguably neither if you’re a vegetarian – but King argues that the second sentence is preferable because it’s more direct and straightforward. It uses fewer words and gets straight to the point in a more confident manner than the passive version.
Of course, both say essentially the same thing, but they have slightly different connotations. King believes the timid writer, unsure of their voice, will opt for the passive tense in the mistaken belief it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about – when in actual fact they are not sure they know what they’re talking about.
Adverbs are words that add meaning to or modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Clear as mud? Good. According to Wikipedia, an adverb expresses manner, place, time or degree. Here are a couple of examples:
You are quite right
You are right
She is completely wrong
She is wrong
Many of us might argue that the use of an adverb adds emphasis here – she’s not just wrong; she’s completely wrong. King argues that writers use adverbs when they’re afraid they’ve not expressed themselves clearly enough – they’re afraid the sentence on its own, without the adverb, is not good enough. He argues that if you’re any good at writing, the text immediately before and after the bit where you’re tempted to use an adverb should remove any doubt as to whether she’s completely wrong. You shouldn’t need that emphasis, if you’ve written your other sentences well.
I find this really interesting. I’ve always just written words as they came into my head, and rarely if ever go back to edit my work except for typos and errant apostrophes. Having read this, I find myself wanting to go back through all of my writing to check for adverbs and passive verbs.
I remember having English lessons in school where we were given sentences and told to mark the subject, verb and object of each. I remember taking wild guesses; it was a lottery as to whether I got them right or not. I could never understand them, and to this day I can only remember which type of word is a verb because I had to conjugate verbs in Russian lessons. I couldn’t begin to tell you what an adjective or a noun is, and I had to google “adverb” in order to understand what Stephen King was on about.
But perhaps he makes a valid point. Perhaps we use too many words because we worry that if we use too few, people won’t understand what we mean.
What do you think? I would love to hear different perspectives on this. Do you go through and check your sentences for correct structure? Do you avoid the passive tense or the use of adverbs?