A Word, Please: Short story was wrongly judged passive

Imagine you won second place in a short-story contest. Pretty cool. But then you read the judge's thoughts on why, exactly, your story fell short: you used the verb “to be” in place of “active” sentences a little too often.

Some writers might take that as a legitimate criticism. Others might find it annoying and petty. But Caro Rolando should be outraged. The reason: Rolando's story, a submission in a Canada Writes story contest, contained not a single passive. Not one.

Instead, as linguistics professor and author Geoffrey Pullum speculated in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education's website, contest judge, Vancouver fashion and art writer JJ Lee, is the victim of some bad information about passives spread by Strunk and White's “The Elements of Style.”

Contrary to what readers of Strunk and White are led to believe, a passive is not a sentence that uses the verb “to be” or any of its conjugated forms like “is,” “were,” “was,” etc. Yet this was the verb that did poor Rolando in. Her 11-sentence story contained four sentences based on the word “were.”

The judge disapproved.

“I believe if Caro had found another way to construct one or two active sentences without the verb ‘to be', she would have emerged the winner,” Lee wrote.

Pullum suspects that Strunk and White may be responsible for this widespread misperception about passives. I'm inclined to agree.

Under the heading “Use the active voice,” their famous little book gives four examples of bad sentences with suggested corrections.

“The reader will naturally think that the ones on the left are passives and the ones on the right are active transitives,” Pullum wrote, “but astonishingly, this is not true in any of the four pairs.”

That's right: None of Strunk and White's examples of the passive is actually passive.

For example, one of the supposed passives is the sentence, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.” Yet, as Pullum put it in a 2009 article, this sentence “has no sign of a passive in it anywhere.”

Here's the simplest way to understand the passive voice: It occurs when the object of an action is made the grammatical subject of a sentence.

Compare “Bob hired Sue” with “Sue was hired by Bob.” The first one is active. The person doing the “action” of hiring is the grammatical subject. But in the second one, the person on the receiving end of the action, Sue, is now the grammatical subject of the sentence. That's passive voice.

The passive is formed with “to be,” usually in a conjugated form, combined with something called a passive participle, which is identical to a past participle.

Because the passive is formed with the verb “to be,” many people believe that any sentence with “is,” “was,” “were,” etc. is passive. Not so.

Compare “Joe was being watched” to “Joe was being watchful.” They're almost identical, yet the first one is passive, the second is not. The reason: “watched” suggests an action. We don't know who's performing this action — there's no “by his mom” or “by Sam” at the end of this sentence to identify the watcher.

But we know who's being watched. It's Joe.

Compare that with “watchful,” which isn't an action. It's an adjective. So our second sentence is active. Joe is the one who was being watchful, which means he's both the doer of the action and the subject of the sentence.

So you can't count on the verb “to be” to indicate passive.

While it's true that passives can contribute to bad writing, they're also an important part of good writing. So any knee-jerk dismissal of passives — especially imagined ones — amounts to some bad judgment.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World