Past Perfectly, Passive-Aggressive Voice

How to start a flamewar among writers.

Holly Jahangiri
4 min readJul 8, 2020

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Once upon a time, I ran an online writing forum on what is now a defunct, pre-Internet, online service no one remembers. I hired a woman to run a beginners’ writing workshop covering the basics: grammar, punctuation, and general style. In exchange for once-weekly lessons, she got a free VIP account that gave her access to the entire service.

The first night, no one but the instructor, two of my professional writer friends, and I showed up. It was just as well — this gave us a good, relaxing opportunity to do a practice run-through without real students. For some reason, the instructor decided to tackle the age old issue of “Active vs. Passive Voice” for the first lesson. Well, bravo. I’d have started with commas. Simple, declarative sentences in present or simple past tense. But sure — let’s dive in with one of the most controversial and hostility-inducing topics you can throw, like a grenade, into a cocktail party full of writers.

The only thing worse would have been: “Semicolons: Pro or Con?”

The instructor launched into an authoritative lecture on how to construct a passive sentence, typing into the chat window: “Any sentence where ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ are used as ‘helper verbs’ is said to be ‘passive voice.’ For example, ‘The detectives had moved to the city — ”

“Hang on a sec,” I typed.

“Am I going too fast?” she typed back.

I have a degree in English — Rhetoric & Writing, if I want to sound snotty about it — but I obsessively fact-check myself before fact-checking others. “No,” I said, stalling while I combed the pages of several grammar books I had sitting on my bookshelf. There. “No, just… are you sure about this? Isn’t that just past perfect tense?”

“No, it’s passive voice.”

“Mmm, I think it’s past perfect tense. The detectives had moved — they moved themselves. If you’d said, ‘The detectives had been moved,’ it would have been past, um, perfect and passive voice.”

“No, you see the ‘had’ there? That’s what makes it passive.”

“No, you need to add ‘been’ — had been moved — by some implied other person or entity.”

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