Verb Review #8: Passive Voice

The way some writing coaches slam Passive Voice, one might imagine that its use constitutes a grammatical error. It doesn’t.

In the context of grammar, Voice refers to the relation of the subject of a verb to the action of the verb. In English, there are two possibilities:

1. The subject performs the action.
2. The action is performed upon the subject.


A swarm of angry wasps attacked an unwary hiker.
This sentence is “in active voice” because the subject (wasps) performs the action (attacked).

An unwary hiker was attacked by a swarm of angry wasps.
This sentence is “in passive voice” because the subject (hiker) received the action of the verb (was attacked).

It is impossible to say which sentence is the better stylistic choice without knowing its place in a larger context.

The first sentence might be preferable in an article about the habits of insects, whereas the second sentence might be the better choice in an article offering advice to hikers.

Only transitive verbs (the ones that take an object) can be used in passive voice:

The boy hit the ball.
The verb (hit) is transitive because it has an object, ball. The sentence is in active voice because the subject (boy) performs the action.

The ball was hit by the boy.
The verb still belongs to the category of transitive verbs, but the sentence is in passive voice because the subject (ball) is the recipient of the action (was hit).

The usual way to express the passive voice is with a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, being) and a past participle. For example:

The door was slammed by the boy.
The cantaloupe was eaten by racoons.
The baby was placed in protective custody.

Sometimes the “to be” verb will be accompanied by other auxiliary verbs, as in the combinations has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been.

The use of passive voice is a stylistic choice. Its overuse creates a stodgy tone, but it should not be regarded as a bane to be avoided at all costs. Passive voice is justified when a writer wishes to emphasize the receiver of an action rather than the doer.

The worst that can be said of passive voice is that it’s sometimes used deliberately to obscure meaning or avoid blame. High-ranking government officials, for example, are quite fond of passive voice as a means of distancing themselves and their colleagues from blame.

Political journalist William Schneider has labeled this blame-avoiding use of passive voice “the past exonerative tense.” The most frequent passive phrase used to avoid blaming anyone or anything for something that went wrong is “mistakes were made.” For example:

I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility.—Alberto R. Gonzales Attorney General 2007, RE: firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Obviously, some mistakes were made.—John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff 1991, RE: violation of White House travel rules.

But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.—Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, 1987. RE: Iran-Contra.

Mistakes were made, and the proper protocols were not followed.”—Julia Pierson Former Secret Service Chief, 2014. RE: White House Security Breach.

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Daily Writing Tips

Posthumous and Posthumously

Researching another topic altogether, I came across this startling use of the word posthumously:

Nicholas Schmidle, whose narrative account of the death of Osama bin was completed without ever interviewing any members of SEAL Team 6, posthumously wrote an article entitled “In the Crosshairs’’ in The New Yorker.

Posthumously means “after death.” An article may be published posthumously, but writing one posthumously would be quite a feat.

The adjective posthumous is applied to an action or reputation occurring, arising, or continuing after death. For example, John Kennedy Toole acquired a posthumous reputation for his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which wasn’t published until eleven years after his death. Posthumously, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Or perhaps the passive would be better here: He was awarded the prize posthumously.

The word comes from the classical Latin adjective postumus that was used to describe a child born after the father’s death. The h in the English word may be the result of folk etymology by association with the word humus (earth), or by someone’s learned desire to associate it with the Latin verb humare, “to bury.”

Here are examples of posthumous and posthumously used correctly on the Web:

Murdered NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were posthumously promoted to the rank of detective.

The posthumous birth of a child has been a common occurrence throughout human history, but now “posthumous conception” has become possible. The technology that permits parents to bank sperm and eggs for later use has created legal problems no one could have anticipated a few decades ago.

I did find this quotation in which the word posthumously is used in an unexpected way:

Novelist Nadine Gordimer told writer Christopher Hitchens that “A serious person should try to write posthumously.” Hitchens interpreted her unusual use of the word to mean to write as if the “usual constraints of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.”

Bottom line: Ordinarily, people who are still alive can’t do anything posthumously.

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Daily Writing Tips

Shore It Up

Reading an advice article about the writing of historical fiction, I came across what I assume is an eggcorn for the idiom “to shore up.”

eggcorn: the reshaping of a common word or expression in a way that makes sense to the speaker.

The person writing the article drew an analogy between the construction of Machu Picchu and the research that underpins an effective historical novel:

[The Incan builders] started at the base of the mountain, and built terraces all the way to the top to sure up the mountain.

The writing instructor then compares this physical foundation work to the writing of a novel:

Writing historical fiction is much like building Machu Picchu. You want your novel to stand the test of time and that means doing the historical research to “sure it up.”


Never until then had I come across the expression “to sure up” in the context of stabilizing, strengthening, or reinforcing something. The conventional idiom is “to shore up.”

As a verb, to shore or to shore up means to prop something up. For example, one might shore up a sagging gate to keep it from scraping the ground. A tunnel might be shored with concrete.

The verb shore derives from a noun that referred to a piece of timber or iron that was set against a building or a ship to prevent it from falling while it was being worked on. In modern usage, anything can be used to shore something up. One might shore up a wall by packing earth along the bottom.

The verb is used literally in the context of building, reinforcing, or repairing structures:

Anticipating a storm, the villagers shored up the sea-wall.

The first step is to remove the boards and inspect the post. If it’s also soft and rot-infested, you’ll have to shore up the roof temporarily and install a new post that’s treated to resist rot.

A Web search reveals a quantity of examples of “sure up” in contexts that call for “shore up”:

PANTHERS – Staying Hungry and Suring Up the Defense

 The return of the big man sures up the middle of the offense.

Prosecutors could use the videotaped interrogations to sure up their argument that a confession was genuine.

One of the ways to sure up your home’s foundation is with Helical Piers installed.

The use of “sure up” for “shore up” is still relatively rare. It flat-lines on the Ngram Viewer, and a Web search for the terms in quotation marks yields 4,670,000 results for “shore up” compared to 365,000 for “sure up.”

Here are examples of the idiom “shore up” used correctly in a variety of contexts:

How Bobby Wagner’s speed shored up the Seahawks’ defense

Prosecutors had asked for the phone and bank records in a last ditch attempt to find evidence to shore up their case. 

The bulk of the Snyder increase did not go directly to the schools; it went to shore up the underfunded teachers’ pension fund. 

The Federal Reserve’s trillion-dollar effort to shore up the U.S. economy is likely to come to an end in October [2014].

Use your analytic skills to understand [your critic’s] position and to shore up your confidence in your own approach.

At first, I thought that all the examples of “sure up” were incorrect versions of “shore up,” but I’ve decided that a few are being used with the meaning “to make sure.” Here is an instance of the latter:

Coal supply chain partners in the Hunter Valley have struck a long-awaited agreement to sure up coal producing contracts.

The headline above the sentence holds the clue that “shore up” is not intended:

“Historic” agreement reached in long-running Hunter Valley coal chain dispute, providing certainty on contracts

Bottom line: If what you mean is “to strengthen,” the idiom is “to shore up.”

If what you mean is “make sure,” the idiom is “to make sure” or “to make certain.”

Here are some other words that may be used to express the idea of “making sure” or “making certain” of something:

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Daily Writing Tips

Bail Out vs. Bale Out

Reading A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton, (St. Martin’s Minotaur, New York, 2003), I was distracted by the author’s frequent references to the necessity of a pilot’s having to “bale out” of his aircraft. How odd, I thought, that such a spelling error would slip by in a book of this quality. Surely the expression should be spelled “bail out.”

According to a UK source (The Phrase Finder), the choice between “bail out” and “bale out” depends upon one’s way of viewing the act of leaving the aircraft. The person who says, “bale out” is thinking of the parachuted person as a bundle being pushed out, like a bale of hay, whereas the person who says “bail out” is thinking of the act of pouring water from a boat.

This explanation might make sense if all English speakers agreed as to the spelling of the water idiom as “bail out.” Apparently some British speakers prefer to “bale out” boats.

Nearly 90 years ago, H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage, 1st edition, 1926) took a stand for bail:

bail is right, & bale wrong, in the sense throw water out; the derivation is from French baille, bucket.

Fowler made no pronouncement on how to spell the word for jumping out of an airplane, most probably because he hadn’t heard of it yet. The earliest OED citation of bail in that sense is an American source dated 1925. The first citation for “bale out” is dated 1939.
Fowler’s successor Sir Ernest Gowers (Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, 1965) dismissed the relevance of etymology in favor of “differentiation”:

bail out, bale out. The OED says that [the spelling bail] should be used for emptying a boat of water; bale is ‘erroneous’ because the derivation is from French baille, bucket. But, perhaps owing to an instinct for differentiation, popular usage prefers bale both for this and for making a parachute descent from an aircraft in an emergency.

The OED now has an entry for bale in the sense of “To lade or throw water out of a boat or ship with buckets,” but explains its etymology as an “erroneous spelling of bail.”

The Guardian/Observer Style Guide has adopted the spelling bale for both jumping from an airplane and for pouring water out of a boat:

bail out a prisoner, a company or person in financial difficulty; but bale out a boat or from an aircraft.

Other British news sources, however, seem to prefer bail:

Daily Mail
Incredible story of the Lancaster pilot who bailed out over Germany whose life was saved when a searchlight helped him find his parachute…

Bedfordshire plane crash: Photos of wreckage show pilot may have tried to bail out.

NZ skydivers bail out over Lake Taupo as plane crashes.

Amid the 70th anniversary commemorations this summer it can be disclosed that at least 200 pilots died “needlessly” in 1940 after bailing out over water.

Even The Guardian mixes the two spellings in the obituary of Flight Lieutenant William Walker that appears in its US edition: the bale spelling appears in a photo caption and the bail spelling in the article that follows. The UK edition of The Guardian has “bale out” in the text as well as in the caption, but Walker’s obituary in both The Telegraph and The Independent has him bailing out.

Finally, the Ngram Viewer grid shows “bail out” far above “bale out” in printed usage.

Bottom line: If you don’t have strong reasons to do otherwise, stick to bail for exiting an airplane and for throwing water out of a boat.

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Daily Writing Tips

Silicon vs. Silicone

A reader has observed confusion between the words silicon and silicone and has asked for a post to illustrate the difference.

Silicon (chemical symbol Si) is a non-metallic element that ranks next to oxygen in respect of abundance in the ground.

Silicone is a chemical compound that contains silicon.

The teeny plates that contain a set of electronic circuits are usually made of silicon. Because so many silicon chip manufacturers located their facilities in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco, the area came to be known as “Silicon Valley.”

Silicone has a great many different applications for everything from breast implants to spacecraft assembly. It’s used in the manufacture of textiles, paint, cosmetics, and cookware with non-stick surfaces.

Here are some examples from the Web in which the words appear to be unintentionally reversed:

Plan your busy social life with this fun planner from the Silicone Valley collection. —a stationery site.

Social Media Goes to Washington — Obama Heads to Silicone Valley —a news site.

Some years ago, when silicon baking wares came out, I jumped on them with glee. —a personal blog.

Sometimes, the “error” is deliberate. For example, an episode of the television series Botched is called “Silicone Valley.” It’s about a woman who has had numerous plastic surgeries with horrific results.

An article in Newsweek is headed “Home: It’s Silicone Valley.” The article is about silicone cookware.

A car wash located in Miami, Florida is called “Silicone Valley Car Wash.” Silicone is an ingredient in some car waxes.

If you are referring to the element, the valley, or computer chips, spell the word silicon. For products or applications, spell it silicone.

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Daily Writing Tips


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