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Grammatical malpractice

The Baltimore Sun

It had been a trying night at the paragraph factory, and the water for coffee had not yet come to a boil this morning when I spotted a billet-doux posted by Ian Loveless:

“I'd like to see this piece of worthless advice get a wider audience,” he wrote, citing this:

“To identify passive voice, just do a find or search for the passive verbs: is, was, are, has, had, would. Then see how you can get rid of that passive verb and replace it with a verb that has more energy and specificity.”

“Great Fowler’s ghost!” I muttered. This goes beyond the usual crackpot advice on usage that abounds online. This is more than crazy Nevile Gwynne fulminating about split infinitives. (Because Latin.) This goes beyond Grammarly’s applying fresh lipstick to the rotting corpse of the nauseous/nauseated distinction. This is malfeasance. This is Laetrile offered to cancer patients.

The writer appears ignorant of fundamental grammar. Forms of to be standing alone are not passives but copulatives. (None of your smut, now.) This article is arrant nonsense. Article (subject) is (copula) nonsense (subjective complement). Not passive at all. Has and had often function as auxiliaries. I have never seen such arrant nonsense. I (subject) have seen (verb) nonsense (object)—pure active-voice transitive construction. Would and could are modal auxiliaries. I could go full Pullum on this fool is not passive.

The writer purports to give examples:

“It is so easy to write in passive voice. The problem is that writing in passive voice can be the cause of your reader falling asleep. This paragraph is a good example of boring passive voice.”

All three sentences, you will note, though unmistakably boring, contain copulatives. Not one is actually a passive construction.

This wretched drivel comes from a site for “excellence-minded bloggers” written by one Lisa Tener, who appears to have attended an accredited university. No, I am not supplying a link to the site, for fear that you might leave the page open on your screen where impressionable children could see it.

What I will supply is a link to a pdf of Geoffrey Pullum’s “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive,” so that you can have at hand actual accurate information. Carry it about as you would Naloxone among drug users.

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