by Annie Wei-Yu Kan
Everybody knows about the passive voice. You’ve heard of it, right? Even people who know pretty much nothing about grammar know about the passive voice. Specifically, they know completely wrong things about the passive voice. I mean that what they “know” is not knowledge at all. It’s false things that come from their having been badly taught and not having paid any attention either.
Here, let’s look at an example, just one among many I could give you. This is from an article in Forbes on why Best Buy is circling the drain.
There’s a little more to the Best Buy’s press release: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and we have notified the affected customers.”
Again, note the use of the passive voice—“this” refers to the “situation” that Best Buy “encountered.” The “situation,” not Best Buy’s poor operations, “has caused” inconvenience to customers. It’s not something Best Buy did wrong. It’s like they’re reporting the weather; something utterly out of their control.
Now, tell me where the passive voice is in that.
Nowhere. It doesn’t matter how weaselly the press release is (and it is very weaselly: they promised customers high-demand items and then, just before Christmas, informed them that they wouldn’t be delivering them). Passive is not the same as weaselly. Maybe you’ve never seen a weasel. They can be pretty active. Go to the zoo and look.
The passive voice is a syntactic construction, not a moral failing on the part of the writer. If it were a hallmark of moral failure, a certain ex-husband of mine would use it incessantly. Like those vulgarities he can’t make himself stop spewing.
You know what I’ve already said about a sentence being like a recipe. You’d better. I’m not going to keep saying it. Well, the passive voice is like one of those recipes where it ends up upside down. I was going to say crème caramel, but I guess anyone who hasn’t made it doesn’t know that. So I’ll say upside-down cake. You know, made in a tube pan, with pineapple rings.
Here’s what I mean. Start with a sentence with the parts in the usual order:
I ate a cake.
Now let’s say we want to have the bottom part at the top. You want to eat the pineapples on top of the upside-down cake, not at the bottom of it. So perhaps first you try just taking the end, a cake, and putting it at the beginning in place of I:
a cake ate
Well, that’s wrong. The cake didn’t eat. We’re still serving the same recipe, just upside down. But we don’t have a reverse verb form in English. We don’t write eta to reverse the direction of ate. So we look for the verb form that doesn’t need to change direction. Ate is a runny verb form: turn it upside down and it gets all over you. You need a verb form that’s set. What’s set? Something that’s done. Let’s remember that if I can say
I half-ate a cake
then we have
a half-eaten cake
and we can say
the cake is half-eaten
Our set verb form is a past participle. So if you want to put the object first, if you want those pineapples that are on the bottom of that tube pan to end up on the top of your cake, you make the object the subject and you make the verb a past participle. And you attach the two with what we normally use to attach a noun to a quality or state: a form of be.
A cake was eaten.
What happened to the original subject? We don’t need it anymore. It doesn’t become the object. It becomes an optional garnish. It’s like grating the skin off an orange and then later maybe sprinkling it on top of the dish you make with the orange. Or taking the marrow from your osso buco and making it part of the side dish. You know the subject is on the side because it’s by.
A cake was eaten by me.
Side dishes are of course optional.
This is what a passive is. You take what was originally at the end and put it in the front, and you do that by using the past participle of the verb and a form of to be to connect them. That’s all it is. No, nothing more. Now look again at that construction our poor, ignorant author called “passive”:
this has caused
That’s not this is caused, it’s this has caused. To have and to be are not the same thing. Having an idiotic husband, for instance, is quite different from being an idiotic husband.
The receiving end
by Dirk E. Oldman
Annie, the only sign of moral failure I’ve ever used incessantly was you. And I’ve managed to break that habit quite nicely, thanks. Once I realized I’d been had, and wasn’t being had often enough, I realized you were a has-been.
OK, let’s get down to business. The passive, as Annie has shown many times, can be quite aggressive. I don’t really think we should call the passive voice the passive voice at all. I think we should call it the receiving-end construction. Well, that might be a little confusing too: after all, I took it up the ███ is in the active voice, even if it’s a receiving-end act. But the point is, don’t confuse what the sentence is talking about with how it’s constructed. And the passive voice means that in the sex scene of the sentence, the camera is entirely on the one on the receiving end.
You know what I’m talking about. A sentence is like sex. There’s one party pitching and one party catching, if you know what I mean. In the action of a sentence, the subject is doing something to the object. Jack ████s Jill. Jack is ████ing Jill.
Just to avoid confusion, I’m going to use a completely non-sexual sentence:
Dirk wrote a sentence.
OK, it’s true that most sentences I write are not non-sexual, and actually I’m busy telling you that writing is like sex. But since I can make something sexual out of almost anything (it’s a gift I have), let’s just stop at that. So in this sentence, Dirk wrote a sentence, it’s Dirk that is doing the doing, while wrote is the doing, and a sentence is what it’s being done to. Remember that all the other stuff you can add to this – for instance, in The witty and charming Dirk eagerly wrote a long, hard sentence of vigorous words – is sex toys.
But now, let’s remember that in a porno the women are all excellent-looking but some of the guys are not really all that presentable. And who cares about them anyway. (Yes, yes, there’s gay porn and that’s different, let’s just keep focused here, OK?) So you do the close-up on the person on the receiving end. Likewise, in a sentence where you really want to focus on the object, not the subject, you use the receiving-end construction. The “passive voice.”
But when the camera is doing a close-up on you while you’re getting the business done to you, you’re going to be not just tense but past tense – way past tense. You might tighten up entirely. And that’s what happens with these close-ups: it’s [the object] [is] [past tense] (for [is] swap in any form of the verb be) and it’s such a tight shot you don’t include the subject in the action shot.
[Jill] [is] [████ed].
[A sentence] [was] [written].
Because the object is now in the subject position, and the subject is out of the shot, you treat the object like the subject. It’s not
is spanked me
me is spanked
I am spanked
But just remember: the object – is – past tense. And the former subject is treated like a bystander: if you want to include it, it’s just added off to the side. Who cares.
I – am – spanked (by ten hot babes).
Jill – is – being ████ed (by Jack).
A sentence – was – written (by me).
And now let’s look at that sentence that Annie dug up.
We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and we have notified the affected customers.
The guy who wrote that thinks that because they’re not saying “We caused it” it’s passive voice. Nope. Look: This was caused by us is passive voice, but it takes responsibility. Responsibility has nothing to do with the passive voice.
I am not responsible for Rogering you.
That’s not responsible but it’s active. It has an [is], but responsible is an adjective, not a past participle.
I have been charged with the responsibility of Rogering you.
That takes responsibility, but it’s the passive voice.
There’s one more thing we need to talk about. Annie didn’t talk about it above, maybe because there are some things she just can’t make herself talk about however desperately she should. In this case it’s knowing when you have a passive and when you have an adjective, for instance the difference between being ████ in the head and being ████ in the head.
There are a lot of adjectives that are made with the past participle. But while the passive construction often looks identical to an adjective predicate, it’s not the same thing. An adjective describes a state. A past participle describes an action. It’s like the difference between someone actually participating in a sex act and someone just making faces and moaning.
If somehow you can’t tell if you’re talking about a state or an action, which means you’re probably not very good at sex, try swapping in an adjective that’s not a past participle, or try adding being. Let’s try an example:
Jack’s mouth was stuffed.
What’s another adjective that’s an equivalent to stuffed?
Jack’s mouth was full.
Compare that with a version with being added.
Jack’s mouth was being stuffed.
Which one matches what you had in mind? Was Jack’s mouth full of food, or was it being stuffed by Jill with a wet rag as she bound his hands behind his back and got the hot wax ready? I hope you can tell the difference.