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In the Garden With the Grammar Geek: Is It Ever OK to Use the Passive Voice?

Jillian Steinberger Garden Artisan on ladder pruning rhododendron bush. Photo by BF Newhall

Jillian Steinberger, the Garden Artisan, is a doer. Here, she tames our unruly rhododendron with pruning shears. Photos by BF Newhall.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Writing teachers have been warning us against using the passive voice since high school. And rightly so. Passive sentences can be wordy and vague. But they can also come in handy.

What’s a passive sentence? One way to think of it is a sentence that omits or obscures the doer of the action — the agent

For starters, a sentence is passive if it has a passive voice verb:

  • “The rhododendron was pruned last month.”

Yawn. Give that sentence a living, breathing subject — a doer — and it comes alive:

  • Jillian, our dynamo gardener, pruned the rhododendron last month.”

Some sentences just feel passive. For example, any sentence that starts out “There is” risks passivity. Compare:

  • Boring:There are snapdragons thriving in my front yard.”
  • Snappier: “Snapdragons thrive in my front yard.”
Last year's pansies came up again this spring. photo by B.F. Newhall

Last year's pansies came up again this spring.

Turning a verb into a noun and making it into the subject is another good way to squeeze the life out of a sentence:

  • Boring:Planting pansies is how I spent the day.”
  • Engaging:I spent the day planting pansies.”

Still, the passive voice has its uses. Sometimes it helps the reader out by keeping the subject of a sentence short and sweet. Notice how long, long, long the subject is in the first — murky — sentence below:

  • Murky: Surpressing seed germination with a layer of newspaper, then covering it with dirt, horse manure and pea-sized redwood bark solved our weed problem.
  • Clearer: Our weed problem was solved by putting down a layer of newspaper to supress seed germination, then covering it with dirt, horse manure and pea-sized redwood bark. (Jillian’s brilliant idea; it worked.)
Redwood bark keeps the weeds down around this Gerbera Sunburst from Monterey Bay Nursery. c 2009 B.F. Newhall

Redwood bark surpresses the weeds around our "Gerbera Sunburst Coral Pink."

You can also enlist the passive voice to avoid placing blame:

  •  “Dad served our dinner late.”

That’s a perfectly good sentence with nice narrative tension. But if you’re trying to stay on Dad’s good side and don’t mind a little tactful obfuscation, you could say:

  • “We were served our dinner late.”

I’d love it  if you’d use the comments box below to send along any funny, pithy, lame or obscurantist passive sentences you come across in your reading — or writing!

Read about President Obama, master of the well crafted passive sentence. Or, if you’d had enough of grammar for the day, read more about Jillian’s handiwork in our unruly garden.

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Comments

  1. Redwood bark suppresses the weeds around our “Gerbera Sunburst Coral Pink.”
    If only old newspapers could suppress the emergence of typos!

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