Passivity and Other Afflictions

call-to-actionLast week, I suggested that we got ourselves into trouble trying to distinguish between disinterest and uninterest because multiple meanings of the word interest put both prefixes at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing bright, clear lines of meaning. Now I’ll wade into muddier waters. Much ink has been spilt over the use or abuse of the passive voice in English. I’d like to propose two notions that, held in balance, might decrease our level of apoplexy:

  1. The term passive voice is a term of art understood mostly by grammarians and poorly comprehended in its specific meaning by the general educated public.
  2. As a culture, we decry passivity in most of its forms. (Exhibit A: voters’ disregard for the midterm elections.)

A similar term, for me, is unreliable narrator. For fiction writers, the unreliable narrator is a device we deploy with care and examine closely in the work of others. But when I use the term in discussions with readers, they initially assume I am disparaging the work in which such a narrator appears, since unreliability is an undesirable trait in real human beings.

As a term of art, the passive voice possesses neither positive nor negative properties; like prepositional phrase or nominative absolute or future tense, it describes a particular construction within a sentence. One of the more interesting games to play, for me, involves deciding when the syntax amounts to passive voice and when it amounts to what I’ve called a predicative past participle, or what others call the adjectival passive: The window was closed; the leaves were raked; smokers are asked to refrain from smoking. Clearly, when we cannot turn the sentence around—when the sentence describes the condition of the window, leaves, or smokers, and not the action being performed by some unnamed agent—the definition of passive voice gets a little more gnarly than in constructions like Debbie was accompanied by John.

These are fun discussions to have. They differ in both degree and kind from the discussions of passivity I encounter when writing teachers discuss the woeful state of student writing. There, as many on this forum have observed, the problems multiply. My sixth-grade teacher tried to drum overuse of the verb to be out of us by requiring us to note each instance of its use in the margins of our papers—an arbitrary exercise, but one I remain mindful of today. Other teachers, finding their students continually beginning sentences with I think … , I feel … , I understand this in the case of … , It seems to me that … , and the like banned the use of the first person, hoping (in vain) that sentences would get out of the muck and start making meaning. Others tried to eliminate empty clauses introducing noun clauses, like There is an idea that or It is important to understand that. Finally, detecting that a certain number of flabby sentences were also in the passive voice (insofar as they knew what the passive voice was; sometimes they confused it with instances of the verb to be), some teachers tried to goose students’ prose by cautioning against that verb construction.

All of the sentences and paragraphs that these teachers were—and are—decrying fall under the general definition of passivity as the general educated public understands that term. Now, the core of the problem may well be unclear thinking, lack of argument, poor academic writing models, even the desire to obfuscate. These things are much harder to talk about, and exponentially harder to correct in student work. So the passivity that teachers decry finds itself labeled throughout as passive voice (or sometimes passive tense or passive construction). And grammarians, who understand passive voice as a term of art, go bananas. Because we love talking about passive voice; there’s nothing inherently wrong with passive voice; countless examples of necessary and eloquent passive voice can be found in literature; and so on.

I do not know if a solution exists to this problem, or even if it really is a problem. Framing and narrowing the definition for nonspecialists might scratch the itch, but I rather suspect it will only muzzle people who are using a term that works, for them, as a catch-all to describe flabby, flat, unfocused writing; and that they rarely use to attack a solid example of passive voice, both because they don’t recognize it and because the term of art is not the target of their ire in the first place.

OK. Bring it on.


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