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October 17th, 2007

Passive verbs / More on write like me or I

by Barbara Wallraff

Anonymous, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I am a high-schooler currently taking a writing class. Our teacher has given us a list of ‘Things to Avoid’ in writing, many of which I’ve seen before, including ‘Passive tense is bad’ and ‘Don’t use linking verbs like “to be,” “to seem,” “to appear.”’ Other English teachers I’ve known have echoed the sentiment. Why all the hate for these verbs? I can think of plenty of times when these devices can and should be used legitimately. Are English teachers just unable to draw a line between good advice and strict dogma? Please don’t use my name — I’d like to remain on my teacher’s good side!”

Dear Anonymous: Do you also take a health class? What your English teacher is saying is as if your health teacher told you not to eat junk food. You’re probably going to do it anyway, but at least you’ll be aware you’re misbehaving and might feel guilty about it.

Still, you’re right that passive verbs and linking verbs have legitimate uses. If they didn’t, they’d be called incorrect, not just things to avoid. But where you have a choice, they are less vivid and forceful than active action verbs. (Compare “Halloween is loved by kids” with “Kids love Halloween.”) I don’t believe there’s ever been any writer anywhere whose style, consensus has it, would be improved if only he or she had used more passive and linking verbs. No doubt that’s what your teacher has in mind.

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Diane Barker, of Charlevoix, Mich., writes: “I was blown away with your recent column in which you said it is OK to say ‘Write like me.’ I say NO WAY. You are really saying in that sentence, ‘Write like I do.’ Could anyone say ‘Write like me do’? That is the RULE, and I love it. My mother taught her five children to add the next word — even if just in our head — and you will know the correct usage of ‘me’ and ‘I.’ You are dumbing down the society with your thinking.”

Dear Diane: I love my mother too, but as I grew up, I came to realize that she wasn’t always right about everything. If what you report is indeed what your mother taught you — well, live and learn. Grammar books and usage manuals from at least the past 80 years back me up. H.W. Fowler, in his 1926 book “Modern English Usage,” wrote about the phrasing you’re in favor of: “Every illiterate person uses this construction daily; it is the established way of putting the thing among all who have not been taught to avoid it.”

Bryan A. Garner, in his 2003 “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” wrote: “In traditional usage, ‘like’ is a preposition that governs nouns and noun phrases, not a conjunction that governs verbs or clauses.” That’s grammarspeak for “If you want to be unimpeachably correct, do not put an entire little sentence with a verb in it after ‘like.’” About the noun —or pronoun — that comes after “like,” Garner wrote: “The object of a preposition should be in the objective case — you say ‘They are very much like us,’ not ‘They are very much like we.’” Enough said?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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