Gabriel, one of our erudite readers, recently asked us what we thought of the passive voice and the copula. (See his letter on Ask Figaro.)
copula (COP-you-la), the “to be” verb. From the Latin, meaning “link.” A verb that connects a subject to a predicate; e.g., “Barbara is a woman.” While “to be” comprises most copulae in English, other verbs can perform the same function. “Barbara seems tired” uses “seems” as a copula, for example.
Generally, active works better than passive, in style as in sex. “The Patriots beat the Jets” beats “The Jets were beaten by the Patriots.” And, in general, the verb “to be” sounds wimpy and passive, even when you use it actively.
Wallace Stevens deploys “is” brilliantly in his poem “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” Stevens’ “is” forms a shaky, ephemeral, about-to-melt copula, linking the seeming emperor to a real one. A perfect illustration of the copulatory dilemma. “Let be be the finale of seem,” Stevens writes. But the God-like command (“Let it be!”), combined with the copulatory “to be,” becomes not a command but a passive wish.
Confused? Okay, just stick to this: When in doubt, use the active voice. If you find yourself resorting to the word “by” in a sentence (“The boat was rocked by the waves”), think what’s causing the action and rewrite your sentence (“The waves rocked the boat”). When you find yourself using “is” or “are” in a sentence (“That wave is a real boat-rocker!”), see if you can dig up a more active-sounding verb (“We’re gonna die!”)
Note: linguists may cavil about Figaro’s definition, noting that “to be” does not always constitute a copula. So please avoid copulating around linguists.