On Writing

I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing for four bucks the other day at the bookstore. This has to be one of the funnest writing books I’ve ever read, full of interesting digressions and snappy prescriptions. Even when writing about grammar, King’s writing is taut and yummy.

But then there’s this:

With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

The advice is fine, but: passive tense? Passive TENSE? This error occurs not once, but twice on the same page, yet the correct “passive voice” occurs twice on the next page. The only conclusion is that King doesn’t know the difference between tense and voice, or doesn’t consider the difference important enough to bother with. And neither did any of his copy editors.

Dear Mr. King and Editors: if you are going to lecture me about grammar, you should at least understand the difference between tense, and voice. Furthermore, this difference should be so basic to you that errors of this sort leap off the page like angry toads. And while you’re at it, you might add the words mood and aspect to your vocabulary, so that you can intelligently talk about sentences like She would have been shot without flopping around like a wet fish.

This proves: most people don’t know anything about grammar, and most of the ones who claim to know something about grammar don’t know very much. They should all just read Language Log.


  1. This may beg the rejoinder that you can’t be passive and tense at the same time, though you can passively give voice to your concern. Sorry, it’s lame, I know but I just had to write it.

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