The Retained Object

Let’s consider a twist to the infamous grammatical construction called the passive voice. We would be hard put to find a manual of English composition that doesn’t warn us off using this design too often, but understanding a little more about it might alert us to other possibilities we could cautiously employ.

First, what is the passive voice? Voice is a property of a verb, one of a number of essential characteristics that make a verb a verb. The voice of a verb is meant to tell the reader how the subject of a clause is related to its verb: if the subject is the one actually undertaking the action that the verb indicates, it is called an agent; if not, we have substituted some other word in the statement to assume the role of a grammatical subject. So, for example, I could tell you that my insurance company sent an explanation of benefits to me. The phrase my insurance company stands as subject of the verb sent, and we are to understand, by both the position of the subject and the construction of the verb, that this subject was the one who did the sending, that my insurance company was the agent, the doer, of the action named by the verb.

But what happens if I arrange the words differently: an explanation of benefits was sent to me by the insurance company. The subject of this clause is now an explanation of benefits, and it is clear that the explanation of benefits is not doing anything at all; if fact, it is the recipient, not the agent, of an action. The real agent, the insurance company, has been displaced to the end of the clause and made the object of a preposition: by the insurance company. And it is right here that we can see why the passive voice is so often censured: not only does it work against our propensity to want to know who did what, but it also sets up the construction of prepositional phrase, too many of which will weaken the vibrancy of a paragraph. The right place for the passive voice is in describing situations and scenes; beyond that, we should be cautious yet not frightened away.

The passive construction, then, most commonly takes the direct object of the active construction and makes it the subject: instead of the insurance company sent an explanation to me (where an explanation is the direct object of the transitive verb sent), we have an explanation was sent to me by the insurance company. But another form of the passive construction is possible. Notice that both these versions include the prepositional phrase to me, which is meant to indicate the indirect object, the person involved in the sending but not the one actually getting sent. If we now make the indirect object the subject and keep the direct object where it is, we produce a passive construction called the retained object: I was sent an explanation of benefits. According to the authorities, this retained object construction is a centuries-old and well-established habit of English.

The observation to be made, then, is that we have more choices for our revising than we might at first think. Knowing some essential parts of a sentence—subject and verb, direct and indirect objects, active and passive voice—gives us something to look for when we take up our draft and begin to shape it more finely. Every art has its nomenclature, its system of terms that organizes its material and makes working in it efficient and practicable. The retained object is a variation on the theme of the passive construction, and when used knowingly, can serve us well.


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