Passive Activism

Thanks to Thematically Meandering for featuring my article about the passive voice. Follow this link for the original article and TM’s own journey of discovery in the wacky world of words, as well as his reflections on the hard life of doctoral study.

If, like me, you learnt to type in the 1990s or early 2000s, you probably have memories of this bastard tapping on your screen and underlining all your sentences with red and green squiggles.

‘It looks like you’re repressing the urge to reach through the screen and throttle me’.

For those of you spared this terrible knowledge, this is Clippy, one of the virtual assistants who came with Microsoft Office as a way to encourage perplexed users to ask for help when they needed it. Once a question was asked, the assistant would search millions of lines of code for an answer, and then return a negative or useless result, before getting back to making unhelpful commentary on sentence length or fragments.

What a time to be alive!

Nowadays, if one’s cookies contain so much as a smidgeon of grammatical enquiry, the unfortunate browser is likely to be bombarded by adverts for proofreading services or Grammarly, the reincarnation of Clippy, proving that no idea is so bad that human beings can be dissuaded from trying it again and charging extra.

Now, I know some people rely on Grammarly and, as one who has never used it, I cannot honestly claim to know whether it is worth what it claims to be worth. I can, however, remember one advert which, just like Clippy, underlined a sentence in the passive voice to show how very clever it was and forced the poor soul, who was just trying to send an e-mail, to rearrange the entire passage so that it was in the active voice. Why does everyone hate the passive voice?

Well, firstly, it is not, in fact, everyone. This is a particular bugbear for speakers of American English who have been told that the passive voice is bad and wrong and makes people go blind, or something. The attentive reader may have noticed that I am the slightest bit unconvinced by this assertion and, moreover, that same reader may have noticed that I have used the passive voice multiple times in this post and I am only just getting started.

Choo choo! All aboard for Grammarsville! Next station: FUN!

American audiences have been trained to fear the passive in much the same way that some people claim to have an aversion to words like moist. There is no testable reason behind this aversion, it is simply a peculiar, modern social reality. After all, the words hoist and oyster still seem to be acceptable in general conversation. Moreover, the passive is a valuable linguistic tool, useful not only for academic but also narrative prose. Perversely, so extreme is the rejection of the passive that some people see the passive voice in completely different grammatical constructions, such as the subjunctive.

So who is to blame for this active discrimination of the passive? Why, none other than our old friends, Strunk and White and their book The Elements of Style; a gripping read and one of the finest works of fiction of the 1920s.

A visual representation of tone-deafness.

At this stage, some may be asking themselves, ‘When is he going to get around to telling us what these ambiguous constructions actually are?’ and to them I say, ‘You had your chance to do this your way, now strap yourself in and prepare to be thoroughly disambiguated’.

An English sentence, as a general and therefore frequently broken rule, has three core components: the subject, the verb, and the object, and they generally occur in that order. This pattern is called SVO by linguists.

In the sentence, ‘I ate the jam’, I is the subject, ate is the verb, and the jam is the object. See this pattern in the three sentences below.

Jane makes jam.

John has hidden the jam.

I will eat the jam.

In the second and third examples, the verb is comprised of two parts (an auxiliary and a participle) but they still occupy the single verb slot in the sentence. Even more complicated sentences, with adverbs and relative clauses lying around, will generally follow this pattern. For example, here are the three parts of speech in the main clause underlined, and in SVO order.

Even more complicated sentences [S], […] will generally follow [V] this pattern [O].

The subject is generally the most important part of a sentence because everything within the sentence relates to the subject somehow. Objects can sometimes be omitted, and when they are omitted or change, although they change the meaning of the sentence, they only do so in relation to the subject.

I feed.

I feed myself.

I feed the dog.

I feed myself to the dog.

All of these sentences are examples of active sentences. They show a subject doing something, often to an object, or to a direct and indirect object. Most sentences are active sentences, and in them, the subject is said to be the agent, the one doing or eating or stealing or generally being involved with verbs.

‘I am the noun who verbs!’
(Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad)

A passive sentence, on the other hand, allows the author to relegate the agent to the object’s position or omit an agent entirely, thus focusing on the effect of an action rather than the perpetrator of an action.

The dog is being fed.

The jam was made.

The dog had been fed.

The jam has been stolen by someone.

The dog will be fed by you.

Now, instead of being the objects, jam and dog are the subjects, but not the agents. The agents are less important. Consider sentences like the following:

He is known to lie.

It is said that no-one ever returns from Deep Drop Mine.

The Prime Minister’s motion has been defeated.

The suspects were detained and questioned.

Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

These are perfectly natural, passive sentences and not all would benefit from being rendered in the active voice.

Backbenchers defeated the Prime Minister’s motion.

Police detained and questioned the suspects.

Soldiers killed millions of people in the Second World War.

This last example is particularly egregious: in the Second World War, death came from many quarters, not least the concentration camps. To make soldiers the subject and agent implies that there were no, or few, deaths caused by other factors. A writer who wishes to draw out the tragic waste of life therefore has two immediate options:

  1. Millions of people died in the Second World War.
  2. Millions of people were killed in the Second World War.

The first sentence is active, the second sentence is passive. The first sentence is potentially misleading; the second sentence is not.

Forming the passive voice is complicated but, in brief, requires a form of the verb to be as an auxiliary and, optionally, the conjunction by followed by the object and agent.

‘The police detained the suspects’ is a fine active sentence but the passive construction allows the mind’s eye to remain with the suspects, rather than the police. This is a natural part of telling a story or reporting an event.

‘I don’t know how it happened but I was soaked with water!’

‘No, I can come out tonight: the children are being looked after.’

‘Have you never been taken to dinner?’

‘Don’t get yourself hurt.’

And so on. The passive voice not only allows the writer to keep attention on certain elements, but also to omit and even obscure information, for whatever reason. Note that not every sentence with to be in it is in the passive voice and not every form of the passive has to be in it. Some examples can be ambiguous: ‘I am happy’ is simply a statement with a subject, a verb, and an adjective. ‘I am excited’ could also be such a statement, but it could be that someone or something is exciting me: ‘I am excited by this grammatical discussion’.

Calm down, ladies.

This form of passive is very rare nowadays and would probably only appear for dramatic or humorous effect, such as in phrases like, ‘I am undone!’ as Doctor Deplorable’s plans are ruined yet again, and presumably accompanied by much shaking of fists (jet-pack escape optional).

So, the active and passive are both useful constructions with different nuances and applications. Why did Strunk and White think they were bad? Well, in truth, they did not. Strunk cautioned against using the passive too much, especially when its active counterpart would have been a better fit, but did not condemn it entirely. Fowler and Orwell were, arguably, more hostile towards the passive but still did not abominate it entirely.

There are two main criticisms of the passive which have led to its lack of favour in contemporary writing. Firstly, unlike the active voice, it very quickly becomes tiresome to read. If too many clauses and sentences in quick succession are rendered in the passive voice, paragraphs become cumbersome and meaning is obscured. This leads us to the second point: the passive voice, because it does not require an agent, can be used in such a way that agency is hidden and thus responsibility and accountability abrogated by the author. The former problem is the purview of academic writing and is not usually deliberate, or so I am led to believe. The latter problem is a deliberate tactic of obfuscation favoured by politicians: ‘Mistakes were made,’ and so on. However, it is also true that some people do fall into a pattern of passive sentences when put on the spot. The satirical sitcom Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister delight in playing with these two personalities and occasionally setting them against each other in the forms of the conniving Sir Humphrey Appleby and the bright but anxious Bernard Wooley.

By now, some of you may still be mystified by the passive. If so, fear not; there are many online resources which can help the would-be writer to form and use the passive. Do not fear the passive or twist your writing into knots to avoid using it; simply be discerning and cautious. And, to those who remain convinced that the passive is ruining English, I extend the following invitation: read this article again and check for all the passive constructions; I guarantee you will find some that, on the first reading, went completely unnoticed, and others which were active sentences all along.

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