The title of Rosie Garthwaite's new book,

How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone, reminded me of the time my college pal Emily was working for the US government in South Africa in the '90s, the time she and I were in an odd part of Jamaica, and more. It's a wonderful book based on Garthwaite's long experience in the field as an overseas television correspondent, with fascinating stories and great tidbits of useful info. And the title reminded me forcefully why passive verb constructions are eminently necessary -- no, actually essential to English communicatiion.

 

Too many of us were told, repeatedly, often with red underlining, to avoid the passive. High schoolers and undergraduates across the United States are exhorted to make sentences active, to abhor the wordy passive, and to recast their sentences with the doer or actor as the subject. Yet, there are occasions when nothing but the passive will do.

 

Emphasis is key.

 

Active emphasizes the subject as doer of the action.

Passive emphasizes the subject as receiver of the action.



A few facts about this construction:

 

1. It's not the passive tense, it's the passive voice. Tense refers to time relationships; voice is about the doer or the recipient of an action and refers to the position of the subject and object in the sentence word order. Mood refers to something else entirely.

 

2. Passive constructions have tense: past, present, and future.

 

Past tense: Chauncey was menaced by gunfire.

Present tense: Chauncey is menaced by tsetse flies.

Future tense: Chauncey will have been menaced by both gunfire and tsetse flies by the time his tour is over.

 

3. The passive voice can only be used with transitive verbs--they are the only ones that take objects. Try it with an intransitive verb and see.

 

You'll see why teachers point out that the passive is a wordy construction. It is. To create this voice, one needs to make the verb a past participle and add another word, an auxiliary verb: the correct tense of the verb be.

 

Passive vs active is all about switching the object (direct or indirect) and the subject. Often, the erstwhile doer winds up in a prepositional phrase, usually beginning with by. Chalk up another word added.

 

Why would you do this? As noted, it's all about emphasis. How would that title sound if it were

How to Avoid a War Zone Killing You ? How to Avoid Your Death in a War Zone doesn't say quite the same thing. How to Avoid Dying in a War Zone doesn't quite do it either.

 

One note about the passive: it is sometimes called the lawyers' passive, in jest, because the doer of an action can be moved offstage entirely.

 

"Mistakes were made."

 

Who made 'em? My client? Your client? Hmm.

 

Yet sometimes it is absolutely essential. We may not know the doer of an action. We may be trying to find out the doer of an action.

 

We need the passive voice!

 

How do you feel about it? Passive? Were you ever "corrected" out of using a passive construction by an editor or colleague?

 

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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.



 

 

 

 

 

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Comments
by Abendrot on ‎06-23-2011 05:59 PM

As a German speaker I am used to passive construction in literature as well as in everyday speech. The language would lose a lot of its expressiveness without it. Therefore I have always been puzzled by the fact that its use is discouraged in English.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎06-24-2011 11:22 AM

Abendrot,

 

Yes, it's very odd! I completely agree with you. Very intersting to hear it is so commonly used in German.

 

I studied Latin for years, and many of its Romance language derivatives make excellent use of the passive as well. They do inflect the verb, leaving it one word rather than making it several, but English in general runs its verb changes via additive modals and auxiliaries--we are always adding words to our verbs to make them different tenses! -- so I don't know why the passive voice should raise particular ire regarding wordiness.

 

I think this is one of the bugaboos of 19th c. British schoolteacher grammarians, or mid-century Americans overconcerned with rules for the right vs wrong usage. Interesting.

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