Conan the Grammarian takes on Passive Voice and the Past Perfect Tense

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Passive voice and past perfect tense are two separate concepts and are not related, as a rule.

"I whacked the idiot," Conan said actively.
"The idiot was whacked by me," Conan said passively.

Two people and a verb, but arranged in two ways. And it changes the flow of the story. The first sentence focuses on who does the whacking and Conan gets on with her life (or buries the body, depending on how hard she whacked). In the second sentence, the whackee is the focus of the sentence and it sorta happens off in a vague area and tries to avoid calling much attention to the whacker. (And if Conan whacks someone, she wants the world to know it.) Active voice is direct and powerful. Passive voice is, well, passive, and slows the forward motion of a story. Unless there's a reason, Conan recommends active voice almost all of the time for your story.

Notice that active or passive voice has nothing to do with the word "had." "Had" can be used in either construct, of course.

"Had" is used in basically two ways - as a means of showing possession and as a means of setting off way past from just simple past.
Conan had a Magic Marker of Doom, but some idiot stole it. (Maybe that's why she whacked the idiot.) Conan possessed a Magic Marker of Doom, but some idiot stole it.

Then there is the past perfect tense, which is an important part of the English language. It is used to set off action before the current action of the story. Conan leaped the fence to chase the idiot, just as she had leaped it to get away from the nefarious Harvard comma.
Conan leaped the fence to chase the idiot, just as she leaped it to get away from the nefarious Harvard comma.

The first sentence shows that Conan escaped the Harvard comma quite some time ago, which is what we want. The second implies that both fence-leapings took place at around the same time and were probably related.
In a story, you might have a flashback to your hero's childhood. The usual way of writing this scene would be to use the past perfect tense for two sentences or so, to establish that it's happening before the present story time. (Past perfect is the "had done" part versus the "did" part.) You can then switch to the simple past for the rest of the scene (the "did" part), and end it with another couple of sentences in the past perfect tense. This signals the end of the flashback, and you resume in current story time with the simple past tense.

What the Heck is This?

Friday, May 16, 2014

I'm a professional geek.  I'm also a writer.  And I field questions from fellow writers - or actually from anyone with a question.  About computers.  About computer-related scenes in your books.  About how to do all kinds of stuff to your manuscripts.  Got a question?  Why does my computer ...?  How do I do ... in Word?  Is this computer scene OK?  Can my hero/heroine do ... in my book?  Ask away.  We shall answer, one way or another.

And once in a while Conan the Grammarian shows up to cry over egregious (and not-so-egregious) grammar screw-ups.  So send questions about those, too.  Or examples of outrageous things that you've seen.  Or just stuff that made you giggle.  We promise to help make fun of them.

We want to make life simpler for you - so Conan doesn't use technical terms, namely because she can't remember them.  I do remember them, but I don't use them, either, if I can possibly avoid doing so.  Too much work.

By the way, Conan and I both cry over some of the more annoying internetty abbreviations, when we're not howling with laughter.  "UR" for "you're" or "your" being unanimously voted the most irritating.  There is a difference between the two words.  They are not interchangeable.

And Ur was a Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia.

Be forewarned - Grammarians and Writers tend to like the English language. So the internetty-kiddie-speak may be edited.  Or mocked.  Feel free to help us mock.

So welcome to my computer room/writing studio, and bring on the questions - and comments.

The Geek Writer Cat