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Passive and active aggressive: A grammarian on the art of emphasis

'The alien stole my dog' or 'My dog was stolen by the alien'? Illustration / Getty Images

Should you use the active or passive voice when trying to make your point? It all depends on what point you're trying to make.

You’ve seen it on TV: black ops making their way into a building where heinous acts are being committed. In absolute silence (apart from the crescendo of background music), they use hand signals to give directions and convey information – usually along the lines of “You go that way and kill everyone.”

It’s all very exciting, but it’s actually a very ancient way of communicating. Indeed, there is neurological evidence that spoken language started with signing. It makes sense: if you want to talk about something, first point at it, then elaborate with gestures. It’s what we all resort to when the rental car breaks down in Uzbekistan.
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Once you start using written language, the most obvious way to construct a statement about the world is to do the same thing, albeit with words: point and elaborate. First, identify something, then say something about it.

Let’s take a sentence you might use every day: The alien stole my dog.

It may look like something from a primary school reader, but this format of subject (identify) and predicate (say something) is the basis of much of our communication, even when we use long, complex sentences. Exceptions to this are sentences like “Oi! [exclamation] What d’you think you’re doing? [question] Stop stealing my dog, you freak.” [imperative]

Sometimes our focus is a bit different. For example, suppose I’m more interested in what happened to my dog than what the alien did. This can be reflected in the sentence structure:  My dog was stolen by the alien.

Exactly the same information is conveyed, but the emphasis changes. It’s more like a victim impact statement than a description of a crime. That’s why it’s called using the passive voice, because you’re talking about someone or something passively undergoing an action rather than actively committing it (which is described using the active voice).

One way to recognise the passive voice – if you’re new to the game – is the use of “by”. With the switch from active to passive, you have to go to the extra bother of pointing out who did the deed in question: it was done by so and so. Sometimes, though – once again according to the focus of interest – even this attribution of blame gets left off: My dog was stolen.

We’re still using the passive voice, but here we don’t know – or don’t care – who the culprit was.

Scientific methodology is like this. What is done to something, a chemical sample, say, is the important thing, not who did it. Sadly, nobody cares that Jonno, the technician who loves his dog, processed the sample. And this gets right to the heart of what science is about: objectivity. In any methodology section, we are implying that anyone who carries out the procedure, with this equipment, in this way, will get the same result. The method is replicable in its salient aspects. Here the passive voice gets a big thumbs up.

The passive voice can also be abused; for example, to smear responsibility. For this reason, lawyers and spin doctors love the passive. It’s great when you’re trying to wriggle out of a tricky situation: “A complaint has been received, it has been given due consideration, and action will be taken.” Who received? Who considered? Who will take action? Nobody’s saying. Nobody wants to take the heat.

People who run writing courses hate the passive voice because usually, it’s not as concise and punchy as the active. But unless you’re writing advertising copy it’s just as valid – when used properly, in the right context.

Used badly, the active can be as excruciating as the hairdresser who constantly calls you by your first name.

Used badly, the passive can make you sound insufferably stodgy and boring. Or like a police constable.

There’s a simple way to decide. Ask yourself which is more important: the person/thing doing the action, or the person/thing acted upon?

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of North & South.

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