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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Politicians, the Passive Tense and Misunderstandings About Grammar

Many get passive tenses wrong. Writers have heard that the passive tense slows down the forward motion of their writing (which is true) and that it's very bad (which is only true sometimes--like when a writer prefers to move the story forward quickly or she wants to avoid unnecessary wordiness).

One hears questions like "How do I get this out of the passive tense? 'I was writing a story.' " It's true that words that end with an "ing" may indicate you have used the passive tense but that is not always true. In this case "I was writing" is in the past progressive tense. Not the passive tense. "I am walking" is in the present progressive tense. "I walked" is simple past tense.

"I was being blamed." Now THAT's a passive construction. You can tell because there is a sort of reflexive thing going on. To make it clearer, let's make the sentence "I was being blamed by my buddies." See how the action in this sentence kind of flows backward? To make it active, you'd need to turn the sentence around. "My buddies blamed me." Now you've got the action going from left to right and once that happens, you aren't in the passive any longer.

So does that mean people should give up on looking at the "ings" when they're editing?. Nope. Because "ings" can be indicators of other stuff you may not want in your copy. But then, so can all those extra verbs like "was," "were," "have." Most of us writers have a sense for when we can take words out. So watch for "ings" and some other indicators I mention in The Frugal Editor. Then examine them. Can you hone your copy to eliminate words you don't need without harming your meaning? Then do it. Or don't. It's your choice. Because passives aren't wrong. They serve a useful purpose. Politicians would be a sorry group without them. "Party regulars are being blamed for their lack of interest." See? They don't have to say who is doing the blaming when they use the passive tense.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at


Marvin D. Wilson said...

Excellent post, HoJo, as always. As a STUDENT of your editing and promotion books, I always appreciate the little editing "tidbits" you offer on a regular basis. I copy them into a permanent file for reference. I started contributing to an editors blog, - I'm no professional editor, although I am MUCH better at self-editing my own ms's after reading and using what you teach in "The Frugal Editor," but I was invited to post articles there on fundamentals of good writing. I posted a short tutorial there today called: "Show me your story; don't just tell it to me." I would invite all aspiring authors to bop over there as well. The list of pros contributing is impressive.

Marvin D Wilson
Blogs at:
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Anonymous said...

Can you give me a working link of your Flesch Readability audios please????


Anonymous said...

Useful information. My critique group has a mmber who always does her best to get us to eliminate all was/were constructions. It can become a bit iritating because it's occasionaly the best way to write a sentence. But most certainly should b removed. We had a new membe, a neophyte writer who eventualy dropped out of th group because he liked to write fr shock value an we always criticized that. One day he came to the group and told us proudly that he had eliminated every was and were. Then h read his composition. He had eliminated every was and were OK. He'd just struck them out. "He was walking down th street," became "He walking down th street." This went on for four o five pages, and the rest of us didn't know whether to laugh or cry. True story!

Anonymous said...

This Blog is a Joke. This poor schmuk has been asking for a WORKING link to buy C. Howard-Johnson's audio in the past 3 blog postings and she just keeps ignoring her. ARE JUST SIMPLY TOO BUSY for your bloggers. ARE YOU JUST FRUGAL with your time.

Hey Leenna., just forgetta bout it! I'm sure you can just google and find the Flesch info for free!!!!

Oh and by the way CHJ, stop reiterating stuff from your book and come up with something original and complete and useful!

People, try reading Bobbie Christmas's book titled "Write in Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing ". It talks about the find and replace method of editing and was published WAY BEFORE The Frugal Editor...

Hmmm, is that where you got your material CHJ??? You didn't even list it in your reference section of your book.

Oh well, the secret is out, man!!!!

Once you really start supporting your readers, your public by answering their blog questions, then maybe you'll start earning some respect.

Peace out!!!!!

Your broth'r from another mother!

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