There are a number of grammar myths current in the genre writing community. A lot of people seem to believe, for example, that commas exists to mark pauses when, actually, they show logical relationships between parts of a sentence. Strunk and White cover commas quite well, but they leave out a common myth about verbs. For example, on another online service one poster stated that “a teacher at Clarion” had told him, “You should eliminate all uses of the verb to be in your writing because they’re all passive.” Um well, no, not really, not at all. Since I love tilting at windmills, I thought I’d take this latter myth on.
When it comes to narrative fiction, most writers know that the passive voice is a Bad Thing. It’s clunky, slow, vague etc etc. The trouble is, a lot of people don’t seem to quite know what verb forms constitute the passive voice. They confuse it with the progressive tenses of the active voice, and in desperation try to eliminate all uses of the helping verb “to be” from their prose. If they do, they lose an important tool.
Consider these two sentences:
The man saw the bird.
The bird was seen by the man.
The second is passive, the first, active. Who is acting in this pair of sentences? The man. He is doing the seeing. He is therefore the subject of the active verb, see. What is being seen? The bird. Therefore it’s the subject of the passive voice construction, “was seen.” The man, who is doing the seeing, ends up dumped into a weak prepositional phrase. What makes the second sentence passive is its meaning. The form, “was seen”, merely expresses that meaning. The presence of “was” alone does not make the sentence passive. The key to understanding the difference twixt passive and active is always the meaning.
Now consider these:
1. He walked down the road when he saw the bird.
2. He was walking down the road when he saw the bird.
Both are active. The second is in the progressive past tense. “Progressive” here is a latinate word that can be confusing. It means “joined in progress”, on-going, still happening at the point in Past Time where the story’s set. Progressive verbs are NOT passive. They are the most active forms of verbs in English. What we are dealing with here is duration, not the difference twixt active and passive. Progressive verbs use the present participle (the -ing form) plus some form of “to be” to express continued duration. The simple forms of verbs (walked, spoke, and the like) do not express duration.
Why is all this important? When you are trying to express parallel actions, that is, two things happening at the same time, the progressive tense works much better than the simple past The two sentences about the road and the bird have different meanings. The first cannot substitute for the other. “He was walking down the road when he saw the bird” means, basically, at the time that he was actively walking down the road, he saw the bird. The other has a possible implication that seeing the bird was some sort of signal for him to walk down the road, or perhaps that he walked down the road to get a closer view, or so on and so forth. Sentence 1 is ambiguous, in other words, where Sentence 2 is precise.
The progressive tenses have many other uses as well. In fact, what we call the “present tense” in English is nothing of the sort. Consider this pair of questions and answers:
‘What do you do for a living? I write genre fiction.
What are you doing now? I am writing about English verbs.
The “simple present”, that is, the first sentence above, refers to a general state or condition that’s not actually happening at the moment that I’m answering the question. (The proper name for the “simple present” in English is an “idiomatic aorist”, but that’s another subject.) The actual present moment requires a progressive tense. And “I am writing about verbs” is most definitely not a passive construction!