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    To Be or Naughty Be

    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.

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    Reader Comments (4)

    This post made me hungry.
    November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth
    Brilliant, Fig. I'd always thought that using "to be" in a sentence counted as the passive voice. But that's exactly true, is it? A copula isn't always the passive voice, right?
    November 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Adinado
    No, the copula and the passive voice are two different things, though they can occur in the same sentence. Both tend to produce weak sentences, though.

    On the other hand, while doing research for a corporate workshop today, I was reminded (passively) of "A diamond is forever"--one of the great ad slogans of all time. Here the is is unbreakable.
    November 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    I had a professor in grad school who circled every passive voice construction and instance of copulas (or copulae) in my papers. When I revised them, changing the sentences to active voice improved many of the sentences. However, sometimes using a form of "to be" is necessary to emphasize the word or phrase right after the "to be" verb.

    In certain disciplines like engineering and some of the sciences, however, scholars and practitioners prefer and demand passive voice constructions. I mean, does a person really need to know who lit the Bunsen burner? The important "end focus" (see Kolln's Rhetorical Grammar) of a sentence would be on when it was lit, such as "The Bunsen burner was lit at 5:13 p.m."

    Of course, clever folks use the passive voice to obfuscate as I'm sure you note in Thank You for Arguing.

    "Mistakes were made, Senator. Mistakes were made."
    November 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterQuintilian B. Nasty

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