Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 19: Passive Aggressive

There has been no shortage of political debates recently. During the debates, one hears candidates taking heat for things they've done and said in the past. As the candidates respond, a few phrases come up again and again.
"Steps were taken..."
"Mistakes were made..."
"That was taken out of context..."
All of these are examples of passive voice. In school, a lot of us learned that passive voice was wrong and that it led to less dynamic writing. As we have done before, today we'll look at a form of writing that gets a bad rap, but doesn't always deserve it.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage summarizes passive voice as "verb forms that allow the subject to be the receiver (rather than the performer) of the verb's action."

A simple way to think about passive voice is by using this example:
The story was leaked by the press secretary.
In this case of passive voice, the story is the subject of the sentence. And it's having something done to it by the press secretary. The active voice example of this sentence would be:
The press secretary leaked the story.
Despite what we might have learned in school, the passive voice isn't always wrong or necessarily bad. The passive voice can have its uses, particularly when we don't know the performer of an action or when the performer's identity isn't relevant. Take our example, and imagine for the moment that we don't know who leaked the story.
The story was leaked.
In fact, this example is one of the most common ways in which the passive voice is used appropriately: to avoid assigning responsibility for an action. In everyday situations, focusing on the mistake—and not the person who made it—can be useful and more diplomatic.
Gordon Jarvie, in The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, points out that the passive voice is also useful in scientific writing where readers aren't interested in the performer of the action. For example,
Samples of river water were collected in test tubes.
While passive voice has its place, using it can make writing wordy and needlessly complicated. Look at what happens to a famous call to action if we change its verbal voice from active to passive:
Ask not what can be done by your country for you, ask what can be done by you for your country.
Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

There is a quick way to determine if you are using too many passive constructions in your writing. The American Heritage Book of English Usage recommends circling every form of the verb be (is, are, were, etc.) and any other weak verbs such as seem, appear, and may. If your page is covered in circles, consider rewriting those sentences in the active voice.

Sources: The American Heritage Book of English Usage, and from The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie.

Songs from this Episode: "Mostly Tha Voice" by Gangstarr; "All Things Must Pass" by George Harrison.

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