Still Harping, Part 2: What the meaning of is is.

(Published 9/27/2016)


I want to clear up some confusion about that poor misunderstood verb “to be.” Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” has some culpability in creating the confusion, so I intend to take the venerable authors to task over this, after which I will let the poor bastards rest in peace.

In the second half of their section “Use the active voice,” Strunk and White focus on such locutions as “there is” (and “there are” and “there was” and “there were”) that have nothing to do with the passive or active voice.

Here’s the example they give us:

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence. And it’s certainly not an example of the passive voice. It’s simply an idiomatic way of saying “a great number of dead leaves were lying there on the ground.” We take the verb “were” and the adverb “there” and put them idiomatically at the start of the sentence. It’s not wrong. It’s the way we say things like this, like my first sentence in this paragraph.

To “fix” their example, Strunk and White find a different verb altogether and rake all the sentence’s words up into a nice concise little pile:

Dead leaves covered the ground.

The reason they don’t simply change the verb from passive to active is that they can’t. The original verb, “were,” is neither active nor passive, because the verb “to be” doesn’t have active and passive voices.

The verb “to be” (and its conjugal kin: is, are, was, were, etc.) happens to serve as the auxiliary verb we use to form the passive voice. Many people (and some writing instructors among them, people who get paid for what they are supposed to know about the English language) wrongly assume from this (and from the confusing discussion in “The Elements of Style”) that all instances of the verb “to be” are passive. They are not.

Readers aren’t entirely to blame for confusing these two fundamentally different “Elements of Style.” By putting their objections to “there is” in a section titled “Use the active voice,” Strunk and White led readers to that confusion; led us to assume that all forms of the verb “to be” are somehow vaguely related to the passive voice. Again, they are not.

The origins of this mistake may lie in darker corners than “The Elements of Style,” but the book’s misleading conflation perpetuates this mistaken belief that all instances of the verb “to be” are passive. Once again, this time with feeling: they are not.

There’s nothing wrong with the verb “to be.” I used it in the last sentence of the last three paragraphs above to be absolutely unequivocal. “Is” is not a weak verb.

It’s a wonderful verb and a powerful. We call it the “copula” because it allows a subject and its complement to hook up and become as one. They copulate. And that’s how grammar babies are made.

“To be” is a verb of being, as opposed to an action verb. A verb of being shows a state of existence; an action verb shows an action being performed. It’s the difference between saying “Bob is a fisherman” (a state of existence) and “Bob fishes” (just something Bob does).

As a verb of being, it allows us to make definite, unequivocal statements.

Bob is a fisherman.

That’s not a passive sentence. There’s no stronger, more unequivocal way to say that Bob’s a fisherman. We could say “Bob makes his living as a fisherman,” but readers might infer that to mean that Bob would rather be doing something else: “Bob makes a living as a fisherman, but at night he dreams of becoming a federal bureaucrat.”

These terms “active” and “passive” refer to the position of a subject and object relative to the verb that connects them. We can say “the Coast Guard fished the hapless boaters out of the water,” or we can rearrange the sentence to begin with the object: “The hapless boaters were fished out of the water by the Coast Guard.” Which sentence is “better” always depends on which words you want to emphasize and why.

I don’t deny that Strunk and White have helped many of us write more effectively. They make some mistakes along the way, and their influence perpetuates some of those errors. But that’s the story of human culture. And, really, my problem with this helpful little book is just a matter of chronology.

Strunk’s original composition is 100 years old. A lot has changed since then in the ways we talk and write. We live in a world less formal than Strunk’s — or even White’s. The assumptions under which public discourse operates have changed dramatically. And the 75 years since World War II have witnessed the exponential growth of The Bureaucracy and the exponentially exponential spread of bureaucratese.

It’s not enough anymore to just say “omit needless words.” We have to think more carefully about which words we omit and which we use and why, so we don’t end up sounding more like dictionaries than human beings. There’s no need to teach students to “demonstrate oral communication skills” when we can simply teach them to “talk to each other intelligently.”

We all love the sound of the human voice. And when we’re reading, no matter what we’re reading, we enjoy hearing that voice come to us through the printed word. And we love it when a writer can guide us carefully through a tough problem or explain a muddy situation in crisp, economical sentences or analyze a complicated issue in clear and patient terms.

When we’re writing, no matter what we’re writing, we should let the sound of our human voices, our humanity, come through. Our readers will love us for it.

Sure, some discussions require a more formal language than we use in everyday conversation. To write like grownups, in control of our voices, perhaps the most important lesson we need to learn is how to balance these two qualities: how to let our normal everyday voices come through without sounding gabby; and how to write precise, formal prose without sounding like some supertechnolegalistic pencilneck from the Bologna Bureau.

The Roman poet Horace said “art is long, life is short.” So it is with language: it’s bigger than any of us. It evolves as the creation of the entire human race, not just a few time-bound style guides. In its plasticity and infinite variety, language offers us more freedom in how we use it—freedom to use it well, freedom to use it badly—than any of our prescriptive tendencies can nurture or amend. But its fecundity is greater and its bounty more plenteous than can ever finally be inhibited or restrained or suppressed.



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