Column: A Word, Please: Grammar blog’s passive-voice advice was laughed at by experts
The great thing about being a grammar expert is you don’t have to know anything about grammar to be one. Just launch a blog, say whatever you think is true and bask in the certainty that no one will ever call your bluff.
Until they do.
A few weeks ago, one of the copy editors in my social media feed stumbled across a blog post by a writing coach offering tips and insights about passive voice and when and how to avoid it.
Here are the examples the writing expert offered. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “The noise was terrifying.” The verb structure “was walking.” Sentences beginning with “it was” or “there were.” And “she made her way.”
My online editor friends had a field day. You see, none of those examples is passive.
In the blog post, the writing expert never gave a definition of passive voice. She just assumed readers understand it’s almost any sentence with “is,” “was,” “were” or “are.”
“Now, I’m not saying that we need to avoid all forms of the verb ‘to be’ (even though not all forms of the verb constitute passive voice),” she wrote. “Not only is doing so impractical, but places exist when passive is called for.”
Here’s another gem from her blog post: “Avoid Passives + Participles. If an action is truly ongoing, ‘was walking’ is fine. However, ‘walked’ almost always works better.
Are you starting to see why everyone was laughing? Bad writing like “places exist when” aside, the blogger proved she has no idea what passive voice is.
She has no idea she used passive voice in the phrase “passive is called for,” or if she does, she doesn’t understand how.
The passive voice is not just any action-impaired sentence. It’s not a sentence built on a static verb or a verb of being or a long verb phrase like “would have been considering.”
Yes, we could use the word “passive” in a broad sense to describe those structures. But passive voice is something very specific.
Passive voice means that the object of a transitive verb is made the grammatical subject of the clause.
To see what that means, let’s start with an active-voice sentence: Katie wrecked the car. Here, the subject, Katie, is doing the action, wrecking. The thing receiving that action — the object — is the car. It’s the thing being acted upon.
Now, turn that sentence on its head so that the same stuff happens, but now the object, the car, is the grammatical subject of the sentence: The car was wrecked by Katie.
That’s passive voice.
The passive is formed by combining “was,” “is” or another form of “be” with what’s called the passive participle, which is identical to the past participle.
So you can see why people associate passive voice with the verb “be.” But an “is” or “was” does not make a sentence passive. The receiver of the action serving as the subject of the clause is what makes it passive.
Passives often drop the “by” phrase, leaving you with just “The car was wrecked.” That can be good or bad, depending on whether you want to emphasize who wrecked it.
Particularly interesting to me was the coach’s warning to avoid the “passive plus participle” in “was walking.” That’s way off.
Instead, “was walking” is an example of the past progressive verb tense. It combines an auxiliary verb, “be,” with the progressive participle.
Verb tenses and “aspect” tell us when an action took place and whether it was ongoing or completed during that time. So “is walking” means the walking is still going on, and “was walking” means it was going on as something else happened. “Walked” means the action is complete.
“Joe is walking” is not passive. “Joe was walking” is not passive. But “Joe was being walked by his dog” is passive.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.