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Significance of Passive Voice

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The first paragraph is kinda language-geeky. Stay with me, though.

In modern English, there are three main parts to a sentence: subject, verb, and object. The subject denoted who or what is doing something; the verb is the word denoting what the subject is doing; and the object is the word denoting the thing the subject is using to perform the action or on which he is performing the action. So when someone says, “Maria whistled a happy tune”, Maria is the subject, whistled is the verb, and a happy tune is the object.

An odd thing happens when we use the distortion known as “passive voice”. We pretend that the object is a subject. We give the happy tune all the credit for the whistling, and we usually leave Maria out of it altogether. (“A happy tune was whistled.”) The University of North Carolina has an in-depth but not language-geeky article on passive voice, so I won’t dwell on how to recognize it or why it’s not always bad. We already know there are times to follow a “rule” and times to break it.

My focus as a NLPer is the fact that we decide, on some level, which construction (passive or active) to use, and what it might mean when we choose to use passive voice. I’ve found that it very frequently indicates a passive attitude toward whatever is being discussed, and that that may be detrimental. Example:

A friend of mine was feeling really sad — way too sad, in my opinion — about a recent interaction with one of her co-workers. She told me about who had said and done what and at the end, she said, “…and then I was discounted.” (“To discount” in this instance means “to minimize the significance or meaning”. Quite a mean-spirited thing to do to someone. I knew the guy, and he was a jerk.)

The passive construction caught my attention. It sounded so out-of-place. Especially considering the rest of her story, which was constructed actively; I said this, he said that, then I said the other. I learned from Gavin de Becker‘s books that if something stands out that way, it’s worth poking at. So I poked at it. “What do you mean, you were discounted?”

All she did was summarize what she’d said and append “I was discounted” again. As if that explained to me what she meant. I hate when people do that… I ask them what they mean and they just repeat what they said that I didn’t understand the first time. So I tried again. “Well, who’s doing all this discounting? I mean, the way you just said it, it sounds like you did it, but that doesn’t make sense.”

(Of course I knew who did it. I wanted her to say it.)

She told me he did it. So I said, “OK. Say it that way, then.”

“OK”, she said. “He discounted me.”

Then there was a pause.

Then the air heated up around her. She wasn’t sad any more. She was angry. I considered that to be a far more appropriate response to what he had done, and I found out later that she had used her newfound energy to correct the guy’s treatment of her. It’s funny how a simple change in case can make such a difference.

I have no idea what she thought she was doing when she constructed that sentence passively. Maybe she was protecting herself from getting angry. Knowing her as I did, I’d guess that was probably the situation. But I hear it a lot in situations wherein someone does something and doesn’t want to take responsibility for it. Have you ever seen a kid knock over a glass of milk and then he’ll say, “It spilled”, as if the milk knocked itself over? Or someone cheats on his or her spouse and claims that “one thing led to another”?

Sure, there are times when passive voice makes sense. A police report might say “the subject was handcuffed”; a nursing note might say “medication was administered via injection”; or a newspaper reporter might say “the bill passed the House and the Senate and will now go to the White House”. In situations like this, what matters is what was done, not who did it, and construction in passive voice lets the reader or hearer focus on the activity.

So I’m not suggesting that we should challenge every instance of passive voice. Just like with any Meta-model violation, we have to learn whether or not to challenge it based on how likely it is to be significant. Is the speaker/writer avoiding the limelight, are they avoiding responsibility, or are they taking responsibility for something they shouldn’t? Where’s that happy tune coming from, after all?

Written by Michael DeBusk

December 30th, 2007 at 1:14 pm

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