To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.
Discussions about active and passive voice come up from time to time in any group or forum where writers congregate. It seems to be one of those topics about which there is some confusion.
So what is the passive voice? Put simply, it’s where the subject noun of a sentence (usually the first, or only, noun in the sentence) is being acted upon. It’s not doing anything—it’s having something done to it, i.e. it’s being passive. For example:
The grass is being cut.
The subject (grass) is having something done to it (being cut). A passive construction may not even tell us who or what is performing the action, as here.
The active voice is where the subject noun of a sentence is performing an action upon an object. What would the example be if written in active voice? It would be helpful to know who’s doing the cutting—the passive voice example doesn’t tell us, though it could have been written: ‘The grass is being cut by Keith.’ The active version becomes:
Keith cuts the grass.
The subject noun is now Keith and he is performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).
I don’t like to go into too much detail when discussing these weighty grammatical matters—this is supposed, after all, to be not too serious—and prefer to provide a link to an authoritative voice where those interested can read further into the topic if that’s what floats their boat. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about passive and active voice: active-vs-passive-voice-difference. Or google ‘passive voice v active’ or similar—there’s oodles of stuff out there about it.
I have seen some writers state that if a sentence contains ‘was’ or ‘is’, the sentence must be written in passive voice. (This is the source of confusion I mention above.) But it ain’t necessarily so. While some form of the verb ‘to be’ usually appears in the passive construction (e.g. ‘the earth was destroyed by a meteor’), its presence isn’t conclusive. For instance, ‘Keith is/was cutting the grass’ is in active voice. There is still a subject noun (Keith) performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).
What the inclusion of ‘is’ or ‘was’ can do is provide an indication of whether an action has concluded or is continuing. Take these examples:
It rained. Peter stepped outside.
It was raining. Peter stepped outside.
In which example does Peter get wet? Almost certainly the second one because ‘was raining’ suggests it carried on raining and was still doing so when Peter stepped outside. In the first example, however, it’s possible that it had stopped raining by the time he stepped out.
Either way, both examples are written in active voice.
Could/should/would have v could/should/would of
Ah, social media. We’ve all seen examples of this on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere:
I could of eaten a horse
You should of kept it
She would of cried with shame
In each example, of course, the ‘of’ should be ‘have’. Yet many people (and not necessarily of lower intelligence or uneducated) use ‘of’ in this way in their everyday speech. Little surprise, perhaps, that they write it as they say it.
There is an argument that since English is a living language and that’s how people do talk and write, then it should become acceptable usage. Maybe, but we haven’t reached that point yet.
Final word on this to Merriam-Webster: whats-worse-than-coulda.
I’ll leave you with a thought: is ‘orange’ the most unimaginative name ever given to anything?* Till next time…
*It has been gently pointed out to me that the colour orange takes it name from the fruit, not the other way round as implied by my feeble attempt at humour. That’ll teach me to check things thoroughly beforehand.