Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shedding off the active-voice straitjacket from our English


In school, teachers of English furiously drill into the heads of their students the idea that they should always write sentences in the active voice. This creates such a strong bias—I would call it an aversion—that practically eliminates the passive voice in the English of those students even after they graduate and pursue their respective careers.

I must admit that I was one those who had acquired this bias against the passive voice, pursuing that bias like a zealot in my early writing and editing career. This was further abetted by my exposure to campus journalism and newspaper journalism, both of which demand the active voice even more relentlessly for immediacy’s sake. Later on, however, I began to sense that my predilection to writing all-active-voice sentences tended to give my narratives and expositions a mechanical, almost rubberstamp character. Then it fully dawned on me that good writing isn’t the all-active-voice affair that our English teachers had made us believe, and that there is, in fact, a perfectly valid place and role for passive-voice sentences in both our written and spoken English.

I gave vent to this realization of mine in “In Defense of the Passive Voice,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004. I am now posting it here in the hope of making more people realize as I did many years ago that although a good thing, the active voice need not be a straitjacket to our natural instinct for clear, relevant, and forceful expression. (August 14, 2011)

In defense of the passive voice

The active voice has a cult following in English grammar. This is because from grade school onwards, most everybody is taught that sentences in the subject-verb-predicate form are the be-all and end-all of English, and that the passive voice is such a weak, fuzzy, and undesirable construction to even bother using. Grammar teachers furiously drill into every student’s head that the active-voice sentence “Emilio hit Andres violently with a bat” is superior to the passive “Andres was hit violently by Emilio with a bat” or to the similarly passive “A bat was used by Emilio to violently hit Andres.” The active-voice sentence in time achieves icon status, never to be resisted or questioned. No wonder, then, that many English language users—particularly those who learn it as a second or third language—write English-language essays almost entirely in clumsy, rubberstamp active-voice sentences, and speak English like the perpetually active-voice talking robots that inhabit science-fiction movies.

The truth is that when we get down to the dynamics of language, it is difficult not to conclude that a totally active-voice essay, prose narrative, or speech is neither a practical nor a desirable goal. English that uses an unbroken train of active-voice sentences, with no passive-voice ones whatsoever, is in many ways the equivalent of speaking stridently all the time or of singing a song on a high note from start to finish. We all know how exhausting that is both to the performer and the audience. Indeed, one virtue of the passive voice is that it works to leaven such verbal performances, providing low-energy counterpoints to the high-energy semantic field created by active-voice sentences: “We danced. We sang. We caroused. But soon we were put to sleep by fatigue.”

An even more compelling reason for using passive sentences, however, is that they are the most natural and oftentimes the only logical choice for communicating certain ideas. To see how true this is, let’s go back to the active-voice sentence we used as an example above: “Emilio hit Andres violently with a bat.” Assume now that right after you have said this, someone asks for a clarification. If that person is more interested in Andres’s well-being than in Emilio’s motive for assaulting him, his question will most probably take this form: “What did you say happened to Andres?” Your answer, of course, will not be the active-voice “Emilio hit Andres violently with a bat,” which highlights what Emilio did to him. That answer will be ridiculously out of context. The only logical answer is the passive-voice “Andres was hit violently by Emilio with a bat,” which rightly highlights what happened to Andres.

Then, if your interlocutor further asks, “What instrument did you say was used?”, it definitely wouldn’t be sensible to use the same active-voice answer, “Emilio hit Andres violently with a bat.” That would be very obtuse and strange indeed! The sensible answer will be another passive-voice sentence, perhaps “A bat was used by Emilio to violently hit Andres.” Finally, your interlocutor may dun you with this question, “How would you describe the act done by Emilio against Andres?” Your answer will perhaps be more ponderous and measured this time—the way we give such replies in real life—but it will definitely be in the passive voice: “Emilio’s act of hitting Andres with a bat was done violently.”

So what does this tell us about how we should fashion our sentences? Well, it is that we should write them or say them in the most logical and natural way possible—using the active voice whenever called for, but never hesitating to use the passive when logic and good sense demands it. So, unless your English teacher forces you to stick to the active voice on pain of failing in the subject, or your editors give you a standing order never to use the passive voice or be forever assigned to doing obituaries, the active voice should only be a secondary consideration. Much more important is to emphasize the sentence elements that you want to emphasize and need to emphasize. If it is the doer of the action that needs emphasis, then by all means use the active voice. But if is the receiver of the action, the instrument used in the action, or the action itself that needs it, you really have no choice but to use the passive voice.

The active voice certainly has its virtues, chiefly that it reflects how things really happen in real life—“Someone or something does something this way or that”—but it need not be a straitjacket to our natural instinct for clear, relevant, and forceful expression. The passive voice gives us both the opportunity and the latitude to focus on what we really need to focus on, to say exactly what we mean. Our prose and our speech will be squandering that opportunity and latitude by inflexibly deferring to the cult of the active voice. (February 9, 2004)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 9, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay later appeared as Chapter 66 in the book Giving Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo.

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