Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This is Nothing New, But...

For some reason, I wanted to talk about passive voice.

Maybe it's because PV was one of the features on the grammar sections of my nursing school entrance exam.

Passive voice is confusing. I get it.
But most of the time, what people mistake for passive voice is actually just weak construction.

Passive voice is all about whom the verb is acting upon. That's it. Every time.


(Passive): The bone was chewed by the dog.
(Active): The dog chewed the bone.

In "technical" language, passive voice happens when you take the direct object and make it the subject.

Direct object is easily identified by asking yourself "who did what?"

Although she was tired, Janie took the circuitous route home.

I like to think of it as caveman-speak, if you will: if you pare the sentence down to subject-verb-direct object, you will understand the gist without all the frills: Janie took route.

So, to take my example sentence of Janie's route and turn it into passive voice, what would we do?

The circuitous route home was taken by Janie. 

I like to think that for the most part, avoiding passive voice is a natural thing for native English speakers. Most of the time, passive voice just sounds wrong to our ear.

Y'know how folks are always advising you to read your shizz out loud? Not only does it help you listen for pacing and flow and all that jazz, but we're much better at hearing errors in our language than catching them in writing.

You may not be able to write an entirely grammatically correct sentence, but chances are you can say one a lot more easily.

So what about that pesky state of being? 

Ahh...to be or not to be. That IS the question.

A lot of people confuse state of being verbs with passive voice.

Just because your verb is a state of being (am, is, are, was, be, being, been), it is not automatically passive voice.

Dexter was drawing a picture. 

This sentence is not passive, but it is a bit weak.

To be passive, the sentence would have to say:

A picture was being drawn by Dexter.

See the difference? It's all in the direct object/subject relationship.

Stylistically speaking, it's probably better to write, "Dexter drew a picture."

Passive voice isn't wrong, it's just not preferred. 

Got it?

And while we're on the grammar train...

A quick way to remember who/whom usage:

Who = subject.
Whom = in/direct object.

If you have a sentence in which you'd like to use who/whom and you're aren't sure which one it should be, just switch out the who/m for the pronoun.

The way I've always remembered is that whom ends in m just like him. And "him" is the direct object form of the pronoun "he."

If you do the pronoun switch-out, trust me--you'll be able to hear the proper one.

This report goes to she? (<---NO! See, it sounds wrong, right?) 
This report goes to her?
This report goes to whom?

Stepping off the grammar train now.

Go forth and conquer.


Lola Sharp said...

I love the Grammar Train! Choo choo! You one badass conductor (engineer?). :)

Liza said...

Excellent lesson! Well written and easy to understand. The "state of being" was a real help for me.

Hannah said...

Woot-woot! Come on ride the train, it's a gram-mar train!!

Thank you for being so clear and giving examples. I understand things better with examples instead of someone saying, this is wrong.

You are a gentleman and a scholar.

p.s. replace "man" with "woman"

JE said...

Oh, my...instand headache when I read "passive". I've struggled with this because I didnt' "get" the difference.

Your explanation if far better than anything I've read online. Nice job!


Tara said...

Great explanations! I think passive voice is one of the most misunderstood parts of writing.

Sarah Ahiers said...

oooh nicely helpful with the who/whom thing. Substituting the pronoun will really help me in cases where i'm unsure.

Saumya said...

Ahh this is so awesome. I LOVE grammar lessons!

Old Kitty said...

Grammar Trains so rocks!! More please!!

You've explained some stuff here so wonderfully! Thank you!

Let's not be passive but proactive!

Take care

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks for this! Passive voice used to be one of my biggest weaknesses, until I learned exactly what it was.

Thanks again for the refresher. Go, Grammar Train, Go!

Anonymous said...

This post was enjoyed by me.

Crystal Cook said...

SO helpful! Grammar train away Summer.

kah said...

I always wanted to go on a train ride! I'm still gonna occasionally use who and whom wrong though. It's inevitable. *sigh*

Melissa Hurst said...

Great lesson!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for the grammar tips, Summer!

Jamie Gibbs said...

When learning Ancient Egyptian Grammar, we spent ages on the passive vs. active. And in learning Egyptian grammar, we had to learn the ins and outs of English grammar too. I can completely relate to how confusing it is :P thanks for the tip :)

Unknown said...

The article was enjoyed by me. Thank you. So clear!


Kimberly Franklin said...

Thanks for the grammar lesson! I always love reading articles/posts like this. :)

Lynn Miller said...

Oh Summer you just clarified a mystery for me..........and helped me understand stinking spanish as well.......