Bad passive voice advice from Strunk and White

Bad passive voice advice from Strunk and White

Although I can be a stickler for grammar (a tendency that I do my best to keep in check in non-teaching/blogging/grammar book-writing) life), there are nevertheless a handful of “rules” that I really and truly could not care less about. Among them are split infinitives (a ridiculous attempt to treat English like a purely Latin-based language that fails to take its Germanic roots into account); the use of “they” to refer to a singular noun when gender is not specified (no, “he” is not actually neutral, and seeing it used that way increasingly feels like an anachronism); and the prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, involves flipping the subject and object of a sentence around to emphasize that an action was performed by someone/something, e.g “The man drank the water,” becomes “The water was drunk by the man.” It is also possible to omit the “by” part and simply say “The water was drunk,” the implication clearly being that it was drunk by someone.

On the SAT and the ACT, answers that contain passive constructions are almost always wrong, if for no reason other than that they tend to be unnecessarily wordy and awkward. And in fact, passive constructions are by definition wordier than active ones. The awkward part… Well, that’s up for debate.

The use of the passive voice is an issue that blurs the line between grammar and style; there are instances in which the passive creates wordy, awkward horrors, but there are also cases in which it is useful to create a particular emphasis. For example, most people would never even be tempted to say “The car keys were lost by my mother.” On the other hand, it sounds perfectly normal to say “The bill was passed by Congress yesterday” — the emphasis is on the fact that the bill went through.

I always assumed that the “no passive” rule was simply something that had been cooked up a couple of centuries ago by linguistic purists (much like the “no split infinitives rule”) and handed down from masters to disciples through the ages. In this case, however, “through the ages” means more like “since the 1950s,” more specifically since the popularization of The Elements of Style.

Now, I confess to having a soft spot for Strunk and White’s chef d’oeuvre. It was the first grammar book I used in high school  English class (we were handed copies in September and instructed to memorize it — progressive education this was not), and it introduced me to all sorts of wonders like non-essential clauses and the requisite semicolon before “however” at the start of a clause.

As I recently discovered, though, Strunk and White got some things wrong. As is, major, big-time, crash and burn wrong. (In my own defense, I haven’t looked at the book in years). I knew that some people had “issues” with the “little book” — to put it diplomatically — but I always wrote that off as a matter of personal taste. Then, a couple of days ago, I stumbled across Geoffrey Pullum’s delightfully titled Chronicle Review article “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” in which the author takes it upon himself to enumerate the ways in which Strunk and White managed to mangle their explanation of the passive voice. Indeed, they barely understood it themselves.

As Pullum points out:

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

I’ve heard horror stories about college students getting marked down on papers because their TAs/professors mistakenly thought they had used the passive voice when that was not the case at all. (And at any rate, no one should get marked down just for using the passive voice.) It’s always a problem when people have knee-jerk reactions to concepts they don’t fully understand.

To be clear, though, I understand the pushback against the passive, especially on standardized tests. Standardized tests are, by nature, crude tools; their goal is to touch on the most common and misuses of various structures. I’ve read enough wordy, repetitive, marginally coherent SAT/ACT essays to  last a lifetime, and given that experience, I don’t have a problem with the tests’ perhaps overzealous approach. In this case, however, know that the rule is a little more flexible in real life. But try not to go crazy, or a hard time will undoubtedly be had by your readers.

What parts of speech can be subjects?


Nouns are the most common type of subjects. They include people, places, and things and can be concrete (book, chair, house) or abstract (belief, notion, theory).

Example:  Bats are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.



Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Common pronouns include she, he, it, one, you, this, that, and there.

Less common pronouns include what, how, whether, and that, all of which are singular. They are typically used as part of a much longer complete subject (underlined in the second example below).

Example: They are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.

Example: How bats hang upside down for long periods was a mystery until it was discovered that they possess specialized tendons in their feet.



Gerunds are formed by adding -ING to the ends of verbs (e.g. read – reading; talk – talking). Although gerunds look like verbs, they act like nouns. They are always singular and take singular verbs.

Example: Hanging upside down for long periods is a skill that both bats and sloths possess.



The infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. Infinitives are always singular when they are used as subjects. They are most commonly used to create the parallel structure “To do x is to do y.”

Example: To hang upside down for a long period of time is to experience the world as a bat or sloth does.


Adverbs and commas splices

At first glance, it might seem that adverbs and comma splices don’t have all that much to do with one another. On both the SAT Writing section and the ACT English section, however, they’re actually quite connected, even if the relationship isn’t particular obvious.

For those of you who need a quick review, comma splices are created when a comma is placed between two full sentences, and they can be fixed by replacing the comma with a semicolon or by adding a FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) after the comma.

For example:

Comma Splice: Gandhi rejected violence as a means of political revolt, he advocated peaceful protest instead.

Correct: Gandhi rejected violence as a means of political revolt; he advocated peaceful protest instead.

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb. You may be familiar with them from the infamous “adjective vs. adverb” error that appears in the Error-Identification section (e.g. John and Bob pulled the sled slow up hill, pausing only occasionally to catch their breath). For that section of the test, it’s usually enough to know that most adverbs end in “-ly.”

Now, most adverbs do in fact end in “-ly,” but not all of them do. And it’s the ones that don’t that tend to cause a lot of trouble when it comes to Fixing Sentences.

In order to recognize when a comma is being incorrectly placed between two sentences, you have to first be able to recognize when something is a sentence and when it isn’t. For a lot of test-takers, though, this is much harder than it sounds.

Most people have no problem recognizing that this is a sentence:

Sentence: Gandhi advocated peaceful protest.

But stick in an adverb (underlined below), and all of the sudden some people aren’t quite so sure:

Still a sentence: Gandhi advocated peaceful protest instead.

At this point, a lot of people will look at the sentence and say, “instead of what?” Because the sentence suddenly doesn’t make complete sense on its own, they mistakenly believe it can’t be a sentence anymore. Actually, though, it can and it is.

It even gets worse: move the adverb to the beginning of the clause, and a lot of people will simply have no idea whatsoever whether or not they’re dealing with a sentence:

Instead, Gandhi advocated peaceful protest.

This is still a sentence. It doesn’t matter whether it makes any sense out of context, OR whether the adverb comes at the beginning or the end; it’s still a stand-alone, grammatically correct sentence. And that means that it can’t have a comma before it — only a semicolon or a period.

Both the SAT and the ACT play with this concept a lot. They know that lots of high school students get confused by syntax and lose their ability to distinguish between sentences and fragments when adverbs are placed at the beginning of a sentences. Furthermore, if my own observations are any indication of things, they also know that this one of the top errors that high school students make in their own writing.

(Actually, it’s something I see adults do in their writing sometimes too, and that looks really bad). In this case, learning that placing an adverb at the beginning of a sentence doesn’t make it any less of a sentence can go a very long way toward making writing sound clearer and more polished and, well, more like something produced by someone not in high school.

Why it would behoove you to pay attention in foreign language class

Very often, before I even attempt to explain a particularly nasty concept involving verb tense to someone, I ask whether they’ve covered the tense in question during Spanish/French/Latin class. And almost inevitably, the response I get is something along the lines of, “Well, it sounds kind of familiar… I think we might have covered it, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”

People, I have some news for you: I’m sorry to say it, but most American high schools — even supposedly very good ones — do not teach grammar in English class. At all. Sure, they might cover how to use a comma or, if they’re really ambitious, the difference between a compound and a complex sentence, but I have yet to meet anyone who did a thorough review of verb tenses or got drilled on the difference between direct and indirect object pronouns. When I ask my new students how much grammar they’ve had and get the predictably embarrassed response of, “None, my school doesn’t really teach grammar,” I have to reassure them that they’re in exactly the same situation as almost everyone else. The ones who *have* done grammar in school are the anomalies (although they don’t necessarily understand the grammar they have done very well).

So that said, there is exactly one place that you’re likely to acquire some actual grammatical knowledge, knowledge that — surprise, surprise — might actually come in handy on the SAT. And that place is foreign language class.

Now granted taking Chinese probably isn’t going to help you all that much. But if you take French or Spanish, there’s a huge amount of cross-over; many common grammatical concepts in those languages carry over pretty directly into English, and many common vocabulary words are similar to some of the more esoteric vocabulary words you’re likely find on the SAT. If you’re lucky enough to be in a class sufficiently advanced to cover concepts such as the past perfect and the subjunctive, it would strongly behoove you to pay very close attention because those are two of the concepts that regularly give people the most trouble on the Writing section. Even if you’re not in an advanced class, you can still learn an awful lot about past participles and direct and indirect objects. Thrilling? If you’re like most people, probably not. But highly useful when it comes to understanding the basics of how English is put together.

People are frequently surprised to learn that my degree is French rather than English, but I learned pretty much all of the grammar I know through foreign languages. I only translated that understanding back to English, so to speak, much later. As a result, when a student has a reasonably strong basis in the grammar of a foreign language, I find myself offering to teach certain thorny concepts through that language. More than once, I’ve found myself using French to teach English to a native English speaker! Bizarrely enough, it’s actually easier that way. (As a side note, majoring in French also taught me infinitely more about teaching Critical Reading than majoring in English would have, but that’s another story.)

I do recognize that learning a foreign language comes more naturally to some people than to others, and I’m not saying you have to become an all-out aficionado. But at the very least, try not to completely tune out the next time your French/Spanish/Italian/Latin, etc. teacher starts rattling on about the past conditional or object pronouns. You might end up being surprised at how much sense the Writing section makes later.

The importance of understanding comma splices

When, in the course of going over a Writing section with a student, I mention the term “comma splice, I am almost inevitably met with something between a groan and an eye-roll. I can almost see a bubble with the words, “ok, enough already, will she please stop going on about the stupid comma-thingies already?” floating above their heads.

Unfortunately, though, it’s a point I feel compelled to belabor. Of all the grammatical concepts tested on the SAT, this is by far one of the most important.

I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of grammar rules tested on the SAT that you can get away with fudging in real life: if you use most rather than more when comparing only two things, there’s a pretty good chance no one’s going to call you on it.

Likewise, if you use a collective noun (team, jury, agency, university, organization, etc.) with a plural verb or pronoun, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will care — or probably even notice, for that matter. The College Board’s insistence that collective nouns be considered immutably singular is one of its quirks.

Not so for comma splices. In my experience, people who can’t always recognize when a comma is being used to separate two complete sentences tend to demonstrate the same problem in their own writing. And usually that indicates a larger problem: they don’t really know how to recognize a sentence.

Now, call me stodgy and old fashioned, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that high school students know what does and does not constitute a sentence by the time they graduate. Not be able to define it in grammatical terms or discourse about it at length, but simply to recognize when something is a complete, stand-alone statement.

Why? Well, in practical terms, let’s just say that you’ve probably been taking it more or less for granted that you don’t have to work terribly hard to follow my argument here. It’s pretty clear where the divisions between thoughts are.

But what if I were to write like this?

I dislike being the bearer of bad news but when people out there in the real world (employers) see writing (resumes and cover letters) that contains flagrant grammatical errors they won’t be particularly eager to hire you, as a matter of fact they probably won’t even be terribly eager to give you an interview. Surveys have shown that the number one skill employers think is missing from their new hires is: the ability to write well, this is particularly true for people with degrees in fields like business. If you’re lucky enough to get hired by company and can’t even write memos clearly you’re not going to win yourself any points, you’re also definitely not going to be first in line for a promotion.

Ok, so I threw in a few extra mistakes, but I think I’ve made my point. Reading writing that contains a lot of comma splices requires effort — it’s certainly comprehensible, but it’s also tiring and annoying to have to constantly figure out where one thought stops and the next starts. In the end, it has nothing to do with having to write about The Great Gatsby or The Declaration of Independence, and everything to do with making yourself understood.

Why “-ing” is not always wrong

In discussions about choosing answers on Fixing Sentences, the word “gerund” is often used as a blanket term covering just about anything that ends in -ing. It’s not quite that simple, however. Yes, gerunds are formed by tacking -ing onto verb (e.g. go —> going, talk —> talking), but participles are also formed exactly the same way.

While gerunds are usually bad, participles…well, not so much. They actually have very little effect on whether an answer is wrong or right.

This means that if you’re indiscriminately eliminating answer choices just because they contain words ending in “-ing,” you might get yourself into some trouble.

Here’s the distinction:

Gerund: A gerund is a verb that acts as a noun. It usually follows a possessive adjective such as her, your, or their (e.g. I was annoyed by his whistling).

Participle: A participle is a verb that acts as an adjective. It precedes a noun, exactly the way an adjective does (e.g. I was annoyed by the whistling boy).
Consider this sentence:

Correct: Although it lacks traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.

The sentence is fine because “exciting” functions as an adjective modifying “spectacle,” not as a gerund.
In addition, participles are often used to fix comma splices:

Incorrect: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle, it features beautiful costumes and thrilling acts.

Correct: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle, featuring beautiful costumes and thrilling acts.
On the other hand, answers that contain gerunds are usually wrong either because they are wordy and awkward or because they are fragments.


Wordy and awkward: In spite of its lacking traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.

Correct: Although it lacks traditional circus elements such as animals and clowns, Cirque du Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle.

Cirque de Soleil being regarded as an exciting spectacle.

Correct: Cirque de Soleil is regarded as an exciting spectacle