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

by Ray Prebble / 11 January, 2019
'The alien stole my dog' or 'My dog was stolen by the alien'? Illustration / Getty Images

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

RelatedArticlesModule - grammarian

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.

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.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.

Latest

101413 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Searching Great Barrier Island for the meaning of…

by Joanna Wane

Joanna Wane goes to Great Barrier Island in search of the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Read more
Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake
101340 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake

by James Robins

The biggest beak in Oz screen history returns in a remake of a 1970s favourite.

Read more
Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or score
101364 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Television

Go South: The NZ travel show with no narration or…

by Russell Brown

New Zealand jumps on the captivating, if time-consuming, bandwagon of televising cross-country journeys.

Read more
The downsides of tiny houses
101357 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Property

The downsides of tiny houses

by Megan Carras

Tiny houses look marvellous but have a dark side. Here are three things they don’t tell you on marketing blurb.

Read more
Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sleep
100946 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Scientists reveal the secrets to a restorative sle…

by Mark Broatch

A third of New Zealanders don’t get enough sleep and it’s killing us. Mark Broatch asks sleep scientists what we can do to get a good night’s slumber.

Read more
10 tips for getting a better night's sleep
100957 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

10 tips for getting a better night's sleep

by The Listener

Don’t use the snooze button on your alarm clock. Alarms spike blood pressure and heart rate, and snooze buttons just repeat the shock.

Read more
Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryptopia heist
101395 2019-01-18 14:38:51Z Tech

Gone in 60 seconds: The hard lessons from the Cryp…

by Peter Griffin

Time is of the essence in a bank heist, and in the digital world, cryptocurrency tokens can be transferred in a flash and converted to US dollars.

Read more
Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Auckland central eatery NEO
101383 2019-01-18 09:28:19Z Auckland Eats

Escape the hustle and bustle of Queen St at new Au…

by Alex Blackwood

NEO is a new all-day eatery overlooking Queen St.

Read more