Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Active Versus Passive Voice: Part 1 - When Passive is Good

The difference between the active versus the passive voice can be confusing. Sometimes this is because people are taught that a passive sentence is somehow evil or, even worse, ungrammatical, because the subject is at the end, but that’s not true. Passive sentences have a subject and are grammatical. What passive sentences hold until the end is what grammarians call “the agent,” by which they mean the entity that took action. Take the following examples:
James wrote the book.
The book was written by James.
The first sentence is active, and its subject is James; the second is passive, and the subject is the book. But James is “the agent” in both sentences—in both cases, he wrote the book.

Now: passive sentences exist for a reason—they aren’t inherently bad. For instance, imagine an English and Liberal Studies major that will be unemployed when he graduates and will have to take an office job. One day he will come into the office early to get some paperwork done. He will enter the little office kitchen, grab the filthy coffeepot to make some coffee…and drop the pot on the floor, shattering it. An honest employee would go to the office manager, admit to breaking the pot, and thank the company for deducting the expense from his next paycheck. Because he has a degree in English or Liberal Studies, however, it will not occur to him to be honest. What he will do is hide the pieces of the broken pot at the bottom of the trash, and then return to his desk. Later, one of his co-workers will stop by, wondering what happened to the coffeepot. He will say:
“Oh, yeah…it was broken.”
The active version of this sentence (“I broke it.”) would incriminate our hero. The beauty of a passive sentence is that he can drop the “by phrase” and instead of saying, “It was broken by me,” he can just say, “It was broken.”

The more honest use of passive sentences stems from situations in which the agent is unknown or nonexistent. For instance:
The law was passed last year.
You could write, “Congress passed the law last year,” but every congressman who didn’t vote for that law will write you an angry letter stating that he didn’t pass that law. By making the sentence passive, you rid yourself of the complex problem of a case in which there is no easily identifiable agent. Also:
She was struck by lightning.
You could easily say “Lightning struck her,” but we don’t often say that, probably because no one really wants to blame lightning—maybe Zeus throws the lightning, or maybe lightning just happens…it’s natural to use the distance of a passive sentence there.

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