Passive Aggressive

You won’t get very far in just about any writing review before you hear of something called the passive voice. This grammatical construction came to mind when I saw a sign on a building recently that read, This structure is scheduled for demolition. We usually expect the subject of a sentence to be doing something, but the subject of this sentence, structure, is not doing anything at all; it is clear, in fact, that the purpose of the statement is just the reverse, to assert that something will happen to the subject. The subject is passive, not active, or to put it another way, why doesn’t the sign read, We scheduled this structure for demolition?

First, a little grammatical background. The term voice in grammar refers to one of the five properties of a verb: person, number, tense, voice, and mood. These five properties, or attributes, convert an infinitive verb into a finite form, making a general idea into a specific instance. The infinitive to schedule, for example, is just as idea in our mind until we apply the five properties to it and make it specific, or finite, as in, we scheduled. We would analyze this verb, then, by identifying its five properties: first person plural (which we see in the subject pronoun we), simple past (since there is no auxiliary verb have), active voice (because the subject is shown to be doing something), indicative mood (because the statement is meant to state a fact, not a hope or wish or dream). There are two voices in English, active and passive, and they depend on the question of agency, whether the subject of the verb is the doer, the agent, of the action or not.

The reason this topic is so common in writing courses has to do with the fact that specificity is strength, in writing and much else. Focus concentrates a reader’s attention, and with focus comes energy, just as the light of the sun if gathered through an intense lens will under certain conditions set a piece of paper aflame. Something happens, in other words, and that is what a reader is expecting to learn in reading a sentence. Who did what is the question first in a reader’s mind, and because the active voice sets up a verb to answer that question, the rules of writing advise we prefer the active to the passive voice. We are better writers if we follow that counsel in the main, but we should also realize that there is a proper place for the passive construction, one of which is a construction site (no pun intended).

The passive voice is used properly when our intention is not to focus the reader’s attention on the agent but on the circumstances of the verb. The intention of that sign I saw on the building was to inform the public of a situation that will soon result in the neighborhood, and it is the resulting scheduling and demolition, not the company doing it, that is of first interest to the general public. Logically (and metaphysically), of course, someone is going to have to undertake to schedule the demolition, and that more specific information can be had by an inquiry to the city. But that is not the prime purpose of the sign, and clear purpose, we remember, is one of the questions we have to answer as we begin composing anything, simple sign to research report.

The concept of the passive voice is simple enough, but it’s difficult to remember when not to apply it, because being specific can sometimes take a modicum of moral resolve. If it is not in our interest to say who did what, it’s easy enough to skirt the issue with the passive: The check was not deposited yesterday does not say who didn’t deposit the check—and who might be responsible for the fees and other troubles resulting. Good writing, like good drama, depends on conflict, not the fray of fighting and arguing, but the putting of objects in opposition, contrast, or distinction. Without an agent for the verb, no opposition between a subject and the action can result, and we are left with merely the circumstances of the action. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes not, and it is only through being aware of our purpose that we’ll make the right choice in how we construct our sentences.


Tailored Details

Writers know the value of small things. What many of us might think to be inconsequential detail—a comma here or a few words there, for example—can make all the difference in reproducing the mental picture we give to someone else to see what we have perceived and felt.

A student of mine recently wrote a short story, only some six pages, he entitled “The Pilgrim.” It introduces the unexpected life of a homeless man in a large city, and holds before us the idea that unlooked-for insights—and their very real consequences—lie all around us, often in the unlikeliest of encounters, if we’d only take the time and attention to look. Midway through the story, the author has his protagonist say these few sentences to someone newly met, and when I first read them, I stumbled over the second sentence and tripped over the third:

It was a beautiful autumn day, a Tuesday, a little more than a year ago. Had I stayed home that day you and I would have never met. I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I felt too good to go to work in any case. I went birdwatching. The crisp air, the fall colors, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, a bright blue sky—it was a glorious day. I sat on the stump of a fallen tree and inhaled the beauty. If you want to see birds or any wildlife in the forest, it’s best to sit still and let them come to you.

The second sentence presents what is called a condition contrary to fact. Such sentences mean to hypothesize on what was not in fact the case, and like all conditional sentences, they have two clauses, condition and result. The conditional clause, here composed in a higher style appropriate to the character by omitting the conjunction if and inverting the subject (I) and auxiliary verb (had), sets up an imagined situation in the past, and the following result clause (I would have never met) states what would have happened in that hypothetical world had it been true in fact.

So far so good, but it is the construction of the verb phrase of the result clause that caused me to stumble when I read it: the adverb never is misplaced, and that produces a tone inconsistent with the higher diction already appropriately established in the first clause for the character. Verb phrases constitute a principal verb which is preceded by one or more auxiliary verbs, and if there is an adverb modifying the group, it is generally placed between the first and second auxiliaries; thus, would never have met, rather than would have never met. The latter construction is acceptable, of course, but it is a more casual configuration, and that is the cause of the inconsistent diction I detected.

More noteworthy, though, is the choice the writer made in constructing the third sentence. The obstacle I tripped over when I first read this sentence was the phrase in any case. This adverbial phrase means anyhow, anyway, this is true no matter what else may be true, and it emphasizes an idea we are to regard in opposition or contrast to some other idea either already said or about to be said. The first clause has asserted that the subject had no classes, and it states this as a fact. The following clause then asserts another fact, that the subject felt too good to go to work, and when the adverbal phrase in any case follows immediately, we are directed to put the second idea in contrast to the first—which would imply that the subject would not have gone to work even if he had had classes to teach that day.

That, however, was surely not what this responsible university teacher meant to say or do as a fact. Instead, perhaps, he might have suggested the idea of just walking away from his classes as a bit of humor, as an unlikely, outrageous thing to contemplate his ever doing. If so, this third sentence, then, is better constructed as another condition contrary to fact, perhaps with an exclamation point to mark its improbability: I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I would have felt too good to go to work in any case! If we then rearrange the order of the fourth and fifth sentences so that the reason and result proceed more orderly, this revision of the passage presents itself:

Had I stayed home that day, you and I would never have met. I had no classes (I teach at a small university) and I would have felt too good to go to work in any case: the crisp air, the fall colors, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, a bright blue sky—it was a glorious day! I went birdwatching instead. I sat on the stump of a fallen tree and inhaled the beauty. If you want to see birds or any wildlife in the forest, it’s best to sit still and let them come to you.

Other revisions, of course, are possible, so rich in ideas and characterization is the passage. Our examination, though, points to the practical importance of detailed analysis. A detail is a particular of something, what has been cut from some larger whole. The word is related to our word tailor, and derives from the French verb tailler, to cut. To see what we have written in detail, then, is to analyze our composition so closely that we see both the implications of what we have written and the possibilities for various revisions. And right there is where a knowledge of grammar and sentence structure serves its best purpose.


A Perfect Future

In a recent post (What Happened When), we looked at the difference between the simple past and present perfect tenses. We saw that the simple past points to the occurrence of an action, and the present perfect to an occurrence and its consequences. So we say that the sun rose versus the sun has risen, the first bringing our attention simply to the event in itself, the second suggesting that what happened has produced new and present results: the sun has risen, so it’s time to get going.

But how are we to understand the arrangement of time in a sentence like this: If we wait until 7:30, the sun will have risen already. To fill out the context, let’s imagine we’re on vacation and the plan is to get up early to see the sun rise the next morning over the ocean. The statement has two clauses, and they have been arranged together in what is called a conditional sentence. In their simplest configuration, conditional sentences have two parts, a conditional clause (called the antecedent) signaled by the conjunction if, and a result clause (called the consequence) sometimes signaled by the adverb then, and sometimes not. It is common to find the conditional clause first, as in our example, but the reverse is also possible: The sun will have risen already if we wait until 7:30. Read any kind of conditional sentence closely and you’ll discover something interesting. Conditional sentences do not assert what is; rather, they assert how what is might be connected. Theirs is not a world of fact, but of hypothesis.

Be that as it may (and let’s let it be because the subject of conditional sentences will swoop us up terrifically into the territory of logic and away from our present concern with tense), the first clause of our example denotes its moment with a simple present tense (if we wait), and marks a point of time we should note carefully. The hour of 7:30 is being projected into the future from the present moment of saying the sentence. In reality, then, the first clause gives us two marks of time, the explicit hour of 7:30, and the tacit, or implied, hour of, let’s say, 5:30 (we’ve all gotten up early and are deciding when to leave to see the sun). The second clause of our sentence, then, denotes its time with the future perfect tense (will have risen already), and with that peculiar tense marks yet a third point of time, some unstated hour between the two already given and implied in the first clause.

I call the future perfect tense peculiar because it manages to overpower logic and unite contradictories. The term perfect in grammar means completed, or past, and so the very name of the tense causes trouble: a future perfect tense is really a future past tense, an impossible confusion that can only be sorted out by remembering that relativity has its rightful place in the order of things. The future perfect tense means to say that the action it is referring to is future relative to one moment and past relative to another. So in our example, to say that the sun will have risen already, is to say that that magnificent event will be future to the present moment of speaking (the 5:30 we conjectured) and past to the future time of 7:30, when the sun will already be above the horizon. The future perfect tense must always involve three points of time, but not all necessarily, as we have seen, explicitly stated.

The lesson once again has to do with how keenly we are perceiving the ideas we wish to convey, for in precision lies style. As writers, like all artists, we have something we want to say, to communicate, to share. It is true, of course, that we discover more fully what that is by working with our materials, but what we release to our audience should not be a working draft, but a whole complete within its scope, something to be understood in its own right as far as it has undertaken to go. Proper tenses are an integral part of rational statement, the canvas of expository prose, and we say more clearly what we have to say by choosing the proper tenses and coordinating them accurately.


What Happened When?

There is, we can all agree, a yesterday, a today, and a tomorrow—so says, at least, our instinctive human intuition about life in the world. Many languages, and certainly English, are not satisfied, though, with this simple triple structure of time, and so the grammatical concept of tense can be at times confusing if not outright bewildering.

The term tense denotes the time of an action as it is marked by the form of a verb. A language may conceive of time in any way it wishes, with all manner of gradation and subtlety about just when something happened, is happening, or will happen. English depicts our temporal life with six standard tenses, but then turns a twist on that structure with the addition of what is called aspect. The English tense scheme is fairly simple to remember: just take that instinctive intuition of there being a yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and put those three distinctions under two categories, simple and perfect (the term perfect means completed). Thus, the six tenses in modern English are simple present, simple past, simple future; and present perfect, past perfect, future perfect. As to what is called aspect, there are basically only three: simple, progressive, and emphatic.

If I told you, for example, that the sun rose at 7:08 this morning, I would be using the simple past rose to ascertain a moment at which the event of the sun’s rising occurred, as marked by the appearance of the sun on the horizon. The scene I would be depicting is almost scientifically exact, and it concerns only the action of the sun’s rising, not that action together with any consequence it might have. To do that, I would have to employ the present perfect, the sun has risen, and my intentions in composing the sentence that way would have to be very different, perhaps to point outright to a specific result: the sun has risen, so now we can get to work. An action that is fully complete shows both the event and its consequence, and that is the function of the perfect tenses. By contrast, the simple tenses point only to the action, whether in the past, the present, or the future.

But how are we then to understand this statement: we walked along the beach as the sun was rising. The first verb, walked, is simple past, but the second verb, was rising, now takes on that curious twist we called aspect: the verb was is simple past, but it is used with the present participle of the verb walk. This combination produces what is called the progressive aspect of a verb, and it is used specifically to draw out an action (here in the past tense) in order to describe a broader scene: one thing happened (we walked) while another was underway (the sun was rising). Now it is true that the simple past alone will sometimes carry with it a sense of this same ongoingness (to walk at all happens across time), but the progressive aspect is used to stress the point. Indeed, we would probably have stressed the point too much had we used the progressive aspect in both verbs: we were walking along the beach as the sun was rising.

The lesson, then, is to consider very closely just what we see in our mind as we compose or revise a sentence—or, indeed, what we see in the mind of a writer whose sentences we are reading. We can leave it to the philosophers to decide whether time is merely a function of the human brain, or whether it is rooted more deeply in the mind or in nature itself. All of us, though, including those philosophers, live in the thick of things in the past, present, and future, and ordinary language presumes that those distinctions are real. The better we know the basic distinctions of time English grammar can make, the closer we are to reaching our goal of precision and style.


Him Who or He Who?

Here’s what almost all of us do when we read a sentence whose grammar just doesn’t seem quite right: we read the sentence aloud again, ask ourselves if it sounds right, then maybe tilt our head and read it still one more time, and finally come to the conclusion that we’re just not sure—or worse, come to the conclusion that because it doesn’t sound right it can’t be correct.

I witnessed this protocol the other day when a friend asked me about this sentence by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (from his essay “Life Without Principle”): Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it. The wisdom and sanity of the principle aside, what are we do to grammatically with the words him who does it? Those words, and particularly the pronoun him, stumbled my friend, not for the present concern over gender, but for the choice of grammatical case: him who instead of he who? Let’s sort this out.

A great name will not guarantee correct grammar, but in fact Thoreau here (no surprise) got his grammar right. To see why that’s true, let’s begin, as ever, by determining the number of clauses which comprise the statement in order to get our bearings. Thoreau composed a fairly involved complex sentence of three clauses. The first independent clause (do not hire) is an imperative, a direct command to the reader, and so we won’t find the regular subject-verb combination neatly laid out. Except for emphasis or clarification, imperatives in English do not include the subject, and so here we have as a direct and negative direction to the reader do not hire, not you do not hire. After that first independent clause, the sentence moves out with two subordinate clauses beginning, who does your work and who does it.

Now the two subordinate clauses here each begin with the relative pronoun who. The purpose of a relative pronoun is to refer indirectly in one clause to a noun that has been named directly in a previous clause. In Thoreau’s sentence, the two instances of who both refer logically to the noun man in the first clause, and the form each takes (who, not whom or whose) is determined by the use of the relative pronoun in its own clause. This is a master rule in English grammar. Thoreau wrote who does because the relative pronoun who is standing as the subject of the verb does; it is in what is called the nominative case of the pronoun, and another master rule of English is that subjects are in the nominative case.

My friend’s ear alerted him to a potential problem, though, when it heard him in proximity to who. The ear works by association to find meaning in flow and rhythm, and when it registered him who together, it raised the alarm over a potential problem: we say he who, not him who. But the ear is not a logical faculty of human nature; it works connectively, not logically, and so it is neither sensitive to nor sympathetic with all the sectionalizing that grammar and logic require. It serves an equally important but very different function in language, and if we appeal to it where its genius does not apply, we will turn ourselves onto the wrong path in understanding the construction—a logical undertaking—of a sentence.

Hearing him who together conflates two different grammatical sections, and that’s what caused the problem in analyzing Thoreau’s sentence. The pronoun him is a second object of the verb hire, and so missing between the conjunction but and the pronoun him is the verb hire again. Thoreau has employed a rhetorical device called ellipsis, the intentional omitting a word to heighten the point and effect of the statement. To read him who together, then, and appeal to the ear for grammatical warrant is to associate the last word of an elliptical clause (him) with the first word of a following relative clause (who), and that is to cross grammatical boundaries, the very mark of the sectionalizing tendency so counter to the ear, with its sharp attention to sound and rhythm and flow. But therein lies the art of language for writer and reader both: to somehow bring opposites together within the limits which an art imposes. And if we can do that, like Thoreau, we’re really doing something.