Advertisement

A Word, Please: Voice is important in distinguishing active from passive

“Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”

Set aside the meaning of that sentence and look at the structure. It’s weak. The action, most readers would agree, is drained of a certain immediacy found in good writing.

Advertisement

So how would you describe that weakness? Would you say the clause structure is limp? Static? Anemic? Devoid of action? Would you say there’s an indirectness to it? Would you say the sentence is feeble?

I ask because I’m starting to think we need a word to describe action-impaired passages like this. I realized this need recently when, for the umpteen millionth time, a professional wordsmith used the wrong language terminology to describe this weakness.

Advertisement

It happened in a tweet by Ryan Teague Beckwith, a politics editor at the Washington, D.C., bureau of Time magazine: “Even in acknowledging Russian meddling, Trump uses the passive voice: ‘Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.’ Rather than, say: “Russia meddled in the 2016 election.”

Beckwith’s point is spot on. “Russia meddled” puts the doer of the action front and center, creating a — let’s call it “activeness” — that’s completely lost when you make “meddling” the subject and mention the meddlers only in adjective form.

It deemphasizes whodunit. Lets them off the hook.

In a general sense, the sentence is definitely passive. But it’s not passive voice.

Advertisement

Voice is one of several concepts we use to analyze verb structure in a sentence: tense, aspect, mood and modality are the other major categories.

Tense you know: I go is present tense. I went is past tense.

Aspect talks about how an action extends over time. Progressive aspect refers to the job of “ing” verbs in ongoing actions: “You are walking.” Perfect aspect means the action is complete, “You walked,” or will be complete, “You will have walked.”

Mood distinguishes between the subjunctive and the indicative.

The subjunctive we use for contrary-to-fact situations such as wishes: “I wish he were here.” It’s contrasted with the indicative, which we use for factual statements: “He was here.” That change of verb form, from “were” to “was,” is the expression of mood.

Modality is best understood as the job of modal auxiliary verbs such as “can,” “could,” “might,” “may” and “should.” They deal with things like possibility.

Voice distinguishes between active, “Seth watched the game,” and passive, “The game was watched by Seth.”

Of all these concepts, voice seems to cause the most problems, presumably because people think they understand it. They think passive voice means any sort of passiveness — weak action or action conveyed in a roundabout way.

Advertisement

In the broad sense of the word “passive,” they’re right: “The coffee, being a creation of Seth, was in possession of a burnt flavor,” you could say, is a “passive” way to say “Seth burned the coffee.” But that’s not passive voice.

Passive voice refers to something very specific: It means the object of a transitive verb becomes the grammatical subject of a sentence. In “Lisa threw the ball,” the transitive verb is “threw” and its object, the thing being thrown, is the ball. That’s active voice.

To convert that to passive, you take that object and make it the grammatical subject by giving it its own verb phrase: The ball was thrown by Lisa. To do this, we use a form of the verb “be,” like “was,” and we pair it with the passive participle of the verb, like “thrown.”

In our burnt-coffee sentence, that’s not what happened. Its main clause is “the coffee was in possession.” “To be in possession” isn’t the same as “to be burned,” “to be thrown,” “to be baked” or “to be fired.” It’s not saying someone else did something to it. So just having “was” in there isn’t enough to make it passive. You need that passive participle of the verb, too.

Back to our Beckwith sentence: “to take place” isn’t a transitive verb. It’s not an action being done to one thing by another. “Meetings take place on Fridays” is active voice. “Meddling took place” is active, too.

Yes, “Russia meddled” is more direct, action-intensive and honest than “Meddling took place.” But they’re both in active voice.

Advertisement
Advertisement