Friday, September 3, 2010

Active vs passive

Yesterday I discussed the Passive Voice and even defined it… kinda.

“A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.”

Which is about as clear as mud, to quote my Nana.

But our friends from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (from whom I stole this definition) didn’t stop there. They actually gave an example:

“Why was the road crossed by the chicken?”

A logical question perhaps, yet expressed in the passive voice. And we know it’s PV because it’s the chicken who did the work - who crossed the road. And yet the road is the subject of the sentence.

OK, so now we have something to work with. A passive construction MUST have that ‘to be’ verb as I was told a while back, but it must also have a past participle.

And a past participle is pretty much any verb that ends in ‘-ed’ (or equivalent = ‘paid’ is the example UNC uses).

So in the example from a few sentences above we have the ‘to be’ verb ‘was’ followed (eventually) by the past participle ‘crossed’ which equals the dreaded Passive Voice.

But UNC goes on to point out a few other things.

First, using the Passive Voice is NOT a grammatical error. It just tends to reduce the clarity and ‘power’ of your writing.

Second, using a ‘to be’ verb does NOT automatically create the Passive Voice.

And third, sometimes the passive voice is OK.

They (the folks at UNC) go on to give examples and further details and if you are interested here is their website:

They go on for a good bit pondering how to change the PV to the AV and when it might be OK to use the PV and even give you a list of further reading if you’re really interested, a list that includes the ubiquitous book by Strunk and White (of course) and a book with the intriguing title of Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Well, enough of that….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-27

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