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passive voice and describing history  RSS feed

 
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I'm trying to understand how I can describe past event and not have a 'passive voice' error.

Of course, this is more difficult because I don't understand what 'passive voice' is and why I don't want it.

Here's an example.  How would you say this without using a passive voice?

People have been growing flax for thousands of years, in many different parts of the world.  In ancient Egypt, planting times were governed by the seasonal floods of the Nile.  In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring, and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley.  China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times.



It says there are three errors.

What other errors am I missing? 
 
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I didn't know passive voice was something to avoid when writing. Your writing reads very nicely for me.

Your first sentance has an active voice. Someone is doing something--in your case, "people" are growing flax, and it's worded so that the verb "have been growing" is attached to the people.

If your first sentence were passive, it would read "flax has been grown by people for thousands of year." The "subject" is the flax in this sentence, rather than people (even though, in reality, it's the people doing the work). The active version, that you used, is "people have been growing flax for thousands of years." To make it active, you want the verb attached to the subject who's actually doing the thing.

According to this tutorial (https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html), a tip to look for is the word "by"--if it's in the sentence, your sentence might very well be passive. You can see how, when I turned your first sentence into a passive one, the word "by" appeared.

Your other three sentences are the ones your program thinks are passive. (The other three sentences are thought to be passive by the program=passive version of the other sentence)

  • "In ancient Egypt, planting times were governed by the seasonal floods of the Nile"=The Nile's seasonal floods governed the planting times of anchient Egypt. You can see the word "by" in your original sentence.  The words following "by" are what your subject should actually be: "Seasonal floods of the Nile." I switched it to "Nile's seasonal floods" because it seemed to flow better. You could also say, "In ancient Egypt, the Nile's seasonal floods governed the planting times"


  • "In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring, and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley" I don't think this one is passive, but I could be wrong...


  • "China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times" This doesn't seem passive to me, either, but I guess it could be rewritten as "There were different planting times in China, India...." But, that's more confusing


  • I like how you started each sentence with the countries/regions it was about. That made it easy to follow. The second sentance might be improved by becoming "active," and the last two sentences sound good as they are.

    Here's how it'd look with the second sentence active:

    "People have been growing flax for thousands of years, in many different parts of the world. In ancient Egypt, the Nile's seasonal floods governed the planting times.  In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring; and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley.  China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times."

    vs

    "People have been growing flax for thousands of years, in many different parts of the world.  In ancient Egypt, planting times were governed by the seasonal floods of the Nile.  In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring, and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley.  China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times."

    (I think there should be a semicolon in "In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring; and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley" since "In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring" is a complete sentence; and " and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley." When two things are combined that could be complete sentances, a semicolon ";" or a dash "--" or a colon ":" should be used, rather than a comma ","....If I remember my college grammar right, LOL!)
     
    Nicole Alderman
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    You might also be getting the "passive voice" squiggles because grammar editors aren't always right. I remember mine in college was wrong quite a bit. Yours might not be picking up on the fact that "China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America" is your "subject."

    Maybe it wants you to say "People in China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America  all had different planting times." Since "people" are living, active things, and countries are not. But, starting every sentence with "people" is repetitive and boring and makes for bad writing. It could be changed to "Farmers in China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times." But having the first words being the countries makes it easier to read.

    I guess you could also say "The Chinese, Indians, Middle Easterners, Japanese, Africans and later North Americans,  all had different planting times" but that's really long-winded and doesn't flow nearly as well as "China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times."

    Your writing is generally nice and concise and easy to follow. Some passive sentences can be improved by making it active (or should I say, "Making a sentence active sometimes improves a passive sentence"?). But, in general, I think your writing is easy to follow, informative, not-repetitive, and interesting. If you're worried about a sentance, try switching the order of words around. If it doesn't sound better, it's probably good as it is!
     
    raven ranson
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    Thanks for the help.  It's a difficult idea to understand, but your explanation was lovely and clear.
     
    Nicole Alderman
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    Nicole Alderman wrote:You might also be getting the "passive voice" squiggles because grammar editors aren't always right. I remember mine in college was wrong quite a bit.



    WordPress blogs often use Yoast SEO (a plugin to make your content easier to find in search engines). The "passive voice" detector in it is often incorrect, too. Fortunately, it doesn't expect 100% active voice so a little extra rewriting can make it happy.
     
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    The way I remember active and passive voice is: If somebody or something does something, it is active. If somebody or something suffers something (something is done to them), it is passive. So 'planting times were governed', 'flax was planted' and 'flax was sewn' are all passive. This might be the three alleged errors. Having said that, i do not think these are errors at all. It reads just fine and in my opinion things that are mostly passive, like inanimate objects or abstracts, can be used with the passive voice once in a while. Especially if the person being active is not in the sentence, like the people doing the planting and the sowing.
     
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    I tend to think and speak in passive voice, but find active voice much more compelling in writing. I love them both, but I think Hemingway is much more efficient than Poe at getting the point across.
     
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    I think the most important thing in non-fiction writing is that your sentences are both easy on the eye as well as clear in meaning. The passive voice is sometimes aesthetically more pleasing (as in your example), but it can also be used to hide agency or responsibility, or to gloss over gaps of knowledge on the author's part. For example, you should definitely try to avoid sentences like "It was decided that...," or "Mistakes were made" because they hide as much as they reveal (Who made the decision? Who made the mistake?).

    As such, I don't think there's any problem with the sentences you provide: flax was planted, flax was sewn, it's fairly obvious that this was done generally in the regions you mention. Rewriting it so that it's in the active voice ("Farmers in Western Europe planted flax in the spring, whereas oral legend informs us that farmers in the Himalayas and the Alps sowed it in the fall, at the same time as barley") doesn't really serve any useful purpose. The passive voice shouldn't be avoided mechanically, in my opinion, as long as you make sure that it's not concealing information you should be revealing.
     
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    As a sometime English teacher and sometime editor, I agree with F, above!

    Those squiggles showing the passive voice are not marking it as an error. They are marking it as a place that you might consider changing a passive sentence to an active sentence to make it more lively. But your use of the passive was appropriate there.

    The passive should be used when you want to avoid saying who does or did the action, or when you don't want to focus on the who does the action by bringing it to the front.

    Here's an inappropriate use of the passive, seen all the time on Indian construction sites, eg if construction is blocking the normal passage: "Inconvenience is regretted" -- This is just a slime evasive use of the passive voice.
     
    pollinator
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    As others have mentioned, passive voice is not wrong. It has a place and purpose. I believe what has happened is that someone in our past heard that passive voice was not correct for a specific use and then that concept was more broadly applied. Now, we have the misunderstanding that passive voice is wrong. I've even seen some grammar guides advising that passive voice should be avoided.

    Journalistic writing is an example where most are taught to avoid the passive voice. Several reasons why have already been mentioned. As you might guess, journalistic writing is an attempt to convey facts and answer questions the reader might have about the topic. The active voice is usually a better approach for journalistic writing, though there can be skilled exceptions. As F Van Roosbroeck mentioned, what is important for non-fiction is the conveying of information that isn't difficult to read.

    Whenever we write something, we all know we should proofread it. After edits are made we must not be tempted to call it done. Take the writing and read it out loud. You will be amazed at what hearing it does to improve your writing. I think it's the single most important step in writing. Not only does this help you catch mistakes, it can also send up a flag at a grammatically correct sentence that doesn't really work like you thought when you heard it in you head during composition. This happens to me all the time. Finally, it also helps you feel the rhythm of the writing. A read aloud can help you hear that sentences are too long and need be be broken up to vary the rhythm of the piece or for clarity.
     
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    People have been growing flax for thousands of years, in many different parts of the world.  In ancient Egypt, planting times were governed by the seasonal floods of the Nile.  In Western Europe, flax was planted in the spring, and yet, in the Himalayas and Alps, oral legend tells that flax was sewn in the fall, at the same time as barley.  China, India, the Middle East, Japan, Africa, and later North America, all had different planting times.

    could be

    Grown around the world for thousands of years, flax was sown in different seasons. In ancient Egypt, the Nile's seasonal floods governed when to plant. Western Europeans planted flax in the spring, yet oral legends recount that growers in the Himalayas and Alps planted flax in the fall, alongside barley. Growers around the world planted flax in the right season for their climate. The term "towhead" comes from the word for flax or hemp fibers and their resemblance to white blond hair.

    Of course the first sentence is passive voice, but it works (and spells "sown" correctly).
     
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