How do I know this happened? I don’t. But it’s the best explanation I can come up with for the surprisingly widespread confusion about passives. Here’s an example typical of the stuff I see on writers’ message boards:
“How do I get this sentence out of the passive? 'I was walking down the street.’”
Talk to the misguided writer long enough and she’ll tell you that she believes it’s passive due to “was” or due to the “ing” at the end of “walking” or both.
She’s wrong. This sentence is not passive. Nor even is, “I had been considering thinking of wishing to go walking down the street.” Terrible? Yes. Action-packed? Hardly. But passive? No.
It’s important not to confuse action with active sentence structure.
To best understand it, start with the definition of passive sentence structure. A passive sentence is one in which the true object of an action is made into the grammatical subject of the sentence.
In “Steve wrote the letter,” the action is writing. The person doing it, Steve, is the subject of the sentence.
Now consider the same sentence slightly tweaked: “The letter was written by Steve.” Here, the main action is still writing, but the grammatical subject of the sentence is not the doer, but the do-ee — the letter.
Passive sentences are often very bad. Other times, they’re the best choice of all.
Passive structure can suck the life out of a sentence faster than you can say “bo-ring. “John hit him” has more of a pulse than “He was hit by John.” But sometimes you want to keep John out of it. And in those cases, a writer is fully justified in writing “He was hit.”
There’s no rule that says you can’t use passive structure. But to avoid falling into a common novice writing trap, you must know the difference.
It’s true that forms of “to be” coupled with an “ing” verb often mean passive structure: “I was being criticized.” But an active structure can look almost identical: “I was being helpful.”
Can’t see the difference? Go back to our original definition of passives: The object of the action is made the subject of the sentence. Now look at our nearly identical sentences again. What’s the action in “I was being criticized”? Criticizing, right? Good. Now look at the word holding that place in the second sentence. “Helpful.” What’s the difference? Unlike “criticized,” the word “helpful” isn’t an action. It’s an adjective.
In “I was being criticized,” the last word is actually part of the verb phrase. It’s a past participle. But in “I was being helpful,” the whole verb phrase consists of just “was being.”
Because you’re still awake, I’ll mention that there’s a name for structures such as “I was walking.” This is called the past progressive tense, and it’s one of many tenses sentences assume. For example, “I am walking” is present progressive tense, “I walked” is simple past tense, and so on.
But that’s a lesson for another day. For today, the important thing is that “to be” plus “ing” does not a passive make.* * * * Originally published Sept. 2, 2008, in the Glendale-News Press and Burbank Leader supplements to the Los Angeles Times.
Causes June Casagrande Supports
Planned Parenthood, ClimateCrisis.net, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Pet Orphans of Southern California, KIVA