When Does Passive Construction Work?

I devote a portion of every line edit to eliminating sentences that start with either “There is” or “It is.” Most of the time their usage stems from lazy thinking or the desire to quickly get material down on the page. I don’t take out all of them, though, so the question arises: why not? Why is one bad and one okay?

My first consideration is when the clause introduces a new idea, place, person, etc. For example, “It is inherent” starts off a number of sentences containing ideas, providing the condition in which the idea should be considered. You can try to find another way to fit in “inherent,” but the sentence is likely to be awkward. Another approach, such as  “There is, beyond the rise,” might introduce a new place to a reader. This is especially useful when a reader has been immersed in another topic, and you want to break away to fresh material. The passive clause serves as a signal to jump-shift.

The second category includes idiomatic expressions. The way we speak can be lazy, or colloquial, and if you try to make the sentence active, it just sounds wrong to our mental ear. “There is a rumor going around” is an example. You can almost hear the delight of the gossip about to spill the juicy news. Sure, you can mess with the sentence, put “A rumor” first—the way you should invert most passive sentences—but it sounds forced. For this reason dialogue is an area where particular care should be taken before making the sentence active.

The third is rhythm. Let’s revisit “There is, beyond the rise” from this perspective. You may find, while writing, that a compact sentence needs more air, so to speak. The material is too tightly packed for the subject you’re writing about. So you throw in a passive clause to open it up. In addition, you may realize that the way an entire run of sentences has been going, you want a few extra words to make the sentence fit in. This process is loosely akin to a poet’s finding extra words to fit a meter.

This intangible need points out a larger issue in writing. Don’t be bound by rules promulgated by teachers, coaches, or colleagues. Every word and expression in the English language has a purpose, and you should grab what you want. Just don’t make the rest of us suffer because you’re so lazy.

Exercise: When you come upon “there is” or “it is” in your text, switch the sentence around, on paper or in your head. The subject of the sentence usually follows the passive clause. An active verb should also be obvious, even if it is presently a participle. Then study both sentences. Did you really make an improvement? Maybe you should chuck the sentence altogether and write a new one that’s better.

“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, "Mistakes were made," you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.”
—Charles Baxter

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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