John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

This is not a passive construction

Once more, with feeling.

My arm has not wearied from hacking away at the weedy growth of bad advice on grammar, whether it is the superstition about split infinitives, the nonsense about not splitting verb forms (Do you hear me, Associated Press Stylebook? It’s. Not. Over), or misguided attempts to avoid passive constructions.

What has become depressingly clear is that bad advice has been coming from people who are unable to identify what a split infinitive is or even what the passive voice in English is. And before you start rending your garments and covering your head with ashes because of the deplorable ignorance of the young, I have to tell you that this level of ignorance obtains among senior newspaper columnists, teachers of composition, graduate teaching assistants, and others whose certainty of opinions can be matched only by the shakiness of their information.

If you are of the stamp-out-the-passive-voice camp, pull your hand back before you strike all the forms of to be in a sentence. Some of them are merely copulatives (Easy there, big fella, that doesn’t mean what you think it does) linking a subject with a predicate complement. A sentence beginning There is may not be exciting, but it is not a passive construction. And it is possible to have a passive construction that lacks any form of to be.

The tireless Arnold Zwicky has put together a succinct summary of issues involving the passive voices and the mistakes people make about it, accompanied by links to postings at Language Log. If you have any serious intention about being informed before you start marking up those student papers or criticizing your subordinates’ memos, you owe it to yourself to have a look.