When I was an English composition teacher, I used to inflict upon my unhappy students a revision technique I called “instant style.” I made them go over their already finished papers and make seven improvements, if necessary.
Three of these seven items involved substituting the limp and often vague verb to be (when it’s not a helping verb as in “The birds are singing”) for an action verb. Thus, instead of “Bells were heard in the distance,” a student might write “Bells rang out in the distance”; instead of “There was a violent rainstorm in San José,” “A violent rainstorm broke out in San José”; and instead of “Jason was extremely hungry,” “Jason’s stomach growled with hunger.”
My point was that the verb to be expresses a state rather than an action and, therefore, too much of it makes for inactive and boring prose.
This was thorny work for my students. Their papers inevitably reeked with am, is, are, was and were, simply because English is a language built for the use of to be. Expressing oneself any other way requires an artificial effort.
Spanish, on the other hand, is built for the use of action verbs. Understanding this difference can help, whether you are a Spanish speaker learning English or an English speaker learning Spanish.
One of the worst offenders of good style in English is the use of passive voice, so much so that computer grammar programs underline passive sentences for revision.
“Bells were heard in the distance” is an instance of passive voice, that is, the use of to be (“were”) with a past participle (“heard”).
Let’s consider an example: “The air is polluted by car emissions.” This sentence is an example of a “true” passive voice when expressed in Spanish because something is being done by someone or something: “El aire es contaminado por las emisiones de los carros.” Note that it uses the verb ser.
Now consider this example: “The door is closed.” In Spanish, “La puerta está cerrada” is a “false” passive (and uses estar) because it is a description of the state of the door, not a statement about what someone or something did.
In any case, both these forms use a form of to be, as we do. The difference is that speakers and writers of Spanish do not use the “true” passive voice as often as we do. They are more likely to say “Las emisiones de los carros contaminan el aire.” This is especially true if the subject of the sentence is a person or other living being.
Now let’s take a look at a third example: “Spanish is spoken here.” In Spanish, this is never a passive voice. Speakers almost always express it with a reflexive verb form: “Aquí se habla español.” In English, we sometimes express such meanings by “one,” “you,” “they” or “we.” Thus, instead of using the passive voice,“Newspapers are sold here,”we might say “They sell newspapers here.” The Spanish equivalent would always be active, most often, “Aquí se vende periódicos” (the verb is singular to avoid the idea that the papers sell themselves.) Remember, also, that “What is your name?” is “¿Cómo se llama?” (“How do you call yourself?”) in Spanish.
In other words, Spanish speakers and writers by nature rarely have the occasion to use the passive construction, considered to be such poor style in English.
If you have been away from the horrors of freshman composition for too long or just plain deplore grammatical explanations, don’t despair. Read and listen for expressions such as se habla, se dice, se vende or se hace. If you can express what you mean in English with a “one,” “they,” “you,” etc. (as in “one speaks” or “they say”), use a reflexive form.
If you are a Spanish speaker learning English, you can just about completely disregard the passive voice and use the same model, “How do you say…?” or “How does one say…?” in place of the reflexive form.
Next time, I’ll explain the other two problems with to be in English and how Spanish provides other options. Until then, keep your voice active.