Whose only passive

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.

6 Responses to Whose only passive

  1. astraya says:

    I think I’ve mentioned before that most discussions of passive voice don’t consider the ‘flow’ of information from the previous sentence to this one. In some cases passive voice becomes almost obligatory.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes – the flow of information from one line to the next is vital to intelligibility, yet it’s often overlooked in discussions that obsess over this or that device. It’s a problem I see regularly in my editing work, where a writer changes grammatical subject repeatedly in close succession, making for prose that’s disjointed and unnecessarily hard to follow.

  2. astraya says:

    PS I didn’t even learn about passive voice at school – let alone that it was somehow bad. I just used it whenever it was appropriate.

  3. ktschwarz says:

    Stephen King mindlessly repeats the prejudice against passive in On Writing (also calling it “passive tense” at least once — did anyone edit this book?), but of course the book itself is full of it, about one per page, including the very first paragraph:

    I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality—she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.

    And of course almost every single one of King’s passives is good, because he does know how to write, he just doesn’t know how to analyze writing. You could use this book as an exercise on how to use passives well! It’s all about the flow of information, just as astraya said. Take that first sentence: should it be “Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club, stunned me”? No: this is not a review of The Liars’ Club, it is a book about Stephen King. He is the subject. And more importantly, the “by” leads into the parallel sequence “by its ferocity … by its totality“. One sentence connects to the next, carrying the reader forward.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a long time since I read On Writing, but I have a vague recollection of his regrettable attitude to the passive voice. Your analysis is spot-on. It’s virtually an unwritten rule that anyone who criticises the passive misidentifies it. As I wrote a few years ago:

      The Elements of Style says, ‘Use the active voice.’ But the first paragraph of E.B. White’s introduction to the book has five transitive verbs, four of which are (perfectly unobjectionable) passives.

      Incidentally, Stephen King doesn’t know what the Oxford comma is, either.

  4. ktschwarz says:

    King is innocent of misidentifying the passive! He gives a few silly made-up examples, and they’re all genuine passives (his experience as an English teacher probably helped him). It just didn’t occur to him to check his “rule” against his own writing, or any good writing.

    The book has strong points, especially on the difference between first draft and rewrite; it’s just weak on grammar.

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