Changing Voices

We forget sometimes, I think, how changeable we are, how many personalities we present through the day. It may be that we should aspire to concentrate and focus those many dispositions we have, but our daily life is made up of relationships with others who call out from us certain tendencies, and we respond in light of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We speak and act for someone and to a purpose.

These two concerns—audience and purpose—are central to writing. Our first question in revising should always be, for whom am I writing? This determines what is called the diction of a piece, the set of words and assumptions we are using to present our ideas. But we must also know the reason we are writing. This will help us determine the scope and direction of what we say. Without knowing the who and why of a document, we too often just plunge into writing, and then wonder why we quickly feel at sea.

Being aware that we should always have an answer to these two questions will also make us patient in sorting out matters of grammar and style. What appears at first to be a quibble can be, in light of the questions of audience and purpose, an opportunity to sharpen our point of view, the personality we are speaking through at the time. Take, for example, a workaday sentence like this: I spoke with Tom yesterday about last quarter’s revenue report, and it will be revised for Friday’s meeting. Strictly speaking, there is no grammatical problem here: one compound sentence of two independent clauses (I spoke and it will be revised), each of the clauses satisfying its own grammatical requirements. There is, though, a compositional comment to be made which, though slight in appearance, is powerful in effect.

The subject of the first clause, I, is the agent of its verb, spoke. The subject I is the one who did the speaking, and when the subject is the agent, the actor, its verb is said to be in the active voice. The subject of the second clause, it, does not represent an agent. The pronoun it refers to the revenue report, and the revenue report is not doing anything; in fact, just the opposite is the case: something will be done to the revenue report: it will be revised. So the verb of the second clause, will be revised, is said to be in the passive voice, because its subject is not an agent, a doer of its action.

Much (and sometimes too much) emphasis is put on this concept of the passive voice; there are right and reasonable times when the passive voice is the better choice—times like the first clause of the sentence I am writing right now, where my intent is to make a statement about general circumstances and not to point out who exactly puts too much emphasis on the concept. But in the sentence we are examining, the circumstances are such that retaining the active voice in the second clause works to cohere the two scenes of the two clauses: I spoke with Tom yesterday about last quarter’s revenue report, and he will revise it for Friday’s meeting. Tom is common to both clauses—he is the person I spoke with and he is presumably the person who will revise the report. And if that presumption is not correct—if Tom himself will not revise the report but will oversee the revising, we can still retain the active voice and lower the prominence of the passive to a subordinate clause: I spoke with Tom yesterday about last quarter’s revenue report, and he will see that it is revised for Friday’s meeting.

Our observation, then, is that we should try to avoid changing grammatical voice in the same sentence; this will help focus the players and action across our clauses. We should remember that each sentence we write represents the way we see things, our perspective at the moment on the scenes each clause in a sentence depicts. This compositional focus brings unity and parallelism, and these two principles are central to a well-written statement.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion