Mighty Red Pen

August 8, 2007

Passively yours

Filed under: At home with MRP,Grammar goddess,Kidspeak,Pet peeves — mighty red pen @ 8:11 am

Ah, passive voice. Generally, a thorn in MRP’s side. Recently employed by S. (age 4) to good effect.

S.: The pizza keeps dropping.

MRP: No, you keep dropping the pizza!

As S. so aptly illustrates, when a sentence employs passive voice, the verb acts upon the subject, as opposed to the subject acting out the verb. The effect is often to create some distance between the subject and the action. So in this case, S. is able to remove himself from responsibility for dropping the pizza by saying, “The pizza keeps dropping.” Oh yes, it just flew right out of your hand, didn’t it?

MRP returned the action to the subject by reforming the sentence in active voice, “You dropped the pizza.”

Strunk and White advise, “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” Fowler (and I’ve been looking for a good opportunity to drag him out) intones, “[Passive voice] sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.”

But S&W and Fowler both allow that there’s a time and place for passive voice. According to S&W, passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” Fowler goes on to give some examples of where passive voice might be well used: “The impersonal passive — it is felt, it is thought, it is believed, etc., — is a construction dear to those who write official and business letters. It is reasonable enough in statements made at large — It is believed that a large green car was in the vicinity of the accident.”

Here’s why I love Fowler. He continues, “But when one person is addressing another, it often amounts to a pusillanimous shrinking from responsibility.”

Oh, ouch.

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