Passive Aggressive

You won’t get very far in just about any writing review before you hear of something called the passive voice. This grammatical construction came to mind when I saw a sign on a building recently that read, This structure is scheduled for demolition. We usually expect the subject of a sentence to be doing something, but the subject of this sentence, structure, is not doing anything at all; it is clear, in fact, that the purpose of the statement is just the reverse, to assert that something will happen to the subject. The subject is passive, not active, or to put it another way, why doesn’t the sign read, We scheduled this structure for demolition?

First, a little grammatical background. The term voice in grammar refers to one of the five properties of a verb: person, number, tense, voice, and mood. These five properties, or attributes, convert an infinitive verb into a finite form, making a general idea into a specific instance. The infinitive to schedule, for example, is just as idea in our mind until we apply the five properties to it and make it specific, or finite, as in, we scheduled. We would analyze this verb, then, by identifying its five properties: first person plural (which we see in the subject pronoun we), simple past (since there is no auxiliary verb have), active voice (because the subject is shown to be doing something), indicative mood (because the statement is meant to state a fact, not a hope or wish or dream). There are two voices in English, active and passive, and they depend on the question of agency, whether the subject of the verb is the doer, the agent, of the action or not.

The reason this topic is so common in writing courses has to do with the fact that specificity is strength, in writing and much else. Focus concentrates a reader’s attention, and with focus comes energy, just as the light of the sun if gathered through an intense lens will under certain conditions set a piece of paper aflame. Something happens, in other words, and that is what a reader is expecting to learn in reading a sentence. Who did what is the question first in a reader’s mind, and because the active voice sets up a verb to answer that question, the rules of writing advise we prefer the active to the passive voice. We are better writers if we follow that counsel in the main, but we should also realize that there is a proper place for the passive construction, one of which is a construction site (no pun intended).

The passive voice is used properly when our intention is not to focus the reader’s attention on the agent but on the circumstances of the verb. The intention of that sign I saw on the building was to inform the public of a situation that will soon result in the neighborhood, and it is the resulting scheduling and demolition, not the company doing it, that is of first interest to the general public. Logically (and metaphysically), of course, someone is going to have to undertake to schedule the demolition, and that more specific information can be had by an inquiry to the city. But that is not the prime purpose of the sign, and clear purpose, we remember, is one of the questions we have to answer as we begin composing anything, simple sign to research report.

The concept of the passive voice is simple enough, but it’s difficult to remember when not to apply it, because being specific can sometimes take a modicum of moral resolve. If it is not in our interest to say who did what, it’s easy enough to skirt the issue with the passive: The check was not deposited yesterday does not say who didn’t deposit the check—and who might be responsible for the fees and other troubles resulting. Good writing, like good drama, depends on conflict, not the fray of fighting and arguing, but the putting of objects in opposition, contrast, or distinction. Without an agent for the verb, no opposition between a subject and the action can result, and we are left with merely the circumstances of the action. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes not, and it is only through being aware of our purpose that we’ll make the right choice in how we construct our sentences.


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