When Passive Verbs Attack

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Mon, 2006-02-06 21:00

What's a passive verb? It's a way of writing that removes from what is written both writer and passion. Compare for example: 'You cannot do this' (active) with 'This cannot be done' (passive). Passive verbs are used to soften the sense of a phrase, and too often to camouflage an opinion as being the writer's own. It's a way of speaking for the speechless without appearing to.

Why does this matter? Well, how many times do you hear these phrases used like a stop sign:

It is considered that...
That is inappropriate...
This is offensive...

As at least one style guide points out, the use of the phrase "It is considered that" "may sound impressive, but it is meaningless." Considered by whom for goodness sake? This is just a way for bureacrats to hide beneath their rocks. You'll see this phrase littering the reports of town planners and other jerks weighing up what you might and might not be allowed to do with your own property like dog turds on city pavements. For example: "It is considered that the tree in question is a fine example of Folius Somehingorotherus, and therefore that your application to remove it and build a house be rejected." Think how much more direct, and honest, it would be for the planning arsehole to write: "I've decided I like that tree. Don't fucking touch it or else."

Think they'd get away with that? Not bloody likely. Ban the passive voice from bureaucrats' writing, and we might just be on to something. (Better yet, ban the bureaucrats. But we have to start somewhere.)

How about "that is inappropriate..."? Usually heard from prudes and blue-stockings who are easily shocked, but too timid to offer an opinion themselves that might just be unsupported by others. Far better instead to seek the comfort of other people's prudery, or at least to suggest others might share yours. "Your anger was inappropriate," says the prude, with one eye on her smelling salts and the other on the censor's office. What they mean is "I didn't like what you said." Well, so what? If you don't like it, then either make your case or leave the room. Simply calling something 'inappropriate' is not a case for or against anything, and nor is it even the beginning of an argument -- it is instead just a substitute for one.

But now comes the kicker: When passive verb is coupled with aggression -- when, as in recent days, "that is offensive" becomes "behead those who offend me" -- then both a moral rule and a grammatical one have been broken. I remind you again of Stephen Fry's point about such passive-aggressive threats:

'It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I'm offended by that." Well, so fucking what?'

When passive verbs attack, it's time to fight back.

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