Category Archives: Grammar

Passive construction is not the enemy

(This post had been scheduled to post on June 23. I rescheduled it for now because this is still a writing blog, and I’m still a writer.)

In 1918, William Strunk, a professor at Cornell wrote the original Elements of Style. At the time, it was little more than a pamphlet, privately published in 1919, then by Harcourt in 1920. EB White (of Charlotte’s Web fame) had been a student of Strunk’s, and expanded upon his old prof’s work. In 1959, Macmillan published the Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, we are all familiar with today.

Strunk and White–those paragons of all things grammar, had a lot of great things to say. They also had a lot of opinion and personal preference down as fact. One of them was the absolute mandate that we eradicate passive voice from all written work. Writers are taught to always choose the stronger verb, and that is a good, basic rule. Many of us do it instinctively without ever really knowing why we do so, why it sounds better. But knowing why always makes it easier. Alors…

She was running down the street.

She ran down the street.

That’s the difference we often think of when we think passive vs active. Really, that’s the difference between the past progressive and the past. But we all know that “was” denotes passive, and it’s often true. If there’s nothing after the progressive form, then it’s not necessary to use it. But-:

She was running down the street when the meteor hit her.

Would you write–She ran down the street when the meteor hit her? No, you wouldn’t. It’s awkward. See? How about this one:

She ran  slowly down the street.

She jogged down the street.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with either, but the first is passive and telly, while the second is stronger, and always preferred by readers, writers, and editors alike. But then there’s this kind of passive voice:

She kissed him.

She gave him a kiss.

They say completely different things, and this is what is meant by “sometimes passive voice is ok.” It’s never saying we should use the progressive willy-nilly, or an adverb when a stronger verb is available. Using the more passive phrasing is right when it changes the meaning of a sentence. In the first, it’s an open-ended thing. She kissed him. It might have been long and sensual, short and sweet. Those three words open the door wide, and context will give the reader the clues needed to decide what, exactly, they mean. It’s powerful, and infinite, and open to interpretation.

She gave him a kiss. What do you “see?” You get that it was a peck, done and over with. Context will show if it was reluctantly done, or innocently, coyly, seductively. But it was one kiss. Done and over. Let’s expand just a little.

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. He opened his mouth, to speak or shout or wail. She kissed him. The tension in his body eased. “Don’t go,” she said. And he didn’t.

Insert she gave him a kiss, instead. Yeah, doesn’t work so well in this context, does it. Now try this one:

They stood in the doorway, avoiding one another’s eyes. A long night ahead for both of them if the past was anything to go by. She wasn’t ready, even if the tension in him proved his need. She gave him a kiss. “Good night,” she said. and ducked inside.

Insert “she kissed him.” Well, it works better than the other flip, but it doesn’t say it completely. She kissed him could have been longer, maybe with a little French action going on. But she gave him a kiss is the nervous peck easily envisioned. No guessing. Not up for interpretation. Sometimes, it’s what we need.

I tend to be more prescriptive* in my writing. The descriptive** route will often date a piece of work, make it less identifiable to readers a decade down the line. The same holds true with prescriptive grammar, because grammar rules change, and what we consider proper grammar now won’t be in a hundred years. Like split infinitives. Don’t get me started. You might be surprised to see which way I lean on those.


*prescriptive grammar: A set of norms or rules governing how a language should or should not be used rather than describing the ways in which a language is actually used. 

**descriptive: An objective, nonjudgmental description of the grammatical constructions in a language.


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Words are strange

I love language. All languages. All words and dialects. The study of language entertains and intrigues me. Words. What are they? Utterances that embody objects that sometimes change, sometimes die out. These utterances were eventually written down, lines and pictures strung together to give form to those utterances. On rock, vellum, papyrus, wood*. Scribes created lists that tell us what our long-ago ancestors bought, sold, traded. Those who knew how to create and translate such things were magical. Then came those who compiled more than lists; they put those lines and curves of utterances to work telling stories. They created books.

Words. Lists. Stories. Books. Magical things. Spells cast and generations of humanity enthralled by these simple lines and curves joined together to make words that call up those utterances once only spoken. It wasn’t so long ago that this magic was reserved for the wealthy, for those with leisure time to learn how these strung-together symbols made words into stories, into histories.

All this got me to thinking, about the ever-present alien looking down on Earth, trying to figure out what we are doing, staring at lines and symbols**, in print and on screen. I imagine it wondering, “What is so intriguing about those squiggles that so many will stare at them for hours?” And that led into me thinking about how easy, how thrilling it is to lose oneself in a story, but also how odd. Sitting in one place (or not) staring at words that make a story that creates a whole world inside our heads–how does that even happen? What is the science behind it? Or is it, as our ancestors must have believed, truly magic?

Why does H O U S E mean the edifice one lives in? Where did that word come from? Not house, itself. I know it is from the Proto-Germanic word, husan. Before that, it might have been Goth. But what about before that? How did words come to mean things? Who grunted the first sounds that would become house?

And I am intrigued all over again, a circle I never tire of spinning round and around. Maybe I’m weird, but I have a feeling many of you reading this get it completely.

*Did you know that runes are mostly slanted versions of the Roman alphabet? Why slanted? Because they were being carved into wood, and the grain of wood made getting it consistently legible with straight, horizontal lines a bit precarious.

**Because not all languages on Earth have a writing system, so maybe aliens don’t either. There are some 7,105 living languages, and only 3,570 have a developed writing system.


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A Gendered Bathroom?

I found this today, at a doctor’s office…


The bathroom is female? This is just the sort of grammar-dork thing that sticks in my craw, dagnabbit…and apparently makes me talk like a ninety-year-old hillbilly, or a pirate. Yar. But this is a perfect illustration of misuse, and overuse.

Let’s look at the misuse, first–female is an adjective. You have female pilots, female plants, female plugs. Female is supposed to be followed by a noun. So in this sense, the sign is saying the bathroom itself, is female. Where is its vagina? Its ovaries? Its sense of being female even if it has no such parts? Okay, okay–there is a common usage thing going on here, in that female is and can be used as a noun (not in MY book, but…) In that case, it would still need a possessive apostrophe S. Either females’ bathroom. Or, if it belonged to a single woman, female’s bathroom.

I get it. No one is going to mistake what it means. But really, it would have been just as easy–easier–to do it right.

Now how about the overuse–and this is a lesson we writers have to learn or be shunned–do we really need the symbol AND the words? Is no one going to get that it’s a ladies’ bathroom, considering the skirted stick-figure? There was no need to then clarify the pictograph. Erroneously. Less is best, especially when more ends up being not only wordy, but grammatically incorrect.

And that is my grammar-dork rant for the day. Feel free to fling peas at me in the cafeteria. I probably have it coming.


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Even An Editor Needs An Editor

I am a good editor. I know my stuff. If there is a grammar mistake, a typo, a plothole, a well-written but totally unnecessary infodump, a confused POV, I will see it. I will not spare you. It’s all about the story; a writer’s ego has no place in that. I encourage debate, and if an author argues with me, I will often give way. It is my belief that constructive criticism makes us think, and thinking is always a good thing, even if it makes the writer a little pissy. The author might see my point, or see her own point from a different angle. In the end, the story wins, and that’s the true goal.

One of the things I always tell my writers is that we write for those who are going to notice, not the readers who won’t. My own bête noire, the confusion of that and which, is actually a usage in flux, and has been for…ever. Though the rule never changes, the usage does. Currently, though the British English rule is the same as the American English rule, Brits use which almost exclusively in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. (That and Which blog post.) It has been so in American English, and is actually making its way back into usage. I, however, will never okay that in any edit I do. It grates to the point of being able to spoil an otherwise good story for me, if used too often; and thus my contention–write for those who will notice.

Imagine my surprise when my editor at Lyrical (the fabulous Penny Jo Barber) pointed out to me that I was breaking my own rule.

Moving to the desk, she clicked at the keyboard until the article she needed popped up on the screen.

The rule, as I know it, says that the comma acts as a transition, an invisible “and then.” It’s how I learned it, how I’ve always written it, totally oblivious to the fact that for some, it’s as grating as that and which confusion is to me. Why? Because it is grammatically incorrect. The ING in moving is a continuous motion, and can’t be done while clicking at a keyboard. The way I’ve always done it is one of those new–in that it’s not new at all–usages that goes against an established rule.

Whether I agree or not, I’ll never do again, because for those who notice, like my editor, it can spoil the story. Instead, I’ll write something like:

She moved to the desk, clicked at the keyboard. The article she needed popped up onto the screen.

Whichever way it’s written, the reader gets the idea. The second way is not going to make those who would have noticed cringe. I could have argued, as I encourage my authors to do. I could have cited usage in flux. But why? I agree, completely. This is why even editors need editors. We might turn in cleaner copy, but we will always need that authoritative eye reminding us that we don’t know everything.

PS: There is a “cheat” to know whether your ING works or not. If you can insert “while” to the beginning of the sentence and it still makes sense, it works. If not, it doesn’t.

frex: Sipping the hot tea, she breathed in the fragrant steam. Correct!

          Sliding down the hillside, she got up, brushed herself off, and hurried on. Wrong!

Thank you, Penny!


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