Past Perfectly, Passive-Aggressive Voice

How to start a flamewar among writers.

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.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. Please double check this before giving a class on it.”

The next thing the instructor typed had us all sitting there open-mouthed. “FUCK YOU!” She disconnected from the network. I pictured her ripping the modem cord from her own wall in a fit of pique.

“Did she just — ”

“Yep.” The three of us who were left all typed ROFL, LOL, and LMAO simultaneously. I quickly composed a note to send her, as I shut down her VIP account: “Your resignation has been accepted.”

Now there’s an example of the past perfect, passive aggressive voice.

Is Passive Voice a Vice?

There’s nothing inherently evil about passive voice. However, when it is used to shirk responsibility for an action, or to absolve a known actor of responsibility, then it is shoddy writing. It can be wordy, too.

Active: Margie fed us sandwiches.
Passive: We were fed sandwiches [by Margie].
Passive: We were given sandwiches and shooed out the door.

That last example may have reasons for being. Who gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door may be less important than the fact that we were fed and shoved outside.

Active and passive: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so we were given sandwiches and shooed out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

In this last example, it’s clear who is doing the giving and the shooing. The focus isn’t on Mom, but on us. That said, we could write the same sentence without passive voice at all: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so she gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

Either is correct, but there is a subtle shift of focus — in the latter example, Mom gets most of the focus. If the story is about us, then passive voice may work a little bit better. It’s a choice. Either works; neither is spawn of the writing devil.

The real problem with passive voice is in reporting facts:

Active: “Joe Smith raped the woman” vs. Passive: “The woman was raped”

Active: “Mr. Carter stole $30,000 from the bank” vs. Passive: “$30,000 was embezzled”

When it is used to obscure and deflect, passive voice gets a well-deserved bad reputation.

For more info, examples, and exercises, see:

Want to start a flamewar? Go to a writing conference and ask, “But really, what’s wrong with passive voice?” Once the brawl starts, say, “You have been HAD. Peace out!” and leave.

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