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