Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Problem with Passivity

Hey guys, the week before last, we had an in-class assignment to fix up some sentences. A few of them were in the passive voice, and it took me a while to recognize that this was actually what was wrong with them. I'm not sure if anyone else had that experience, but I figured I'd post this. I don't think there's anything grammatically wrong with the passive voice (this is probably why I tend to overlook it), but it is frowned upon and here's why. I didn't write this, by the way. It's a story one of my professors gave out to show the class why we should avoid the passive voice as much as possible. It has some sex and violence, but nothing shocking if you watch television these days.

A Very Passive Murder
by John Vorhaus

The room was walked into by a man by whom strong, handsome features were had. A woman was met by him. The bed was lain upon by her. Then the bed was lain upon by him. Clothing was removed from them both. Sex was had. Climax was achieved. Afterward, cigarettes were smoked by them. Suddenly, the door was opened by the husband of the woman by whom the bed was lain upon. A gun was held by him. Some screams were screamed and angry words exchanged. Jealousy was felt by the man by whom the gun was held. Firing of the gun was done by him. The flying of bullets took place. Impact was felt by bodies. The floor was hit by bodies. Remorse was then felt by the man by whom the gun was held. The gun was turned upon himself.

I think we all let a passive sentence slip in here and there, which is fine; it's normal. But this story really sounds pretty silly, doesn't it? And this is why we avoid the passive voice whenever possible. =P


ceruleanjen said...

Jen was mildly disturbed by Mitch's story. o_O Nah, thanks for sharing this one. :)

ceruleanjen said...

Also, shouldn't it be "A Very Passive Murder-Suicide"? ;)

Pat said...

Good question, Jen :)

I found the piece disturbing too; the use of the passive voice creates a distance between the reader and the third-person narrator that is alienating. The man, room, bed, woman, etc. are given equal emphasis and importance, and the tone is distant, almost perversely so.

Of course, there are instances in which the passive voice is preferred; here are a few examples: President Reagan was shot; The U.S. embassy in Iran was bombed; Tokyo was rocked by a big earthquake. It makes sense to use the passive voice in these cases:

1. When the recipient of the action is more important than the doer.

2. When the doer is unknown.

3. When the action is a natural disaster.