There’s a neat trick – first suggested, as far as I can discover, by the American academic Rebecca Johnson – for identifying a passive construction in case of doubt. Try adding ‘by zombies’ after the verb. If you can do so, you’re looking at the passive voice.
‘Everyone loves by zombies’, America’s Got Talent, is recognisably not English. ‘America’s Got Talent is loved by zombies’ is not only a grammatical sentence, but probably true.
One of the oldest and most persistent writer’s tips is that you should prefer the active to the passive voice; or, in its extreme form, that you should always avoid the passive.
‘Like laughing at your own joke,’ said F. Scott Fitzgerald of this most gaudy of punctuation marks. He had a point. Overusing exclamation marks makes you sound hectoring and overexcited. That idea of laughing at your own joke – of paying yourself a compliment – has been there from the beginning. When they arrived in the language in the fourteenth century, David Crystal tells us, they were called the ‘point of admiration’ – and later, the ‘admirative point’ and the ‘wonderer’. It’s since Dr Johnson that we’ve had ‘exclamation’ – shifting the emphasis from admiration to the expression of strong feeling.
It’s worth being particularly careful of boastful self descriptions; or, worse, boastful self-descriptions that appear to be neutral or even self-deprecating. It’s the equivalent of giving yourself a nickname like ‘Dutch’ or ‘Ace’ and hoping it sticks. You are asking to be bullied. Some are obvious. If you describe yourself as a ‘maverick’, a ‘cynic’, a ‘reprobate’, a ‘provocateur’, a ‘wag’, or similar, you are on a sure course for others to apply less flattering descriptions to you.
But others are subtler: ‘sceptic’, ‘realist, “radical or “progressive’ are all essentially boasts masquerading as statements of fact. ‘Sceptic’ says: ‘I’m the sort of person who thinks critically about what I read or hear.’ Since everyone presumably aspires to do just that, you’re trying to say you’re cleverer than those around you. ‘Radical’ means nothing at all, in this context, except that the speaker thinks that there’s a particular disruptive bravery to his her political persona – which is a judgment for others to make.
If not quite a ‘rule’, it’s at least a strong guideline for successful rhythm that you should put the shortest term in any list first and the longest last. This is the principle of climax underscoring the rising tricolon. ‘I am Scottish by aspiration, birth and choice’ has nothing of the drum-roll about it. ‘I will be fishing for cod, blue-fin tuna, the inedible but mighty basking shark, and the many-tentacled deep-sea octopus’ just, somehow, tends to sound better than ‘I will be fishing for the many-tentacled deep-sea octopus, blue-fin tuna, the inedible but mighty basking shark, and cod.’
Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan has said: ‘Once you’ve finished the first draft of your speech – stand up and speak it aloud. Where you falter, alter.’ That applies especially to speeches, of course: in that case you’re trying to produce something that’s hard to stumble over when spoken aloud. Tongue-twisters such as ‘red lorry, yellow lorry’ are easier on the page than in the mouth. But it is also good advice to the prose writer. There is a developmental connection between reading aloud and reading silently – and there is a neurological one too.