Thursday, October 2, 2008

A "Passive"-Aggressive Plea for Time

Crazy day today. Writers' lunch group meeting, column deadline, trying to get home in time for the debates. So, if you'll forgive me, here's one of my recent newspaper columns that I hope is interesting/useful enough to hold your attention till I blog again. It appeared Sept. 2 in the Glendale News-Press insert to the Los Angeles Times and around that time in other papers, including the Burbank Leader supplement to the Times, the Kilgore News-Herald in Texas, and the Venice Gondolier in Florida.

It's about passives.

* * *

A Word, Please
By June Casagrande

Once upon a time there was a wicked witch who looked at her reflection and asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the best writer of them all?”And the mirror replied, “Shakespeare” or “Hemingway” or “Twain” or “Austen” or “Rowling” or some other answer that, to the witch, meant, “Not you, honey.”

The witch became angry and decided to poison everyone who might ever wield a pen. Her weapon: a rumor, spread via poison apple (or, if I know writers, poison apple martinis), that said that verbs containing forms of “to be” plus a word with an “ing” ending are passive and therefore bad.

How do I know this happened? I don’t. But it’s the best explanation I can come up with for the surprisingly widespread confusion about passives. Here’s an example typical of the stuff I see on writers’ message boards:

“How do I get this sentence out of the passive? 'I was walking down the street.’”

Talk to the misguided writer long enough and she’ll tell you that she believes it’s passive due to “was” or due to the “ing” at the end of “walking” or both.

She’s wrong. This sentence is not passive. Nor even is, “I had been considering thinking of wishing to go walking down the street.” Terrible? Yes. Action-packed? Hardly. But passive? No.

It’s important not to confuse action with active sentence structure.

To best understand it, start with the definition of passive sentence structure. A passive sentence is one in which the true object of an action is made into the grammatical subject of the sentence.

In “Steve wrote the letter,” the action is writing. The person doing it, Steve, is the subject of the sentence.

Now consider the same sentence slightly tweaked: “The letter was written by Steve.” Here, the main action is still writing, but the grammatical subject of the sentence is not the doer, but the do-ee — the letter.

Passive sentences are often very bad. Other times, they’re the best choice of all.

Passive structure can suck the life out of a sentence faster than you can say “bo-ring. “John hit him” has more of a pulse than “He was hit by John.” But sometimes you want to keep John out of it. And in those cases, a writer is fully justified in writing “He was hit.”

There’s no rule that says you can’t use passive structure. But to avoid falling into a common novice writing trap, you must know the difference.

It’s true that forms of “to be” coupled with an “ing” verb often mean passive structure: “I was being criticized.” But an active structure can look almost identical: “I was being helpful.”

Can’t see the difference? Go back to our original definition of passives: The object of the action is made the subject of the sentence. Now look at our nearly identical sentences again. What’s the action in “I was being criticized”? Criticizing, right? Good. Now look at the word holding that place in the second sentence. “Helpful.” What’s the difference? Unlike “criticized,” the word “helpful” isn’t an action. It’s an adjective.

In “I was being criticized,” the last word is actually part of the verb phrase. It’s a past participle. But in “I was being helpful,” the whole verb phrase consists of just “was being.”

Because you’re still awake, I’ll mention that there’s a name for structures such as “I was walking.” This is called the past progressive tense, and it’s one of many tenses sentences assume. For example, “I am walking” is present progressive tense, “I walked” is simple past tense, and so on.

But that’s a lesson for another day. For today, the important thing is that “to be” plus “ing” does not a passive make.

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Linnee said...

I am such a grammar geek.
The article was enjoyed by me.
What a clear explanation of passive voice! You are being thanked.

June Casagrande said...

Thank YOU!

Yours in geekdom,

goofy said...

"A passive sentence is one in which the true object of an action is made into the grammatical subject of the sentence."

Not exactly. In these active voice sentences, the object of the action is the grammatical subject:

1 The bread cuts easily.
2 The book fell off the table.
3 I'm afraid.

1 is sometimes called "middle voice" because it is syntactically active and semantically passive. 2 is unaccusative - the subject of the intransitive verb is not the semantic agent. 3 is sometimes called a "psych verb".

June Casagrande said...

That's so interesting! And, yes, it renders that definition imprecise. So what, then, is the most precise way to define the passive?

goofy said...

LL says "the passive provides a way to treat what is normally the direct object of a verb (or, occasionally, the object of a preposition) as a subject."

So it's a syntactic construction, not a semantic one. You have to add that the English passive is formed by "be" or "get" plus the past participle.

Sentences like my 3 examples are active, or neither active nor passive, depending on how you look at it.

June Casagrande said...


Unfortunately, in my experience, the semantic emphasis is what makes the light go on above people's heads. That's when they seem to get it. (Most of the people I teach this to are people who gloss over when they hear "direct object" -- they're not quite ready to connect with the term.) Still, imprecise is imprecise. I'll reword it accordingly in the future.



goofy said...

Certainly you should teach in whatever way makes sense.
Some other interesting things about the passive. Not all passive sentences can be made active, eg "He was rumoured to be a time traveler."
Also, passive sentences do not always mean the same as their active counterparts.
No one is liked by his wife.
His wife likes no one.

June Casagrande said...

Good examples.

Yeah, it's so hard to talk about this stuff with PR professionals and magazine freelancers who've been out of school for 10 or 20 years in a way that keeps them feeling they have a grip on it.

I can actually see on their faces when they're having lightbulb moments and when they're zoning out. Jargon's like Ambien to them. Still, you know, precision and stuff ...


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