There’s Been a Mistake Made

Let’s return to the subject of the passive voice, one of the menacing bugbears of English grammar, and see how its dark shadow lengthens when it combines with a common way we begin sentences. Some time ago, long before our present exile, I was at a restaurant and overheard the person next to me say apologetically to her friend, There’s been a mistake made. What mistake and why I can’t say (it was already none of my business that I was listening to her conversation), but the statement illustrates a curious move we make when we want to get out of the line of fire.

In an earlier post, Secret Agents, I pointed out that for all the warnings writing teachers send up about the passive voice, important and proper uses of it remain, and we can miss real opportunities to express delicate subtleties if we summarily dismiss the construction under almost all circumstances. The yellow flags should fly high and long, though, when a writer (or speaker) wants to wiggle out of responsibility by shifting the subject and directing the reader’s attention from who to what. Someone’s quietly backing off the stage and we might not even notice.

First, let’s remind ourselves of just what the passive voice is. Verbs in English (technically only transitive verbs) have two voices, active and passive. If the subject of a clause is the agent of the action, the person or thing that actually undertook the action, then the verb is said to be in the active voice: She postponed the meeting, or The company did not offer the benefit to certain employees. In these sentences, the subjects she and the company are doing (or not doing) something. Shift the construction by changing the grammatical construction, and the outcomes appear in a dimmer light: The meeting was postponed and The benefit was not offered to certain employees. In these fabrications, the subjects, meeting and benefit, are not agents: agents act, and neither of these subjects is doing anything at all. They are indeed subjects (a clause must have a subject, after all), but they are not agents; and in the role they assume, they have displaced the real agents—so masterly, in fact, that the subjects she and the company, both the actual agents in the original constructions, have been artfully disguised.

What results is a shift in attention. The passive construction allows the writer to say, Look here, at the result, the circumstances we find ourselves in, not at who brought these circumstances about. Certainly a dubious intention, but if this questionable construction then goes on to associate itself with the introductory phrases There is or There are, the once clear noon light of who did what recedes even further into twilight. The word there is an adverb; we use it a thousand times a day to indicate where something is located: The book is there on the table. But we also employ this adverb merely to introduce an idea (There is a book on the table), not really meaning to identify a particular place where the book is situated, but rather intending only to generalize the circumstances. The subject, book, has been pushed back into the sentence a bit, and the phrase there is merely serves to introduce the reader excessively to it. In this construction, the adverb there is called an expletive, because it fills out or expands the sentence, often unnecessarily. Good policy requires we remain suspicious when there is and there are show up everywhere: why not just get to the subject?

Which brings us back to our original sentence, There’s been a mistake made. This zirconia diamond appears to be something it is not: a forthright and responsible statement of fact. It is indeed a grammatical sentence, but its construction is so factitious and artificial, that the simple question Who did what? is enough to expose its pose. The introductory adverbial phrase There is (there’s, of course, is merely the contraction) has displaced the subject, a mistake, and that subject, moreover, is not an agent. The speaker has combined two fraught constructions, and has hidden the real subject, presumably I, behind the curtains. She meant to say, I have made a mistake, but to avoid that pricey admission, she has artfully designed a gem of an equivocation. Her listener will ask questions, of course, but the answers will unfold to the advantage of the speaker, the person—the agent—likely responsible for the difficulty but nowhere to be seen. It’s all a reminder that language follows thought, and when we want our thoughts to be known, we write and speak straightforwardly. And when we don’t, we don’t.

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And please remember, too, that tonight at 7:00, Writing Smartly will hold its next seminar, Verbs and Adverbs. Verbs are at the heart of our sentences, and understanding a few basic ideas about them—what is meant by the principal parts of a verb, a direct object, and tense—can go far in helping us to revise our drafts. Adverbs work with verbs, but they are often misplaced; and if we don’t know exactly where to position an adverb, we can unintentionally change the meaning of a sentence. This one-hour seminar will discuss these points, along with some basic observations about using the comma accurately. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, together with exercises and answers for private study. You may enroll now directly through this registration link. Tuition is $25.

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