Getting a Handle on Better English

Verbs and Objects, Active and Passive Voice

I wrote these examples in connection with a writing class I took in 2010. I decided to post the lesson here, hoping it might help will someone who’s learning to write English.

As we learned back in school days, there are two types of verbs:
Transitive – verbs that transfer action:
Bess ate the cake; The child spilled his drink; Tom punched the pillow.

–Intransitive – verbs that cannot transfer action
To be is an intransitive verb–it cannot transfer any action.
You can be grouchy (adjective modifying you);
you can be in a hurry (preposition modifying you);
you can be a sweetheart; you can be on the ball,
but you can’t be (as in transfer action to) the ball.

Other verbs are seldom used in a transitive form:
She yelled at her sister; the babies cried for their milk;
the leopard leaped on the deer; the deer ran from the leopard
Take the sentence, He walked on the grass.
On the grass is a prepositional phrase used to modify the verb walked.

To have is a transitive verb, as are most others;
you can have the ball; you can toss the ball; you can bat the ball;
the leopard can chase the deer; Dad can mow the grass, etc.

To complete their meaning, transitive verbs must have an object:
The boy kicked the fence because he was angry.
But…
The child kicked and screamed. This is an intransitive use of the verb.
To be transitive, he must have kicked something: the floor; his mother.
But he couldn’t scream the floor, or scream his mother.
You can scream nasty words to somebody, but it wouldn’t be the clearest phrase to use.
You can toss or hurl nasty words at somebody and be grammatically correct — but very wrong socially. and dangerous if the somebody is bigger than you.

The passive voice is formed by turning the sentence around.
You start with a transitive verb and a direct object:
He hit the ball; she knocked the glass off the counter;
Tom slapped his sister; Mother kissed the cut on the child’s arm.

And you turn it around. To put the object first you would say:
The ball was hit by him;
The glass was knocked off the counter by her;
His sister was slapped by Tom;
The cut on the child’s arm was kissed by its mother.
But I will warn you that editors do not like passive voice.

There are also indirect objects, the to whom or to what:
He hit the ball to his sister; she lent the book to her friend;
the teacher handed the papers to the students;
Mother took the children to the zoo.

It’s harder to form passive voice with all these objects in the way:
The ball was hit to his sister by Tom;
the book was lent to her friend by her;
the papers were handed to the students by the teacher;
the children were taken to the zoo by Mother.

So the “by who”–the actual subject–tends to get dropped altogether.
The papers were handed to the students.
The children were taken to the zoo.

Adding another clause may confuse things even more:
While we were playing ball, Mother took the children to the zoo. Active voice, very clear.

Passive voice: confusing:
The children were taken to the zoo while we were playing ball by Mother.
(You were standing beside Mother while playing ball and someone else took the children to the zoo?)

While playing ball, the children were taken to the zoo by Mother.
(Now the original ball players are lost from view and the children seem to have been doing that.)

While playing ball, Mother took the children to the zoo.
(In the middle of her ball game, Mom left for the zoo?)

This is why editors don’t like passive voice and writers will mostly avoid it. There’s just too much potential for confusion. The time passive voice comes in handy is when you don’t know who did the action or it doesn’t matter.

A parrot was spotted in the park. (No one cares who saw it; it’s the parrot that’s important, though you could say “Someone saw a parrot in the park.”)

The bank doors were locked every day at 5pm. (It doesn’t matter who locked them.)

While the employees were on lunch break, the store was robbed. (No one saw who did it.)

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A Stress-Full Language

Have you ever wondered why English is so hard to learn?

Comedian

If you’re laughing because you think I’m funny, that’s great.
But if you’re laughing because you think I’m funny, that’s not funny.

It’s because English is such a stress-full language.

Without stress on the right words, the caption under the speaker makes no sense at all. Just why English evolved this way no one knows, but most other languages (I’ve heard) don’t add this kind of stressing to change the meaning of a phrase.

“Amber’s going to play the part of Lady MacBeth in the school play?”
(Amber? I don’t believe it)

“Amber’s going to play the part of Lady MacBeth in the school play?”
(Why on earth would they give her that part?)

“Amber’s going to play the part of Lady MacBeth in the school play.”
(No, not in the movie, not on a stage. just in the play at her school.)

So let’s have a little compassion for the brave souls who undertake to learn this flexible, but quite complex, language of ours.

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PS:
If you’re new to blogging,, you might like to know that WordPress has provided us with the ability to stress certain words. If you want to leave a comment on someone else’s blog, you can emphasize words  by typing in <em> then your words to be italicized and then finish with </em>.

This can come in handy at times, especially if you want to quote someone, but you must remember to do both sides of the command or else you’ll end up with <em> or else </em> in your text and everyone will see you forgot the other half.

Bold is made by typing in <strong> then the words and then </strong>.

 

A Wise Witness

Oh, the Dexterity of English Words

One day a man from Yorkshire was called to take the stand as a witness in a court case.

The Counsel’s first question to him: “Tell me, my good man. Are you acquainted with any of the jury?”

“Aye. Ah reckon Ah know more than half of ’em.”

“Would you be willing to swear you know more than half of them?”

“If it comes to that,” declared the Yorkshireman with a twinkle in his eye, “Ah’m willing to swear Ah know more than all of ’em put together.”

From the 1975 Friendship Book of Francis Gay
published by D.C. Thomson & Co, Ltd.