Monday, December 29, 2008

Passive Voice

Dear Answer Phone: What is wrong with the use of passive sentences?

Text-loving peoples such as The Answer Phone view a person's text as a window to the personality. We believe that just as a nation's literature tells us of the values of that nation's citizens, an individual's speech and writing tells us all we need to know about their very core. Give me a Christmas letter and I will give you a blueprint of the soul.

Perhaps that is a bit overboard, but The Answer Phone and his family take their writing very seriously. So seriously that we are in fact unable to write to each other anymore for fear that other family member's deep textual reading will reveal all of our flaws and secrets. Family gatherings are quiet affairs made up largely of vague miming motions that we have developed to transmit essential information. Should you be at a family event and notice that the toilet paper supply is waning, touch your left hip with your right thumb while making a fist. Splay your fingers out twice. Do not splay a third time or you will have insulted my mother's coffee.

Before my family found ourselves silenced by our text-ology quandry, I recall my father, The Answer Gram, explaining passive sentences to me.

"Passive sentence structure," he said, while smithing away on some words one evening, "is cowardice. Communication with intent requires an actor. Someone or thing that is doing something. When I say that 'The dog dug a hole,' I am telling you what happened and who did it. If I said, 'The hole was dug,' I am hiding the actor from you. I leave you bereft of understanding. I am being a verbal wussy." He struck a francophone adjective too hard for its delicate curls to take. A serif flew off. I ran to collect it.

"But dad, what if I say 'The hole was dug by the dog?' That is a passive construction but the actor is available. What is wrong with that?"

I will always remember the way my father's eyes burned as he turned from the fire to stare me down. Over his shoulder, an indefinite article dripped in the heat of the forge.

"Obfuscation! Obfuscation and misdirection! By deprecating the actor -- in this example the dog -- to the terminal position in the sentence you have hidden the important and meaningful act -- the digging. Burying, if you will pardon the pun, any value that the sentence may have had."

He grasped me by the wrist and made our hands perform together a ghastly mockery of a shoveling motion. I was quite terrified. "Here we are digging a hole, merrily merrily digging away. Here is an act worthy of a sentence. There is action. There is significance. I can imagine we could even turn it into a movie trailer. There may be a Pulitzer at the bottom of this hole, since digging it is so significant."

He released my hand and stepped back. I was terrified and embarrassed.

"Now," he said, "act out for me 'the hole is being dug,' would you? There is the hole, and it is being dug. Go ahead."

I was at a loss. I suddenly broke down in tears, standing there passively. His face softened, but he did not come to comfort me.

"Oh father, I think that I understand. Passive sentence structure is a horrible thing. I can see now how using it destroys the moral fabric that makes our country great. But surely the passive is not all bad. Sometimes you need to turn the other cheek. I mean: sometimes the other cheek needs to be turned."

He turned back to the smithy, poking at the ruined article lost forever to his wrath. "You are right, Phone. In rare instances and in certain situations passive sentence construction is acceptable. When creating instruction, the actor is often a vague figure and the focal point of the sentence is the object acted upon. Then passivity can function acceptably. However, examine even that situation closely and consider an active structure. Your reader will be more responsive and will not suspect you are a total wuss."

I will always remember his words, and when I find myself in the midst of a passive sentence, I think to myself, "The Answer Gram did not raise any cowards." I put the subject back into the sentence and walk on proudly.

1 comment:

  1. yep - that was good - your pride is justified.

    Your pride is justified.