Walking By Zombies, or, How To Make Taylor’s Head Explode

I’ve already gone on and on about the passive voice, and now I’m going to go on and on about  a post I saw somewhere that made my teeth itch.

You MIGHT have passive voice.

Guess what I have to say to this tweet?

Get your shit together.

Yeah, it’s wrong.

Okay, clarification: it’s partly wrong.

A lot of the time, this little trick does work. Billy-Bob was eaten by zombies. Yep. Totally passive. Legitimately passive. You go with your passive self.


Billy-Bob was running by zombies.

Is that passive? According to the tweet in question, yes. Yes it is.

But it isn’t. It is impossible (in English, I can’t speak for other languages) for this sentence to be either passive OR active, because of the nature of the verb.

It’s learnin’ time, y’all.

I already brought up transitive and intransitive verbs in my previous post, but I’ll type up a little refresher just for fun.

Transitive verbs require an object. To want, to slap, to kick, etc. All of these need an object to function. I poked. What did you poke? My belly button. Hee-HEEE! You can’t just poke nothing. You have to poke a thing.

Intransitive verbs do not require an object. To walk, to go, to die, etc. No object needed. You can just walk, or go, or die. I died. No other information needed. It would be interesting to know how you died, but that information doesn’t require an object. It requires a preposition, which is a whole nutha monstah.

(There are verbs that are both transitive and intransitive, like to eat, but I’m going to leave those out for now, because things get bananas, and I don’t want to confuse anyone. Advanced lessons to follow.)

Now here is the secret trick (the real secret trick) to determining if something is passive:

If the verb is intransitive, it is impossible for the sentence to be passive (or active), because passive/active construction is determined by the verb’s interaction with the object. No object, no passive.

Ta da!

I guess I’ll give some examples. I’ll even include zombies!

Zombies attacked Billy-Bob. Active

Let’s dissect this sentence:

Subject: Zombies, because they are the topic of the sentence. They are also the agent of the action.

Verb: To attack, because this is the action that the subject (zombies) is performing. It should be noted that this is a transitive verb and requires an object.

Object: Billy-Bob, because he’s what the transitive verb is being performed on.


Billy-Bob was attacked by zombies.

Subject: Billy-Bob, because he is who the sentence is about. He is the topic.

Verb: To attack, natch.

Agent: Zombies, because they are the ones performing the action.


Now let’s take a lookie-loo at a different sentence:

Billy-Bob was walking by zombies.

Subject: Billy-Bob, because he’s the topic.

Verb: To walk, because that’s the action.

Object: Trick! There is no object! To walk is an intransitive verb!

Prepositional phrase: By zombies, because this answers the question “where?” about the verb.


To make this active, we can… do nothing. This sentence isn’t passive, nor is it active. It has no object. If we pretended it was passive and tried to make it active, it would look something like this:

Zombies walking Billy-Bob.

Which doesn’t make any sense, unless Billy-Bob is a zombie dog. Actually it doesn’t make sense anyway, because there isn’t a legit verb up in there.


The moral of this rant is that determining passive construction with the “by zombies” trick can work, but it’s not entirely accurate. I know what you’re all saying: “But Taylor, this is a really easy way to figure out if something is passive, so quit complaining!”

Really, passive/active determination is just as easy, and learning the actual rules is really easy. And then you won’t look like an idiot when you tell someone “I was walking” is passive.






3 thoughts on “Walking By Zombies, or, How To Make Taylor’s Head Explode

  1. Pingback: Writing Rules? Rules! I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules | verysherryterry

    1. Taylor L Scheid Post author

      I think for the casual English grammar person, this rule will be fine. But IMO, writers should not be casual grammar people. They should be serious about learning grammar and rhetoric, and latching onto tricks like this is just plain lazy. 😛


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