Six impossible things

Misunderstanding grammar

Once again, I have been driven to frothing at the mouth by a would-be writer-and-critiquer’s thick-headedness in regard to both the construction of the English language and the so-called rules he’s trying to apply, and you folks are going to have to put up with the resulting rant. My apologies in advance.

This particular comment involved a total misunderstanding of verbs, tenses, and voice – specifically, the use of “was.” The critiquer asserted, among other things, that “was” is a weak verb, that “was” is always passive (by which, from context, he appears to have meant not merely passive, but passive voice), and that every use of the verb “was” could and should therefore be cut or rephrased so as to use some other, presumably stronger verb instead. Like “is.”

This is complete nonsense, even before I point out that “is” and “was” are the same verb, just different tenses.

The verb “to be” in all its forms is not an action verb (like swim or climb), but it isn’t weak. It simply does a different job, grammatically. Action verbs tell you what something or someone is doing. A string of action verbs can imply a whole scene without adding any other words at all (Sneak. Steal. Hide. Trip. Scramble. Run!). To be is a linking verb; without a subject and an object, it doesn’t imply much of anything (Is. Was. Am. Are. Huh?). It doesn’t do the same job as an action verb – and while it is true that sometimes you can phrase a sentence either way (“His voice was a whisper” vs. “He whispered”), sometimes you just can’t (“Marley was dead, to begin with.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”)

Moreover, “to be” functions as an auxiliary verb in a number of different tenses. Denying a writer the use of the progressive tenses and the perfect tenses cripples the prose. For those who aren’t sure about the difference (and I had to look up the names repeatedly for years and years) the tenses work like this:

Present Tense:  He dies.
Past Tense: He died
Present Perfect tense: He has died
Past Perfect tense: He had died
Present Progressive tense: He is dying
Past Progressive Tense: He was dying.

You can’t replace “He was dying” with “He died” just to take out the “was.” The sentences don’t mean the same thing. “Was” isn’t in there as a stand-alone verb that you can remove or change; it’s part of the grammatical form. Yet over and over I meet people who want to tear through a manuscript crossing out forms of “to be” on principle, without paying any attention to what the writer is saying, how she is saying it, or why she said it that way. (This is particularly annoying when the person on the rampage is a copyeditor who keeps changing what the sentences mean in pursuit of some stylistic ideal that eliminates “was,” but that’s a whole different rant.)

Which brings me to the infuriating obsession that some people have with banishing passive voice from fiction. Passive voice is a sentence construction which puts the emphasis and the focus of the sentence on what is being done or the thing that it’s being done to.  “She hit him” is active voice; “He was hit by her” is passive voice. It’s a tremendously useful construction for any writer whose characters are facing a puzzle, because you can leave out the “by whom:” “The necklace was stolen.” Who stole it? Neither the reader nor the detective knows just yet.

Passive voice gets a bad rap because it’s often used in dense scientific papers and badly-done business memos to make the subject under discussion look objective. Instead of saying “I injected the mice with a 2% saline solution,” the scientist says “The mice were injected with a 2% saline solution,” implying that anyone could have done this and the results would be the same. The corporate executive says “The budget was exceeded by $3 million” in hopes of distancing himself from the problem. Unless your viewpoint character is a scientist or businessman, you usually don’t want to do this in fiction.

There are, however, things that one does want to do with passive voice in fiction. Take the sentence “The child, having been abandoned in the corner, cried herself to sleep.” The parenthetical phrase “having been abandoned in the corner” (by whom?) is passive voice; it has to be passive voice in order to have “the child” as its subject. You could rephrase it in active voice, but only by adding someone else to the sentence: “The child, whose mother had abandoned her in the corner, cried herself to sleep.” There’s nothing wrong with the latter sentence, but in a novel or story, it’s probably clear already who it is that’s abandoned the kid in the corner. The second, active version also splits the focuse of the sentence; it’s half about the child and half about the mother.

I’ve already mentioned the usefulness of passive voice in hiding a thief, murderer, etc., but it can also shift the focus to someone or something: “She was murdered by her brother” puts more emphasis on her and on the murder than on the brother, because you could just say “She was murdered” and leave the brother out entirely. “Her brother murdered her” puts the emphasis on the brother. Sometimes, you want it one way, sometimes you want it the other way, and it’s silly to overlook so useful a tool as passive voice for doing this.

And then there are the stylistic considerations. Sometimes, using passive voice allows for a more elegant sentence than active voice. “The duke was attacked four times: once by an assassin, twice by bandits, and once by his four-year-old daughter.” reads much better, to my ear, than “One assassin, two sets of bandits, and his four-year-old daughter attacked the duke.”

  1. I LOVE this rant! My English professors ripped me apart (justifiably) in college for my overuse of the passive voice. Unfortunately, none of them thought to mention the times when it was acceptable, and so it took me years to retrain myself to recognize times when passive was actually better than active, and even to this day I have to force myself to ignore their voices in my head every time I consciously choose passive because it fits the structure of the story and the point I’m trying to make.

    As for always substituting “is” for “was” – that is so silly I don’t even know where to begin!

  2. I love your blog so much. I didn’t even read the entirety of your post (I’ll go back, I promise) but I wish I could somehow make it required reading for everyone who critiques at a site I use. Somehow many people there have globally gotten it into their rulebook that along with never using a word that ends in “ly” — even if it requires some convoluted circumlocution to say the exact same thing — you should never use the word “was” even if you’re changing the meaning of the sentence by changing it. It just makes no sense to me. I actually put it into the acknowledgements of my book, ie, “Every word that ends in “ly”, every use of the verb “was” and every misplaced comma, mine, all mine.” But I’m really grateful that you’ve explained it here so beautifully. Now I know where I can send readers who make that comment!

  3. …and now I’m really curious about that duke. 🙂

  4. The mice were injected with a 2% saline solution.

    The passive is used in scientific papers for the same reason it’s used elsewhere: because the paper isn’t about the scientist, it’s about the mice. “I injected the mice with a 2% saline solution” would be appropriate in a scientific memoir or autobiography, because that is about the scientist.

    More generally, the passive exists because the role of “grammatical subject”, when used with a transitive verb in English, simultaneously signals two different things: “I am the agent” and “I am the topic”.

    Agent: the grammatical subject takes up the more agent-like role in the action referred to by the verb (e.g. the hitter with “hit”, as in “Pete’s car <subject> just hit a tree <object>”, the breaker with “break”, as in “Marianne <subject> broke my neck <object> yesterday, which is why I’m still alive”) or the role deemed by the conventions of the language to be more agent-like (e.g. the hearer with “hear” or the liker with “like”).

    Topic: the subject is also the thing that the sentence is about.

    E.g. in the sentence “The tiger ate Uncle Jim”, the tiger is the agent (the tiger, not Uncle Jim, initiated and carried through the action) and it is also the topic, the thing the sentence is about—the sentence mentions the tiger and then tells you something about it, viz. that it ate Uncle Jim.

    But sentences aren’t always about the agent. Which is why we need the passive voice.

    So in in the sentence “Uncle Jim was eaten by the tiger”, the tiger is still the agent, but now the sentence is about Uncle Jim: it mentions him, and then tells you something about him (viz. that he was eaten by the tiger). So topic and agent have separated from each other. That’s what the passive does. The passive form of the verb behaves a little like an intransitive verb, where the subject can have any sort of role, active or passive (e.g. “Mike erupted” vs. “Mike collapsed”.)

    Passive and active grammatical voice have got nothing to do with whether the sentence is strong or weak stylistically, and nothing to do with whether the identity of the agent is conveyed to the reader. “Uncle Jim was eaten by the tiger” tells us what the agent was as clearly as “The tiger ate Uncle Jim” does. “Something ate Uncle Jim” suppresses the identity of the agent as thoroughly as “Uncle Jim was eaten” does.

  5. Very nicely said. (I shared it with my Facebook wall) I don’t write fiction, though. I write marketing copy. How do you feel about passive voice in that event?

  6. Thank you, thank you for this rant! Now I know the proper grammatical terms to use when arguing with critiquers who honestly think that “He was sitting…” is passive and says the same thing as, “He sat.”

    I, too, am curious about that Duke.

  7. Ha ha ha! I LOVE this. I once set up my Word program to highlight whenever I used passive voice because I had an overly eager professor who loved to whip out the red pen. Once I started taking my creative writing more seriously though, I had to readjust my settings because it was driving me crazy!

    Sometimes you have to say “was”. Sometimes you have to throw in an adverb. Sometimes, for the sake of it sounding good, you have to write “improperly”. I think this is one of those cases where you have to understand the rule in order to break it.

  8. I posted a link to this on Google+ where I have hundreds of writers “circled.” A “friend” (well, he’s really a friend), alerted me to it again on Facebook. Social Media rules!

  9. I would go for “the child, abandoned in the corner, cried herself to sleep.” Reduced relative clauses can be ambiguous, but this one isn’t, so no need to have the full clause. (It’s not ‘the horse raced past the barn fell.’)

    The fact is, English has at least 8 different sentence types, all of which are felicitous in different information structural contexts. Tim is right, that the passive is often used to promote the topic to initial position. This actually is due to the fact that the topic is usually old information and the comment is new information. Most languages prefer old information to precede new information. Many of the other constructions, such as it-clefts and expletive-there sentences (all usually using some form of ‘to be’), are presentational type sentences, where new information is shoved backwards a little, or is introduced broken off from the sentence it’s involved in so the hearer can process it first.

  10. Please tell me that if a copyeditor at your publisher doesn’t know English grammar, you can have your agent talk to the publisher and get them to get their act together?

    • Wyndes – Any time someone presents a fiction-writing “rule” that includes the words “always” or “never,” it’s almost certainly not a rule and a bad idea to follow strictly.

      Tim – Exactly.

      Jim Davis – Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, passive voice is a perfectly legitimate grammatical form that has its uses. As I am well aware of how it works, however, I tend to be rather more skeptical of a statement such as “We washed the shirt in XYZ Detergent, and the stains were removed!” because I can see perfectly well that the phrasing only implies that the particular brand removed the stains. The full and accurate version could be “…and the stains were removed by the eighth washing with added bleach.” Nonfiction does seem to have more of a problem with overusing passive voice, though, partly because the “no passive voice” “rule” has been around fiction writing for so long.

      Tiana – I have never yet seen a grammar checker that could tell the difference between “He was dead,” “He was dying,” and “He was murdered.” In my experience, grammar checkers always flag anything with “to be” as possible passive voice, which may be part of why so very many people haven’t got a clue when it comes to tenses and passive voice.

      Jacqueline – Thank you!

      Cara – I’m not a grammarian, but “the child, abandoned in the corner,” looks to me as if the clause is still passive voice; it just has more words left out (including the “was” that would flag it as passive voice for the grammar checkers). It still leaves open the question “by whom was the child abandoned?” which is my litmus test for whether it’s passive voice or not. Your version is tighter than mine, though, which would probably make it a better choice in a story.

      Z.T. – The standard practice is that the author can overrule the copyeditor on any and everything. One doesn’t like to do that without reason, but there are always some things in a given ms. where you shake your head and stamp it “stet” (which is Latin for “Leave it the way I wrote it, dammit!”). There are also usually a couple of places where the copyeditor keeps you from looking like a total idiot in front of all your readers (hopefully), so it evens out. But basically, yes, you can reject the copyeditor’s changes and if the copyeditor is completely wrongheaded, you can request that that person not be used on your next book. It doesn’t happen often; I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone that bad in over twenty titles.

  11. Jane:
    “He was sitting” is not passive. It is past progressive tense, active voice. “He sat” is simple past. (and “He has sat” is present perfect.)

    “He was sat upon” is passive.
    Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence has the action inflicted upon him. It is not (as PCW said) just the presence of “was”.

    (complication: sit is an intransitive verb and is very difficult to pu into a passive construction.)

    Passive voice can also be: “He will be shot.”

  12. This is why I warn people, about to crit other writers’ work, that actually, there are right answers and wrong answers in grammar, and if you call a sentence in the passive voice because not much is happening, or a run-on because it’s long, you are wrong.

    It’s amazing how much it undermines credibility.

  13. Thank you, thank you! At last, an intelligent post about passive and the sudden passion for ‘de-wasing’. 😀

    I’ve lost count of the number of editors who have told me that ‘was’ is passive *tense* (not even passive voice). I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to explain that there’s a difference between past perfect (He flew) which is a single, completed action, and past imperfect (He was flying) which is incomplete or ongoing. Lose the ability to distinguish between those and you lose a whole tranche of subtleties that you simply can’t get back another way.

    • David – A very succinct summation, but I think Jane’s point was that SHE knows that, it’s the folks doing the crit on her stuff that don’t get it. Which is kind of what set off my rant in the first place, too, though it wasn’t my stuff getting critiqued.

      Fiona Glass – You’re welcome, but I do have to point out that “he flew” is SIMPLE past tense, not past perfect (which would be “he had flown”). And yes, I just looked that up to make sure I had the terminology right myself. 🙂

      Cara – Well, good; I’m glad my litmus test still works. And I like your result clause example, though your terminology is getting way beyond what I’m familiar with. My last actual English class was senior year high school, so I am not familiar with more advanced grammatical analysis.

  14. Yep, still passive. Reduced relative clauses usually are. I think, since you can distinguish between the progressive and the past participle the auxiliary verbs can drop out. (Ah, English, the language of mystery.)

    Result clauses are my favorite, though they’re not passive. e.g. “John kissed Mary naked,”
    Where the interpretation is not that John was naked, nor Mary, but that the act of kissing caused Mary’s clothes to fall off. 😀

  15. Apologies to Jane for not reading her post closely enough.

    In our last 2 years of high school French, there would be a verb on the blackboard. We had sheets with boxes on them which had to be filled in with full conjugations of that verb (all persons) and in 20 or so tenses from present to future pluperfect subjunctive. (or something). We went through tons of paper in those classes — I think I lost it when Dad’s basement flooded.

    • David – Learning a second language is an amazingly good way of getting a handle on the mechanics of your own, I think.

  16. I’m a freshman in college right now, meaning I just recently left behind high school. I clearly remember the days when using “to be” in any form was something of a sin. However, my teachers did say that it can’t be eliminated completely and there are times when it is appropriate and useful, so at least I wasn’t ever brainwashed to think they absolutely needed to go.

    On a side note, I’m glad to have returned to your blog. I was following it pretty closely over a year ago, but then over time, due to various things, I drifted away from it. The reason I remembered it was that I was ranting about the poor quality of ninety-nine percent of fan fiction. (I began writing fan fiction last year, and I can just say that the search for good fan fiction to read is a painful and difficult one.) I was posting blog posts on the fan fiction website I use about some dos and don’t for writing when I was reminded of all of your helpful posts, so I headed on back over here. 🙂

  17. Use of the passive voice was never something I was taught was bad when I was an inky schoolboy in England


  18. I also had a professor (of Classics) who had an allergy to the passive voice. He was an authority on mythology, and I guess he had had a craw-full of sloppy passives without attribution, as “X is considered a form of Y.” CONSIDERED BY WHOM? he would rant, and the end result was that he’d downgrade for *any* passives, including e.g. “The Tale of Cupid and Psyche is found in the _Golden Ass_ of Apuleius.” So we all had to write our papers ve-ry-care-ful-ly.

  19. Eris: Go on writing fan fiction. It has been said (oops, by whom? by many professional writers, particularely on USENET) that every writer has a million words of crap inside him, and has to write it all out before he can write the good stuff. I got rid of mine writing Star Trek TOS fanfic.

  20. David,

    Yes, exactly so. I agree completely. I just didn’t have the technical grammar knowledge to defend myself in an argument. Now I do, heh heh heh.

  21. I loved this post! As an English professor, I try to make it clear to my student that passive voice *does* have it’s uses (my general rule of thumb: if you can explain to me *why* you’re using it, you’re probably okay).

    I think a big part of the problem is English teachers who don’t fully understand the passive themselves and so teach their students to identify the passive voice by circling the “to be” verbs. And while it’s true that most passive sentences have a form of the “to be” verb, not all to be verbs are passive!

    I may have to make my students read this. 🙂

  22. Any good writer understands implicitly the use and applications of what I prefer to call the verb of status, but not all writers are good. Many exhibit a serious lack of understanding on how the verb functions.

    As a comp teacher I ‘force’ all my students to eliminate “To Be” forms from their sentences, so that they can begin to understand what is actually going on in them, and it works. I always stress that once they understand they may employ it, just not for that class.

    Too often the use of “to be” in one of its forms hides the agent of change from even the writer, as in “All students are to wear uniforms.” Says who? If the writer doesn’t know (and many students do not) then there is a problem. Also, the use of “to be” in young writers is a rampant laziness that prevents them from engaging with a reader. They just do not know what they are actually saying.

    By eliminating its use, my students gain an insight to the little play that wants enacting in every sentence. Your example of “His voice was a whisper” serves understanding as a too-long adjective for a simple utterance, one that an action verb might better serve.

    I appreciate your rant, but twenty years of “thank you” from several thousand students who suffered through my disintegration of their sentence structuring tells me that this professor’s shoving of one’s nose into the poop of their constructions has a place.

  23. Hmmm the terminology you use is confusing! Tenses need to be allied not only to voice (active and passive) but to mood (indicative, conditional, subjunctive, and imperative). There are a relatively limited number of forms of the verb in English, and it is how you configure the various forms that give you the precise form that might be required in any given sentence. If that were to require (the preposition if requires a subjunctive – in this case, were) a conditional future perfect (e.g. In later years it would be seen that…). Grammar seems to be considered dull and surplus to requirements these days, but a knowledge of grammar is the only thing that enables an author to manipulate words so that they express precisely what he or she means to say. The problem with English is that it is a very easy language to learn to speak sufficiently fluently to conduct day to day business, but extraordinarily difficult to write correctly.

    All copy editors aught to be sufficiently familiar with grammar and syntax to distinguish between a grammatical error, and we all make them, and a stylistic choice. However authors all produce the ocasional garbled sentence, and copy editors are invaluable in spotting them, together with continuity errors, repetitive information and other horrors where we have murdered one of our darlings and failed to bury the bits!

  24. “and other horrors where we have murdered one of our darlings and failed to bury the bits!”

    I love this description. 🙂

  25. BRAVA!

    It’s true that some people overuse words, have weak vocabularies, and tend to follow repetitive sentence structure. (I once was faced with an edit of a godawful piece that used ellipses 680 times in an 80-page story–and the snowflake author threw a hissy when I edited most of them out.) These people need help.

    But “editorial policy” that truncates the richness of the English language–banning semicolons and eliminating common, useful words — are as likely to ruin stories as improve them. I’ve had two edits now, from fairly well-known publishers, where the editors were putting in their own favorite cliches.

    There’s a difference between writing exercises, which serve to make a student consider the use of words, and altering a work to homogenize it to bland conformity. People WILL read pap, no question. But part of the strength of indy publishing is that stories and ideas not vanilla enough for mainstream have a place to gain a readership.

    Writing requires both art and skill, and so does editing. In general, I think any editorial policy that totally forbids use of ANY word or punctuation is doing a disservice both to their writers and their customers.

    I’m going to link to this.

  26. This article? Made of so much WIN.

    To Dorothy J. Hecht:
    You wrote to Eris: Go on writing fan fiction. It has been said (oops, by whom? by many professional writers, particularely on USENET) that every writer has a million words of crap inside him, and has to write it all out before he can write the good stuff. I got rid of mine writing Star Trek TOS fanfic.

    I agree with your advice to Eris completely, except for the wee implication that fanfiction necessarily equals crap (or further, possibly, that writing professionally is the only goal toward which a writer should strive).

    As in any field of creative endeavor, there are levels of proficiency and talent. Whether amateur (and by “amateur” I mean “performed without monetary remuneration or professional status” rather than “poorly executed”) or professional, I’ve seen creative works that range from abysmal to exquisite. People get paid for crap as often as they get paid for excellence, with plenty of mediocrity in the middle.

    I’ve read fanfiction that is execrable. I’ve also read plenty of fanfiction by writers who have never worked in the field professionally–or even been trained–that is as close to perfection as one can imagine. (And then there are those rare souls who simply have an innate talent and ability right from the start. We hates them, Preciousss.)

    For most of us, in nearly all creative endeavors where there is a skill to be mastered, you are absolutely correct: the best road to proficiency is practice, practice, practice. However, there is one essential quality that must be added: the ability to assess one’s own work and realize where improvement is needed. Every good writer I know has that ability and hones it in conjunction with the continued improvement of their craft.

    And I think that there is a point where a writer has the ability, the experience, and the knowledge of his or her own style to tell a copy editor whose advice is wrong to go jump in the lake. (Politely, of course. *g*)

  27. To Dorothy J. Heydt: Aaagh! So sorry, Dorothy, for getting your last name wrong. Heydt. Heydt, Heydt, Heydt.

    Deepest apologies!

  28. I love this post. I’ve had a lot of critiquers tell me to take out “was” and it often strikes me as a knee-jerk comment. I do not use that word lightly — the odds are that I’ve tried to rephrase and then chose a construction with “was” as the strongest, most direct choice. It is a valid choice.

  29. This post made me feel so much better. I have gone through my (partially-finished) manuscript a couple of times by doing a command-F search for “was” or “I’m” or “we’re” to see what followed and change to active voice. And so many times, I felt like I should change a sentence even if it would change the meaning, just to make it NOT passive. But my novel is in present tense, so sometimes “we walk” is just not a useful substitute for “we are walking.” Thanks for the reassurance!

  30. Picky, picky:

    I am, perhaps unjustifiably, disturbed by weather forecasters using the word “seasonable” instead of “seasonal”. What is adverbial about the seasons? The usage seems to be universal; am I out of touch with the real world?


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