Verbs: Part 6—Voice

Voice is that characteristic of a verb that permits the speaker to specify, and the listener to understand, the relationship among the action described by the verb, the agent causing or initiating the action, and the recipient of the action.

There are in English two voices: active and passive. Using a bare-bones active voice construction, the usual order of words is agent–action–recipient, or in grammatical terms, subject–predicate–direct object. In the corresponding passive voice construction the order is recipient–action–agent.

Active voice. Let’s look at a very simple active voice sentence that contains all three—and only those three—elements: an action, an agent, and a recipient.

Julian enjoys movies.

In this sentence, the action word—the verb—is enjoys; the agent (the doer) is the proper noun Julian; and the recipient of the action is the plural common noun movies. In a sentence diagram, we can illustrate this with the most basic of diagrams, which portrays the subject (the agent), predicate (the verb), and direct object (the recipient) on a single horizontal line, separated by vertical lines of different lengths.

 

Passive voice. The equivalent passive voice construction places the recipient (now the subject) and verb (now lacking a direct object) on the horizontal, and puts the agent (now the object of a prepositional phrase) in a subordinate position:

Movies are enjoyed by Julian.

And here is its sentence diagram:

 

What’s the difference? As you can see, this version is semantically, but not syntactically, equivalent to the active voice version—it preserves the meaning but not the grammar of the original sentence. Specifically, where the first sentence uses a simple present tense form of the verb to enjoy, the second one has to use the more convoluted passive construction, which in this case is [present tense of the verb to be + past participle of the verb to enjoy]. Furthermore, the passive construction pushes the agent (Julian) to the end of the sentence, introduced by a preposition (by) that indicates that he is the agent. Not trivially, three words have become five.

The syntactic differences between active and passive constructions are not the only differences; we will discuss other differences later in this article.

Forming the Passive Voice

The passive is formed in English not by inflecting (i.e., conjugating) the root verb, but by using auxiliary verbs. Specifically, as we have seen in the sample sentence above, the present indicative passive of the verb enjoy is formed by joining the present indicative active of the verb to be, in the appropriate person and number, to the past participle (the third principal part) of the verb enjoy.

I enjoy movies becomes Movies are enjoyed by me.

We like food becomes Food is liked by us.

Politicians sometimes tell lies becomes Lies are sometimes told by politicians.

Passive verbs across the tenses. There are active and corresponding passive verb forms for most, but not all, verbs across their many tenses. Here are examples.

As you can see, some verb tenses, most notably the perfect progressive tenses, really can’t be made passive. You can also see that many of the possible passive constructions sound odd—stilted and awkward—to the ear. For this and other reasons, most writing manuals urge careful writers and speakers to avoid passive constructions where active ones will be more effective. Typically, the active voice is not only more concise than the passive, but it is punchier, more direct, more forceful too.

Note also that commands (i.e., verbs in the imperative mood) do not do well in the passive voice. Pick up those papers simply works better than Those papers are to be picked up. And Sheriff Matt Dillon would have been met with naught but derision if he had snarled, The sky is to be reached for, Bart.

Similarly, the passive voice drains the power out of questions. Is that man bothering you? is better than Are you being bothered by that man? and Can I help you? is much better than Can you be helped by me?

Using the Passive Voice

Writing manuals and teachers so often and so forcefully inveigh against the passive voice that many people believe that there is something wrong with it. Well, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the passive voice per se, but it has certain undesirable characteristics that justify the cautions of writing manuals. In moving from active to passive constructions, we introduce  not only the obvious formal differences in the sentence (use of an auxiliary verb, inversion of the verb, slowing the pace and flow of the sentence, shifting of the agent and the recipient in the sentence, increasing the level of difficulty of the sentence), but other, subtler differences as well.

For the careful writer or speaker, the most important distinction lies in the differing effectiveness of statements in the two voices. The active voice supports sentences that are pointed, direct, and concise. The passive voice supports sentences that are indirect, vague, or even evasive. This mainly explains the counsel in books on effective writing to avoid as much as possible the passive voice.

Habitats of the passive voice. Some types of writing seems to thrive on passive constructions. Bureaucratic prose, for example, is rife with passives, as in the following actual examples:

Your signature should be placed in the box to the left of the date box, the form should be dated, and the completed form should be placed in a stamped envelope and mailed to the following address.

Employees are advised that their desks should be locked overnight, and in cases where sensitive documents are kept in the desk, during any absence from the desk of more than a few seconds. Such documents, if unattended, can be glanced at and even removed for copying if they are not secured. This will not be tolerated.

Police and legal writers also use the passive voice. In many cases, this is an intentional (or instinctual) bias toward an avoidance of clear assignment of responsibility. If a police report states,

According to witness testimony, the alleged perpetrator was initially approached by the alleged victim, hostile words were exchanged, leading to blows, and the ensuing altercation was actively engaged in by both parties.

the probable intent—or at least the pretext—is to avoid assigning responsibility for the altercation clearly to either the accused or the alleged victim.

Another sphere in which we find many passive constructions is scientific and academic writing. In this case, the culture of academia provides decades of precedent for avoiding the clear pattern of agent–action–recipient in all forms of research reporting. This seems to stem from a professional shibboleth against inserting the actual agent, the researcher, into the narrative of an experiment or a study. This shibboleth of course goes hand-in-hand with the prejudice against the first-person pronoun in research reports.

Here is an example from a journal article. I have underlined the passive constructions and made the active constructions bold. As you can see, the passives have it, 7–4.

A group of 1st-graders who were administered a battery of reading tasks in a previous study were followed up as 11th graders. Ten years later, they were administered measures of exposure to print, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and general knowledge. First-grade reading ability was a strong predictor of all of the 11th-grade outcomes and remained so even when measures of cognitive ability were partialed out. First-grade reading ability (as well as 3rd- and 5th-grade ability) was reliably linked to exposure to print, as assessed in the 11th grade, even after 11th-grade reading comprehension ability was partialed out, indicating that the rapid acquisition of reading ability might well help develop the lifetime habit of reading, irrespective of the ultimate level of reading comprehension ability that the individual attains. Finally, individual differences in exposure to print were found to predict differences in the growth in reading comprehension ability throughout the elementary grades and thereafter. (From Cunningham, A.E., & Stanovich, K.E. (1997). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.)

In sum, the passive voice is not by any means incorrect, but at its most benign it lengthens sentences without adding anything new. Moving along the scale from benign to malignant, the passive voice can lead to genuine awkwardness of expression. And moving further toward malignancy, the passive can subtract something of importance from the sentence: the agent. If the agent is suppressed, the passive voice can be a way to dodge responsibility.

Secret Agents

This agent-suppressing ability is the most probable cause for the frequent use of passive constructions by politicians. Let me take just one notorious example, the sentence Mistakes were made.

“Mistakes were made.” Believe it or not, this agent-free passive sentence has had a very long run in political discourse. The first instance cited in a list of “notable political usages” of the phrase that appears in a Wikipedia article of the same name (at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistakes_were_made)  goes back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Enjoy this sampling:

  • “Mistakes have been made, as we can all see and I admit it.” (President U.S. Grant, 1876, reporting to Congress)
  • “We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments [critical of the Washington Post].” (Ron Ziegler, President Nixon’s press secretary, 1973)
  • “And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.” (President Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1987)
  • Acknowledging that it was ill-advised to involve both a senior banking regulator and the Democratic Party’s senior fundraiser in White House discussions with the banking community about banking policy, President Clinton said “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.” (1997)
  • The king of all users of the phrase is probably Senator John McCain, who had a lot to say during the George Bush administration about the Iraq War. Speaking with reporter Tim Russert, McCain once said, “I think that one of the many mistakes that have been made is to inflate the expectations of the American people beginning three years ago that this was going to be some kind of day at the beach” [which, by the way, had been McCain’s own position earlier]. Then, speaking of President Bush, McCain went on to say, “he admitted that errors have been made.” When Russert tried to pinpoint an agent for all these mistakes, asking, “Isn’t that the president’s failure?” McCain replied, “Well, I—all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made [Wow! Another one!], that we can be guardedly optimistic.” (2005)
  • U.S. General David Richards used the phrase to lay to rest the souls of about 70 Afghan civilians killed in an air strike: “In the night in the fog of war, mistakes were made.” (2006).
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys during the George Bush administration for apparently political reasons had been a bad idea with “I acknowledge that mistakes were made.” (2007)
  • The Internal Revenue Service, apologizing for apparently targeting political action groups for audits before the 2012 presidential election, commented “Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale” [a statement that appears to have been vindicated by subsequent investigations] (IRS, 2013)

These statements all admit the existence of mistakes, but they seem to pin the blame for them on nothing at all—perhaps a change in the wind or a giddy whim of fate. The use of the passive voice makes it easy to avoid taking personal responsibility, and for this reason careful writers (and I mean stylistically careful, not legalistically careful) should weigh the use of the passive very judiciously against the almost always more straightforward active voice.

In my next blog post, I plan to write a little bit about the grammar of the United States Constitution.

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