“Use the active voice.”
— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition
I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”
As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”
I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.
What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.
Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).
The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.
This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.
Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:
It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.
Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.
Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”
At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.
Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.
River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser
To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:
The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …
They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”
In a recent post of mine
“a red cord thing”
English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.
The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:
I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).