Don’t Be Afraid of the Passive Voice

I love books about punctuation and usage—Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed are two of my favorite books, along with the new edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (winsomely illustrated by Maira Kalman).  Plus, the only instance of my ever doubting I was going to be a librarian had to do with falling in love with transformational grammar.  So I was very happy to hear from Janet Byron Anderson and read her blog entry on the passive voice.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Guest Blog
by Janet Byron Anderson PhD

On the Sunday before Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) died, I was visiting a family whose daughter (I’ll call her Kim), an only child, had begun her summer of independent study and intermittent leisure. She’d just completed 9th grade and was looking forward to 10th grade—and especially to her new English teacher, who, she hoped, would not deduct 10 points for every instance of the passive voice on a student’s paper. Although many teachers and coaches frown upon use of the passive voice, the teacher’s grading horrified me.

However, I didn’t want to condemn the teacher, and thus unwittingly encourage Kim to disrespect teachers, so I simply explained that I would’ve graded differently. I speculated on the teacher’s motive. “She was probably worried,” I said, “that you wouldn’t learn how to be specific about who or what did the action—a discipline that the active voice forces upon you.” Nevertheless, I had two concerns. First, I feared that this child, the dutiful daughter of Chinese immigrants (both MDs), would obediently develop passive-voice-phobia whenever she sat at her computer to write an essay. My second fear was deeper:  Kim is fascinated with U.S. history, government, and law. In fact, she’s already set her sights on Harvard Law School. No student aiming so high can afford to leave behind a sturdy knowledge of the strengths of the passive voice. Therefore, using examples, I explained to Kim what these were, and she took notes.

The next day, Monday June 28th, the world received the sad news that Senator Robert Byrd had died. He’d been the longest-serving Congressman in U.S. history. Like every public figure, he had ideological foes and friends. But no one doubted his eloquence and skill as a communicator. Almost immediately after the announcement of his death, cyberspace buzzed with remembrances of Senator Byrd’s prescient views on what he was convinced was a dangerous step by then-President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.  Two of the Senator’s most powerful speeches, delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, were resurrected and made the rounds: “Reckless Administration May Reap Disastrous Consequences” (12 February 2003) and “Arrogance of Power: Today, I Weep for My  Country” (19 March 2003). Knowing Kim’s interest in U.S. history, I emailed copies of these speeches to her, along with comments about Senator Byrd’s significance as a power in the Senate. I also gave her homework: Identify all instances in which the Senator used the passive voice in the two speeches, and explain as best she could how these passives, in context, supported the Senator’s message and intent. I told her she wouldn’t find many passives, because like every native speaker, Senator Byrd used the active voice more often than he used the passive. However, he unsheathed the passive for precision work that the humdrum active is incapable of doing.

* * * *

Let’s look at a couple of the Senator’s passives. Two examples are sufficient, for even a single instance of a powerful passive makes an impression that you’ll never forget. First a word about the active voice, from which the passive is derived. The typical active-voice sentence places the agent (doer, actor) of the action early in the sentence, as the subject of a transitive verb; while the person or thing upon which the action falls (i.e. the direct object) is placed after the verb:

Our uncertainty paralyzes us. (My example, adapted from a sentence you’ll soon see.)

Here the emphasis lies upon the paralyzing agent, “our uncertainty,” while the recipients, “us”/we, stand in the background. As the listener (for written text, the reader), your attention is drawn to this uncertainty and you might wonder what uncertainty the speaker/writer had in mind. The vessels (recipients) of the uncertainty, “us”/we, are not foremost in thought. Now if the speaker/writer intended to cast the relationship between agent and recipient in precisely this light, then the active voice is preferable to the passive. But what if the speaker/writer wished to express a different relationship, and thus a different emphasis? He would have to shuffle the constituents: Switch the direct object to initial position, the subject to end position (introduced with “by”), and introduce a form of “to be” as an auxiliary of the past participle of the verb “to paralyze.” Now you have a sentence in the passive voice.

Senator Byrd declaimed upon paralyzing uncertainty on 12 February 2003 on the floor of the Senate, where he castigated his colleagues for rubber-stamping President Bush’s rush to war in Iraq (passives italicized for ease of recognition):

“We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”

 The Senator wanted to stir sorrow and guilt within the hearts of the recipients, the “we,” the members of the Senate, among whom, as the Senator earlier bemoaned in the same speech, there was “no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war.” Use of the passive voice fixes thought upon “we” Senators, and the past participles “paralyzed” and “stunned” carry the force of adjectives, describing the sorry state we Senators are in. No active voice in the history of language could pull this off! However, the active voice wasn’t idle: It set the stage for these passives in the initial clause, “We stand passively mute….” Beautiful semantic coherence informs the whole sentence in the words “passively mute,” “paralyzed,” and “stunned.” What is the sum of these three expressions? Half-alive. We Senators are semi-comatose in a situation that calls for intellectual vitality and courageous resistance.

As President Bush pushed the nation further into war in Iraq, Senator Byrd watched the inexorable move with dismay. He returned to the issue in another speech on the floor of the Senate on 19 March 2003. He began this speech on a personal note: “I believe in this beautiful country.” He noted his devoted study of the country’s history and “the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution.” It’s been reported that the Senator attended law school at night while he served in Congress. It took him 10 years to graduate. He always carried a copy of the Constitution in his pocket. He knew that most people around the world shared his admiration for the United States. But the Iraq adventure changed that:

 “Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.

In these two passives the agent is deleted: Who disputes our word? Who questions our intentions? We can discern an implied agent in the beginning of the sentence: “our friends” around the globe. However, the passives without an explicit agent draw attention away from these friends, redirecting it toward “our word” and “our intentions.” Now, a person’s—or nation’s—word and intentions are defining features of character; therefore, any change in word or intention elicits a shift in our view of them. In Senator Byrd’s sentence the past participles “disputed” and “questioned” carry the force of adjectives, characterizing America’s “word” and “intentions” as now suspect because of the pre-emptive war in Iraq. Restructuring the two clauses into the active voice would shift attention away from our word and our intentions and redirect it to “our friends.” But the war has caused our friends to drift away!

****

 I’ll see Kim next Sunday, and we’ll review her homework.

References and Further Reading

Byrd, Robert. “Reckless Administration May Reap Disastrous Consequences”. Speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 12 February 2003. Accessed 29 June 2010 at www.commondreams.org/views03/0212-07.htm

Byrd, Robert. “Arrogance of Power: Today, I Weep for My Country”. Speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, 19 March 2003. Accessed 29 June 2010 at www.commondreams.org/views03/0319-04.htm

Clymer, Adam. “Robert C. Byrd, a Pillar of the Senate, Dies at 92.” The New York Times, 28 June 2010. Online at www.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/US/politics/29byrd.html?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Passive Voice

  1. “Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this sun of York” – hmm..if it was good enough for Shakespeare…

  2. Sarah

    I know some basketball coaches who encourage players to wear weighted vests when they practice. No one expects the players to wear the vests when they play in actual games.

    I know some English teachers that forbid writing habits that students fall back on instead of learning new ones.

  3. Shruti

    I enjoyed this overdue ‘reparation’ of the passive voice. My grade school English teachers abhorred the passive (and me as well – when I used it!), perhaps with intentions similar to those you mention in the 9th grader’s case.

  4. Too often our schools discourage particular usages by forbidding them. I was horrified (passive voice verb!) to hear from college-age students about high-school teachers who had taken points off for compound sentences. They forbade, in other words, a sentence like this: Senator Byrd loved the Constitution, and he always carried a copy in his suit pocket.

    Because students sometimes string these along, unconscious of the repeated pattern, this teacher decided to forbid them altogether.

    Same thing with the very common banning of the first-person pronoun in student writing. Seems ridiculously heavy-handed to me.

  5. Thank you, I did enjoy this guest post (as well as the more recent World Cup one). I agree with Anderson that the passive voice can be used to great effect. Sadly, like so many other things, that happens only when it’s used properly.

    Here in South Africa, in the educational context, the use of the passive voice also tends to be treated with caution. We have 11 official languages in our country. For many people English is not the first language or mother tongue, and for some, it isn’t their second language. But the medium of instruction in schools and tertiary education institutions continues, primarily, I think, to be English. So in the writing of educational texts, up to and including tertiary education, the general idea is to use the passive voice as little as possible, as this formulation is not easy to grasp if one is unfamiliar with the way English operates (new and/or complex information presented in that formulation being even more of a challenge). However, not every South African textbook author follows this convention – their mixtures of the active and passive voices, and the reliance of some authors almost entirely on the passive, result in confused and confusing texts. And it’s the end users of those texts – the learners and the students – who suffer as a result, unfortunately.

  6. Marcia

    I misread the example. Feeling silly is a proper reward and that’s exactly how I feel.

  7. Marcia

    Unless I am greatly mistaken, the first example in the guest blog (“Our uncertainty paralyzes us”) is in fact not in the passive voice. The verb is active, though its subject is an abstract noun, which gives it a feeling of detachment. I would agree with the blogger that the construction suits the tone of the speech.

    The traditional distrust of the passive has to do with hiding or diminishing responsibility for action: the window was smashed or the fight was started or the treaty was broken. Sometimes, though, the actor isn’t known (a crime was committed) or the actor isn’t as important as the thing acted on (the house was destroyed by the storm).

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