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.


  1. I once got into a, um, discussion with a full-time editor at a technical press when they kept insisting that I remove "There is" and "There are" from sentences because "We try not to use the passive." I felt obliged to stop the proceedings for a brief disquisition on what the passive _really_ is.

    They didn't care, actually. Passive, transitive verb, expletive, sure, whatever. We don't use "There is" and "There are," call it what you want.

    If advice of this sort were dispensed without a label ("evil passive"), a lot of it would be reasonable. I think that the discussion of what constitutes the real passive kind of misses this. Granted, people who make grammatical pronouncements should know grammar, and failure to wield correct terminology should definitely be taken under advisement when judging the credibility of the advisor. But that which we (don't) call the passive by any other name would often still be an infelicitous -- or at least, improvable -- construction.

    As for people who simply run around spouting "Avoid the passive! Avoid the passive!", well, advice from those who judge grammar on ideology need not be taken.

  2. John, whether or not the TA was correct in identifying passive constructions (in the Zwicky post) do you agree that more "active" constructions would improve the writing? Or is that just superstition?