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Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Mailbox: Grammar Questions I Have No Business Answering

Is past perfect always passive?  Me vs. I?  Who vs whom? "A history" or "An history"?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments may end up in the mailbox.  And while I'm happy to take a crack at grammar questions, there are probably better people to ask about them.)]   

Two things before I dive into today's questions:

1- We're now running between 4 and 6 weeks out on questions for the mailbox, so pretty soon I may have to start choosing which ones to answer--or at least choosing a few not to.  So if you've ever wanted to write in, you should do so soon.  The window of guaranteed answerage is closing if I keep getting questions at the current rate.

2- I'm going to answer these questions because I promised I would answer anything that has to do with writing--and grammar does.  But you really should be hitting up grammar websites for this kind of advice, not me.  (I really like Grammar Girl because she doesn't thump one style guide like a Bible, and is comfortable with changes to the language that have happened in the last couple of decades.  Plus she has a phone app.)  However, if you have paid close attention to Writing About Writing, you know that I make more than my fair share of grammar mistakes.  I am constantly correcting mistakes after I have posted an article.  In fact, I consider it a win if I don't discover that (because of my A.D.D.) I simply trailed off and didn't even finish a

Chris asks:

Is a sentence with "had been" (like "had been eaten") always passive?  I know I'm not supposed to use passive voice, but I'm not sure how to avoid it if I need my action to be done in the past.  

My reply:

Man, Chris, you probably don't realize how complicated this question actually is.  I'm going to try not to hate you as I give you a really crashy crash course on passive voice and verb tense.  This is the supermega skim version of a grammar lesson.

Let's start here: the short answer is no.

Got it. Now run away screaming.

No?  Okay then.

Passive voice and tenses have some overlap, and your example IS passive, but it is possible to have an active construction in the past-perfect tense (the tense you used in your example).

Zombies.  They just make everything cooler.
We could argue whether they make grammar fun.
But they definitely make it better.
Today we shall test the limits.
Here's a test I teach my students to find out if a sentence is passive: if you can add the phrase "by zombies" at the end of the sentence, and it makes sense, it is passive.  ("John ate the cheese [by zombies]" makes no sense, so it is active. "My brains were eaten [by zombies]," makes total sense, so it is passive.

That's grammatical sense, not logical sense.  I know zombies aren't that into great Russian literature, but grammatically speaking, "Tolstoy was read....by zombies," is a good sentence.

And if you'll allow me to slip on my hipster glasses, I totally did this trick before Rebecca Johnson tweeted it and before it was cool.   She got hella retweets off of stealing my trick.  Hate that girl. (Not really.)

Now let's get into why...and I'm going to go over this really fast, Chris, because I'm going to assume most of this is review for you.  Plus it would take me way longer than an internet article to explain it. If one of these ideas trips you up, Google is a wonderful place with magical grammar lessons around every corner–some whether you want them or not.

The first thing to understanding passive voice is to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.  Some verbs need only a subject (or an agent).  They only need to be done by something.  (The sun rose.  I sit.  Jeff plays.)  These are called intransitive verbs.  However, other verbs need an object as well.  They not only require someone doing something, but they need to be done TO something as well.  (I hit a wall.  Jeff enjoys chess.  The sun heats the Earth.)  These verbs REQUIRE  an object in order to make sense.  If I walked up to you and said "I hit..." or "Jeff enjoys..." you would blink at me and wait for the end of the sentence.

And just really quickly let me say that many verbs are both transitive and intransitive.  ("I eat," or "I eat brains," are both acceptable.)

Well, Mr. Grammar man....
Your first mistake was revealing to us that you had brains.
Tasty, tasty brains.
Your second mistake was using those brains to explain passive
voice instead of zombie-proofing your home.
The next thing to understand is that the subject is generally a positional concept--it is just sentence geography.  A subject comes before the verb.  This is why passive voice ends up being so confusing. English sentences always always always have a subject (except if they are commands where it is implied).  We even use something called "filler subjects" for sentences where there really is no subject.  (There are four lights.  It is raining.)  They don't mean anything, but they are required nonetheless.  That's why beyond high school grammar, linguistics names the person or thing taking the action of the verb the "agent."

With me so far, Chris?

Passive voice means the original subject (or agent) has been taken out of the sentence.  It's a quirk of English, and many languages can't do it.  But since every sentence has to have a subject, the object then comes around into the subject position.  (So "Zombies eat brains," becomes "Brains are eaten.") See how "brains" is dressed up and pretending to be the subject. That's what the passive voice is. You can reinsert the original subject (agent) by adding what's called a "by phrase."  ("Brains are eaten....by zombies.") But you don't have to have a by-phrase.  You can just leave the original subject (or agent) out of the sentence altogether.  ("I hit the wall" becomes "The wall was hit.") ("The sun heats the Earth" becomes "The Earth is heated.")

Witches AND zombies.
This shit just got real.
This is why intransitive verbs can't be passive.  They don't have an object to fill the subject position.

Your confusion comes from the fact that making a passive construction requires a "conversion" to put the verb into the passive voice.  Simple present, for example ("I eat brains") looks like a different tense in passive ("Brains are eaten").

"Eaten" is what's known as the past participle.  (Or form 3.  Eat/Ate/Eaten)  "Brains are eaten" is not in a different tense--it's still simple present--but it looks different because now it's passive.  Past perfect ("Zombies had eaten brains.") becomes ("Brains had been eaten by zombies.") There are twelve tenses in English, not just three.  Present, past, and future each have four forms: simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive (or perfect continuous).  The perfect forms all use the past participle and the helping verb have (had/has).

Maybe I'll just read Herman Melville instead.

At this point, every other reader but you is already asleep, even WITH zombies, so I'm not going to go into every tense and how to convert it to passive, but I will say it's an honest mistake to get passive confused with perfect.  Passive voice always uses the past participle.  Perfect tenses also always use the past participle.  Throw in some helping verbs (have/had/has) and a lot of the perfect tenses LOOK like they are passive, even though they aren't.

If you read all that and kind of feel like a zombie just ate YOUR brain, just keep using the "by zombies" test whenever you're confused about something being passive voice.  It pretty much always works.  So "Brains were eaten" is a passive construction (try adding "by zombies" to the end and it makes sense), but "We have eaten" is not ("by zombies" wouldn't work).

As an aside, it's also important to note, Chris, that passive voice isn't actually bad.  Notice how without the by-phrase you can't tell who the original subject (or agent) is?  Well, it turns out sometimes that's exactly what you want if you don't know who did the action or don't care who did the action.  Politicians especially love the passive voice when they don't want to tell you that it was them or their party who fucked up. ("Mistakes were made.")  There are actually several reasons to use passive voice that are perfectly fine.  In fact, many would sound wrong if done in active voice.  ("My mother bore me on September 29th....") The main thing is that you don't use passive to sound objective or impartial–that's where writers who don't really get it start getting into trouble.

Mike asks: 

I need you to settle a bet.  Is it "Billy Dan and me" or "Billy, Dan, and I"?  Five dollars hangs in the balance!

My reply:

Unfortunately Mike no money will exchange hands until I have a little bit more information.  Either one of you could be right (or wrong) depending on the rest of the sentence.  But if you want, I will hold onto the five dollars in the meantime and award it to the winner (minus a very nominal handling fee, of course) once this situation is resolved.

The problem is that either phrase could be correct depending on where it shows up in relationship to the verb.  I is a subject pronoun and me is an object pronoun.  (See Chris’s question above if that’s confusing you.)

Three guys with shotguns.  Yeah that'll totally stop us.
Picture by Vyrmyn N.  Found on Google as open to commercial reuse.
So if these guys were the subject, it would be “Billy, Dan, and I grabbed shotguns to fight zombies.”  But if they were the object, it would be “Zombies tried to bite Billy, Dan, and me.”

The easiest way to figure out which one of these is correct is to get rid of Billy and Dan and see what sounds right.  You wouldn’t say “Me go to the store,” unless you were practicing your Ug-the-caveman impersonation.  Thus, you wouldn’t say “Billy, Dan, and me go to the store.”  Similarly, you wouldn’t say “Magic Mountain hired I,” unless you were practicing your Ug-the-gigantic-doof impersonation, so you wouldn’t say, “Magic Mountain hired Billy, Dan, and I.”

So not knowing where Billy, Dan, and our intrepid narrator show up in this sentence in relation to the verb, it is impossible to know which of you is correct.  Let’s call it a tie and you can just send me the five bucks.

Andre asks:

I watched Scent of a Woman last week and the guy at the very fancy prep school kept asking "Whom did you see?"  It sounded really weird to me, but I'm not a native speaker.  My American friend said he didn't think it was right and it sounded really weird to him too.  But a movie like that seems like something they would get right.

My reply:

I swear I've seen that end speech like fifty times. What a complicated misogynist character, and skillful writing that makes such a odious person sympathetic.

Yeah, "Whom did you see?" is technically correct--especially for a prep school twenty years ago. (And doesn't Chris O'Donnell just look like a baby in that movie!)  But I do want to stress the technically part of that.

Who is a subject pronoun (see above with Mike's question).  Whom is an object pronoun.  Most people can use "whom" in the right way in a grammar lesson or if a sentence has a subject-verb-object construction.  (If it's a "Who is stealing from whom?" sentence.)  But the vast majority of situations where whom would (technically) be called for don't look anything like that structure.

The PROBLEM is, in English "whom" is pretty much always, by its very nature, going to be part of a question. And in English we often reorder the sentence construction of certain questions (called WH questions because they start with WH words and can't be answered with yes or no).  In these questions we put the object first.

Example: Think about the sentence "You bought a dress."  I MIGHT ask you "You bought what?" but mostly we don't ask questions that way (unless you had told me what you bought and I didn't hear you or believe you).  Most likely, the way I'm going to ask that question is by reordering the sentence to say "What did you buy?"

The object comes first in these sorts of questions.  This is how we ask WH questions in English.

(It gets even weirder because the subject goes between the helping verb [did] and the main verb [buy], but that wasn't your question, so I don't want to get into it.)

The same thing is true in our example about "Whom did you see?"  The statement order of that question would be: "You saw whom."  See how it's the object?  That means it should be "whom."  Even if you reorder the words to make it into a question.


The problem is the word "whom" at the beginning of a sentence sounds very, very strange to most native ears.

Scent of a Woman was correct in having that guy use that construction because twenty years ago only a ponce with Cambridge style grammar would be teaching a prep school like the one in that movie. These days, it's even more unusual and odd sounding. You're more likely to find someone who's been taught the etiquette of how to properly use a fish fork than to use whom in its traditional manner.

Zombies are a monster on campus up with which I will not put.
(See this is funny because it's got zombies, and he's not ending a sentence with a preposition
even though.....never mind.)

Whom is one of those words that's fading from English. It's in flux. It doesn't sound right because no one uses it correctly  No one uses it correctly because it doesn't sound right. You still get some die hard believers out there who wear tweed jackets and think the rest of us are heathens, but for most of America and Australia and a lot of England, "who" is replacing "whom" as both the subject and the object pronoun. Most schools (mine included) won't mark off points for grammar if someone uses "who" in both the subject and the object position.  I've taught out of textbooks that didn't even bother to get into the distinction.

It's a fascinating data point if you're into linguistics--it raises the question: at what point does a word sounds so wrong to native speakers that everyone is getting it wrong, and can it really said to correct if everyone gets it wrong?  Everybody knows language evolves over time but it's always something that happened "a long time ago" (when nice meant stupid and artificial was a good thing), but the reaction when one is standing in the middle of linguistic drift as it happens right around them is quite different.

Shanaz asks:

Do I use "a history" or "an history."

My response:

It depends on what side of the pond you're writing me from, Shanaz.  The decision to use "a" or "an" as the indefinite article is always, always, always based on the sound of the word that comes next rather than the actual letter that starts it.  It is a completely phonetic rule.  That means if you're speaking British English and you do not pronounce the "h" in "hotel" you would say "an hotel."  If you are speaking American English, you would say "a hotel."  The same is true of history.  An history if you are from somewhere that doesn't pronounce the H.  A history (or A historical event) if you are from a place that does.

"Historical" get even tricker because the accent is on the second syllable ("hisTORical") instead of the first ("His"tory).  So in the word historical, the H is already subtle and in a lot of dialects, you can barely hear it.  In that case you can almost just pick one and know you're in good company, but Americans tend to use "A" and the Brits tend to use "AN," just so you know.

It has to do with how much French cheese one eats, I think.  Brits are really close, so they eat more French cheese.  #onlysortofkidding

Generally, you should use the conventions of whatever you're speaking in your writing.  This rule (along with some spellings like "colour" vs "color" or "generalise" vs "generalize" tend to clue readers in to where an author is from, and can give them insights into context, culture, and such.

Incidentally, the same thing is true in reverse for "herb."  Americans would say "an herb" but Brits would say "a herb."  It's totally based on sound.

It's always a zombie though.


  1. The whole preposition thing reminds me of that scene in Beavis and Butthead do America:

    "Agent Bork! You are an employee of the United States Government! Never, ever end a sentence with a preposition." As said to agent Bork after he said something about the old guy's camper that Beavis had been "whacking off in". My friend and I still giggle over that almost 20 years later.

    1. I was just thinking about how now it's becoming "weird old guy" of me to make a "Hur hur....you said 'wood'" reference.

  2. I tend to write the same way that I speak (except without the accents [Note: Every Day Is Accent Day], except for Moira's speech patterns that ARE written with a brogue, which I know is not acceptable practice, but NOT writing her conversations with an accent was once used as a plot device so I can't NOT do it; also, will this parenthetical phrase EVER end?), so I used to spend a lot of time going back over everything I wrote to get rid of those dangling prepositions. Heh. Dangling. Now I only bother when I'm writing boring business things.

    Note The Second: I have to try very hard to be boring.

    Note The Third: Today's accent is something Eastern European. I am not sure exactly what it is, but it is almost Russian. At least I seem to have put away "Black Adder Goes to the Brewery" for a while. (My Spousal Unit hopes it is permanent. Ha. Keep hoping, dear... it's SO cute when you do that.)

    Note The Fourth: I have exhausted my day's allotment for sanity, and worry a lot about what will happen when I go back to writing my story in a few moments. I suspect it will be a section about which my first readers will say, "Were you high?" (They all know better than to even ask, and yet they still do! They are so adorable.)

    Off to the writing place!