Sunday, January 23, 2005


Tense and Voice

In his book On Writing: A Memoir (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000), p. 93, novelist Stephen King gives the following advice:This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. The adjective "passive" cannot modify the noun "tense." There is no such thing in grammar as the "passive tense."

Verbs have various attributes. Among them are tense and voice. The tense of a verb specifies the time when the action occurred. Examples of tenses are past, present, and future. The tense in "I came" is past; in "I come" it's present; and in "I will come" it's future. The voice of a verb indicates the relation between the subject and the action expressed by the verb. Possible voices are active, passive, and (in some languages) middle. In "I hit the ball," the verb is in the active voice; in "The ball was hit by me," it's in the passive voice.

It is correct to say "passive voice" or "passive verb." It is nonsense to say "passive tense," just as it would be to say "future voice." King's error is not uncommon. I recently heard the instructor in a legal writing class use the very same phrase, "passive tense," more than once. It hurt my ears, but I kept my mouth shut.

To be fair, I should point out that on the same page King also writes:He evidently regards "tense" and "voice" as synonyms.

Stephen King and I attended the same college, at the same time. He spent his college years honing his skills as a writer. I spent mine studying dead languages. Stephen King is a famous multi-millionaire today. I'm an impecunious nobody.

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