Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Passive Voice, Used Badly

Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Passive Voice, Used Badly


The Passive Voice is used badly when the writer tucks the real item of interest into a prepositional phrase, obscuring the agent of the verb and deflecting the emphasis. Consider these sentences:


The slider was hammered by Colavito into the left field bleachers.
Colavito hammered the slider into the left field bleachers.


The second places the emphasis on Colavito, the subject of the sentence and the agent of the verb hammered. The first places the emphasis on the slider, with Colavito relegated to a phrase following the verb, as if he and his home run were not really what the sentence is about. Both sentences are grammatically correct. It’s just that the first, for most purposes, is less effective. Consider these:


It was determined by the committee at the last meeting that the painting of the hall should be undertaken by the Brothers Ghirlandaio.

At the last meeting, the committee determined that the Brothers Ghirlandaio should paint the hall.


Again, both are grammatically correct. But the second is more direct and concise: we know right away who is doing what. That crucial matter is all tangled up in the verbiage of the first sentence. We even have to introduce an expletive, it, as a placeholder subject, a meaningless blank, just to get the sentence started. That’s not incorrect. It’s often useful to begin a sentence with a blank. See the previous sentence. But here, there’s no need. Better to have the real subjects be the subjects.

Sometimes students will omit the subject altogether, thinking that it’s just understood from the context. But you can’t always rely upon that understanding, and in any case it’s never a good idea to be vague, unless you intend the vagueness for humorous effect. Consider the following sentence:


When the cannons roared at Fort Sumter, a blow was struck for liberty.


That’s ambiguous. Who was striking the blow for liberty? Make it clear:


When the Confederates fired their cannons from Fort Sumter, they were striking a blow for liberty.

The Union soldiers laid siege to Fort Sumter at the height of the war, striking a blow for liberty.


Well, that makes the intention of the author clear. The matter itself grows less clear to me the older I grow, as I wonder whether the word “States” in the name of our country should be revised to read “Provinces” or “Subdivisions” or “Administrative Districts.”

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