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Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?
Many people claim they revile the passive. But most have trouble identifying it correctly.
 
Oh, God, not...the passive voice.
Oh, God, not...the passive voice. (SuperStock/Corbis)

One "rule" that many self-appointed experts on writing return to again and again is: "Don't use the passive!" Or, as some puckishly put it, "The passive voice should be avoided."

The passive voice is often disliked because it can be used to evade responsibility: "Mistakes were made." However, not every construction that avoids pinning blame uses the passive voice, and not every use of the passive voice avoids pinning blame. Sometimes the passive is the better choice because you want to put the focus on the receiver of the action.

And sometimes people criticize sentences for being in the passive voice when they actually aren't. Try this quiz. Which of these are in the passive voice?

1. An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred.


2. Palestinian boy, 10, dies as Israeli troops fire on demonstration.


3. Boy killed in West Bank protest.


4. It's fashionable to make the most expressive wine possible.


5. There should not have been any physical contact in this incident.


6. In this final dance move, a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore.


7. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.


8. Did you let him go all the way with you?


9. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.

All done? Here are the answers… but first, let's be sure we're clear on what the passive voice actually is. It's a grammatical construction that puts what would otherwise be the object into the subject position. In English, where the active voice would be A verbs B, for the passive you use a form of the verb be (in whatever tense) followed by the past participle of the original verb: B is verbed (by A), B was verbed (by A), B has been verbed (by A), B will be verbed (by A), B should be verbed (by A), etc.

Got that? If so, you're ahead of many people who ought to know. Take a look…

1. An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred.
Nope. Yes, it evades responsibility "as if the gun somehow fired itself," but Pulitzer prizewinner Patt Morrison is not correct in her Los Angeles Times opinion piece when she says it's the passive voice. Occurred is an active-voice intransitive — it's past tense, not passive. Passive would be, for example, "The firearm was discharged accidentally."

2. Palestinian boy, 10, dies as Israeli troops fire on demonstration
Nope. It is true, as "r.m.," an author at Green Resistance, says, that it avoids saying that someone killed the boy. But that doesn't make it the passive voice, and certainly not the "passive tense" (which doesn't exist). What headline does r.m. say would be better? This one:

3. Boy killed in West Bank protest
Ironically, this is in the passive voice. The is has been left as implied because of headline style, but it's clearly saying the boy was killed (by someone), not that he killed someone else.

4. It's fashionable to make the most expressive wine possible.
Nope. "SFJoe," commenting on "A Plea for Finesse" at The New York Times, is mistaken. There's a difference between having an "empty" subject — the it in it's — and having the object become the subject. In this case, the it just allows the real subject, the clause "to make the most expressive wine possible," to move to the end. Here's a test: a passive can have "by [who or what did it]" added: "The writer was corrected by the linguist." You can't say "It's fashionable by people." (By the way, you can have a passive with an empty subject — see if you can spot where I use one below.)

5. There should not have been any physical contact in this incident.
Nope. Ellen Alperstein of The Chicago Tribune says this is "a passive voice in which the personal pronoun is conspicuously absent," but it's actually an existential predicate: the subject is an empty there and the verb is be — without a past participle after. Passive would be, for example, "Physical contact should not have been made." She's right that there's no personal pronoun. But that has nothing to do with passive versus active.

6. In this final dance move, a snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore.
This is from a famous experiment in 2010 in which it was found by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky that people would assign less blame and financial liability when direct agency was not assigned. The sentence uses active intransitives (not the passives was unfastened and was torn, which would imply someone did it). Fausey and Boroditsky say so, but some people in the news who have mentioned the study have gotten it wrong. Remember: "passive voice" does not mean "any instance where you let someone off the hook."

7. The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.
By now it should be obvious: even if Ezra Klein thinks this is "entirely in the passive voice," it is entirely not. Do you see the past participle after the have been? No? That's because there isn't one. A form of be does not by itself make a sentence passive; "passive voice" does not mean "no motion here."

8. Did you let him go all the way with you?
Martha Rosenberg of the Chicago Tribune writes, "We used the passive voice when discussing sex — 'can you imagine letting him go all the way with you?' — because we used the passive voice in life." But she is talking about passive attitudes, which can be expressed with the active voice. A lets B do C is active voice; passive would be B is allowed to do C by A.

9. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.
This is from Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which, probably more than any other single work, has caused people to hate and shun the passive voice. But by now I'm sure you easily spotted the great irony: this sentence is itself in the passive voice.

Total score? Two real passives out of 9… one of which was presented as a more lively example, and the other of which advises against using the passive.

 
James Harbeck is a professional word taster and sentence sommelier (an editor trained in linguistics). He is the author of the blog Sesquiotica and the book Songs of Love and Grammar.

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