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A Word, Please: Taking a deeper look at the passive voice

Does the passive voice lend itself to biased, manipulative writing? A reader named Richard wanted to know after witnessing a discussion about a news article.

“Someone criticized an article on politics, implying it was slanted, saying, ‘It was full of passive-voice statements,’” he said. “I have a rudimentary understanding of the passive voice and I don’t understand what he meant.”

I do, all too well. So I can answer Richard’s question with an emphatic “yes.” Passive voice is a fantastic tool for sneaks and manipulators to slither around the truth. More often, though, it allows bad writers to write badly. And just as often, it’s used by good writers to write well.

To spot the difference, you have to know what passive voice is. Let’s start with a quiz. Is this sentence in the passive or active voice? “Bob had been planning on doing some serious thinking about becoming more accepting and being more forgiving.”

The sentence contains no action, mushy thinking and a whole lot of words ending in “ing.” Yet this horrible, action-starved sentence is in the active voice.

Here’s another. “The gumshoe was beaten within an inch of his life before he was shot in the back 12 times at close range.” Despite all the high-stakes action in this sentence, it is passive.

One more. “Brad was walking down the street.” Contrary to the common misperception that verbs with a form of “be” followed by an “ing” participle are passive, this sentence is in the active voice.

True, you could use a broader definition of the word passive, just as you might say that your sister is a passive person or your brother takes a passive approach to life. But that’s not what we mean when we talk about the passive in the grammatical sense.

The passive voice, sometimes called simply “the passive,” describes a very specific relationship between a transitive verb and its object. For example, “coffee” is the object of the verb “made” in “Joe made coffee.” This is active voice because the doer of the action is also the subject of the sentence.

But what if we said instead, “Coffee was made by Joe”? Now the coffee, the thing receiving the action of the verb, is the grammatical subject of the sentence, upstaging the person who’s actually performing that action.

That’s passive voice. It takes the object of a verb and makes it the grammatical subject of the sentence by using a form of the verb “be” paired with what’s called the passive participle, which is identical to the past participle.

The result often takes the form “Blank was blanked by blank.” And here’s where the passive gets sneaky: You can take out the “by” part, leaving the reader with no idea who’s doing the blanking.

“Considered the greatest grammarian of all time, June Casagrande has been described as deserving substantial representation in the last will and testament of everyone who has ever read her column.”

Who considers June this great? June’s not saying — a convenient little omission made possible by the passive voice. If we were to recast this sentence in the active voice, we would be forced to say who, exactly, thinks June is so fab: “One highly suggestible drunk guy June met at a bus stop considers June the greatest grammarian of all time.”

Sometimes you want to downplay the doer of the action not because you’re being sneaky but simply because you want your emphasis elsewhere: “The president was reelected.” Here, the reader knows who performed the action: voters. But omitting mention of them in this passive-voice sentence allows us to emphasize the president instead.

Passive voice is a problem for some novice writers because it muffles action. “Stacy was punched by Tricia” is far less immediate and vivid than “Tricia punched Stacy.” That’s the most common problem with passive voice: It can suck the life out of verbs. But in the hands of skilled writers with bad intentions, passive voice can be really bad news.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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