What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 7

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.

Onwards…

Passive voice

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.

 

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 5

To continue with my occasional look at common grammatical issues 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.

Onwards…

Starting sentences with conjunctions

Is it okay to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’ and ‘but’? Take the opening line to William Blake’s poem that has subsequently been turned into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’:

And did those feet in ancient times…

So there’s the answer (see what I did there?)—yep, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I’m not going to overegg it. There are plenty of places where you can read more about this; here, for example: quick_and_dirty_tips

But it leads nicely (and there?) into the next topic…

Ending sentences with prepositions

“A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.”
― Winston S. Churchill

The grammar pedants would have Winnie saying, “A preposition is a terrible thing with which to end a sentence.” There’s nothing wrong with this second version, though it sounds a little stuffy to my ears. However—and here’s the crux of it—there is absolutely nothing wrong with the original version, either.

Over to Merriam-Webster: words_at_play

Startled

I have, on occasion, encountered this construction:

He burst into the room. I startled.

That’s grammatically incorrect. You can be startled:

He burst into the room. I was startled

You can startle someone or something:

He burst into the room. He startled me.

You can also start (jump in fright or surprise):

He burst into the room. I started.

There are, of course, technical reasons why the first example is poor grammatically. They’re to do with transitive and intransitive verbs, and requiring an object to be acted upon, but you can look that up yourselves if interested. It’s a little dry.

Here’s one of the more accessible explanations I’ve found online:  english_grammar_explained

 

I’ll leave you with a thought. If the collective noun for a group of squid isn’t ‘squad’, it ought to be. Till next time…