Is it passive? (And does it matter?)

Published by digitig in the blog digitig's blog. Views: 189

A lot of people get very confused about the “passive voice” in English.

Part of the confusion might be because “passive” can mean a lot of things to a writer. A character who takes a lot of abuse without doing anything about it might be described as “passive”. Writing that doesn’t push the plot forward much might be described as “passive”. These things are not the passive voice.

The passive voice is what you get if the natural subject of a clause – the person or thing doing the action, the person experiencing the sensation, and so on – is pushed out of the subject position in the clause (often pushed out of the clause completely), leaving something else to dominate the clause. That can only happen if the main verb is transitive.

So, in the sentence “Jack punched Jill”, Jack is doing the punching (technically, Jack is the “agent”) which makes him the natural subject of the sentence. If we turn it around to “Jill was punched by Jack”, Jack is no longer the subject: Jill is. We have what is called a “long passive”. We can lose Jack altogether, getting a “short passive”: “Jill was punched”.

In the sentence “Jack heard Jill scream”, Jack is doing the hearing (technically, Jack is the “experience”). We can make that passive: “Jill’s screaming was heard by Jack” or just “Jill’s screaming was heard”.

In the sentence “My wife left me behind”, my wife did the leaving and is the natural subject. We can make that passive: “I got left behind by my wife”, or just “I got left behind”.

That’s what makes something passive voice. All of the grammatical features commonly associated with passive voice – the verb “to be”, past participles and so on – have other uses too. Just because they are present does not make a clause passive. They might not even be present: “I got left behind” does not contain the verb “to be”, but it is still passive.

The only way to tell if a clause is passive is to look at what the words are actually doing. You might even say that passive voice is about meaning, not grammar.

It is not always possible to tell if a clause is passive or not. This is because a single word can have more than one possible grammatical function. The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English gives “The wire is always broken” and “I ought to be excited” as examples of clauses that looks at first sight as if it is passive but that aren’t. The book tells us that “Broken” and “excited” are used as “participial adjectives” functioning as “subject predicatives”. That’s a mouthful, so just think “adjectives”. The trouble is, those clauses could be passives. It might be that the wire is always broken by protestors. Perhaps I ought to be excited by the news. If the verb can be transitive and the complement might be either a verb or an adjective then it’s a judgement call whether the clause is passive or not.

Does it matter
Yes, but not as much as many people think.

There are three main rules for deciding the order of the bits of a sentence:
  1. The “active subject” rule – the one we are dealing with here. The natural order of a sentence is with whatever is doing the verb in the subject position.
  2. The “given to new” rule. The natural order of a sentence is with whatever the reader already knows about (or a dummy “it” if everything is new) at the start of the sentence, and the new information at the end.
  3. The end-weight rule. The natural order of a sentence is with any short, simple phrases at the beginning and any long, complicated phrases at the end.
These rules often clash with each other! Fortunately, we can break any of them as long as we are aware of the effect. The main effect is that we will tend to change which bit of the sentence is emphasised.

How does this work in practice? Strunk and White give “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me” as an example of why passives are bad. But wait! It breaks all three rules! The reader already (by implication) knows about the narrator (“me”) but presumably doesn’t know about “my first visit to Boston” yet. And “My first visit to Boston” is a more complicated phrase than “me”. There’s no question that it’s a bad sentence, but not (only) because it is passive.

What about “The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (a sentence that Strunk and White themselves use)? It’s passive, true, so one strike. But the passage is about adjectives, not weak or inaccurate nouns or tight places, so it follows the “given to new rule”. If they had followed their rule of keeping related words together it would have been “The adjective that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place hasn't been built” which would break the end-weight rule, but they’ve avoided that by shifting the “that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” to the end. Would it really be better to write “Nobody has yet built the adjective that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place”? It’s a judgement call, and a far from obvious one. It would certainly be unjustified to call Strunk and White’s passive sentence bad or wrong.

As an exercise, see how many instances of the passive voice you can find in the Gettysburg Address, in the American Declaration of Independence, and in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”. If you find any (you should!), try rewriting them to avoid the passive voice. Do you think that makes things better, worse, or just different? Oh, and that train-wreck of a sentence earlier, which broke all the rules? How would it be if it were “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me, if not my travelling companion”? Is that better or worse than “I will always remember my first visit to Boston, even if my travelling companion won’t”?

In short, then, if you find passive voices in your writing then certainly consider whether they would be better phrased differently. But then, you do that for all your writing, don’t you? Not just the passive voice. You certainly shouldn't automatically remove all passives without careful consideration.
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