Passive voice: the good zombie rule

(I’ll admit it’s not a rule so much as a test, but I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. Live with it.)

First, an apology to all my readers for not having written about this here on the blog before today. I know I’ve discussed it elsewhere on the ‘net, but an omission of this magnitude could not go unaddressed any longer. Continue reading “Passive voice: the good zombie rule”

[Expletive deleted]

Ha. Made you look, didn’t I?

This isn’t a post about those expletives, though. It’s a post about a different kind — the kind that’s a grammatical construction using a form of the verb “to be” along with “there” or “this” or “that” or “it” to start the sentence.

I’ve used it twice already, just to provide context.

I wrote about the passive voice and the “by zombies” test for it over at G+ some time back. Passive voice also uses forms of “to be” — but it’s not the same thing as the expletive construction. Here’s an example of passive voice:

The boy was chased through the graveyard.

“The boy” is the subject of the sentence. However, the boy isn’t performing the action; something or someone is doing the chasing. If we add “by zombies,” we can see that this is actually passive voice. Note that the meaning of the sentence does not change, nor do the forms of any words in the sentence. That’s the Zombie Test for passive voice. (See? Another example of expletive form.)

The boy was chased through the graveyard by zombies.

So how would this be written in expletive form, then?

There was a boy in the graveyard being chased by zombies.

It’s not nearly as exciting, is it. It’s even more boring than the passive construction. Here’s a link about expletive constructions and how to recast them. You’ll notice (if you click the link and read the article, that is) that even that website says “Most of the time expletive constructions . . . only add extra baggage to sentences.” And that’s true. Most of the time, they’re not the best choice. That’s especially true in nonfiction or academic writing. In fiction writing authors have more leeway, but should still be aware that overuse of this construction might slow the pace unnecessarily.

Zombies chased the boy through the graveyard.


Zombies were chasing the boy through the graveyard. (We’re still in active voice here, just not in the simple past tense any longer.)

NOW we have a subject (zombies) acting on an object (the boy). While this is clearly an active-voice construction, it might not be the best choice for a given piece of work. Consider the type of writing you’re doing, the audience, and the intent of the work. If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, there’s nothing wrong with using it. (LOOK! An expletive construction! “there’s nothing wrong with using it”)

I could recast that sentence: If an expletive construction works best in a specific situation, use it.

That rather defeats my purpose, though — I’m out to show you not only what that construction looks like, but also how it can be used. The point is expletive constructions have their place, and they can be used to good effect if used properly and sparingly.

That is our lesson for today. (Or I could say “That concludes our lesson for today” and avoid the expletive construction, using an active verb form instead. See? Easy. Honest.)