When Passive Verbs Attack

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Wed, 2006-02-15 02:09

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.

About your Verbally-Abusive article...

Rowlf's picture


~~ This is a thought-provoking article, but, there is much to find worth considering in TDH's response.

~~ Ntl, I have, as of the last decade, been extremely 'offended' by many actions, indeed, even mere verbalizations by too many others who just don't 'understand' that one should never insult; kill, ok, but insult, no. The things these opinionators say, are very 'abusive' (I think you forgot that one) upon others, especially me.

~~ Far be it from me to say that you are, well, 'wrong' (us so-called PC'rs avoid using THAT judgemental term, true, ntl...), but, this chronic harping about those offended by others who are obviously 'insensitive' to the obviously justifiable rage of the downtrodden is, well...really 'inappropriate'.

~~ You need to 'sensitise' yourself more to the nuances needed to 'understand' just how 'inappropriate' your type of argument is, and how such verbal 'abuse' 'offends' those who 'empathize' with the obviously 'oppressed' underdogs of the world.


P.S: joke everbody; joke, joke.

The article is misguided.

tdh's picture

The article is misguided. Or perhaps I should say that someone misguided either the article or its author. In any case, the would-be indictment of transitive verb-systems fails, and the deprecation of hollow words blames the message where the mission is at fault.

What the passive voice does is shift the focus of a clause. Sometimes this is required by complex sentence structure, to retain the focus on a topic, which can play both active and passive roles in a sentence. Sometimes this is desired by an author for higher-order (e.g. shifting an important new topic to the end of a sentence, for emphasis or further topical development), social (e.g. forcing focus on actions instead of actors), or poetic (e.g. "diwos d'eteleieto boule") purposes.

The passive voice per se does not hide anything more than the active voice does. Did someone forget to take their medicine this morning?

If the passive voice is to be banned, so, too, should other passive-focus inflections and constructions, such as passive participles. Perhaps zero-information internal objects of verbs deserve a spanking, too. But neutering the language would stultify, not invigorate it.

So, the passive voice is sometimes abused. So what? So are active and intransitive constructions. (Should we blame Cain for claiming not to be his brother's keeper, instead of saying that he slew him?) Blaming the voice instead of the vocalist is comparable to blaming the gun instead of the hoodlum.

The main reason that the active voice is recommended stylistically is that it tends to lend greater liveliness to a sentence. But liveliness is only one criterion of potentially many.

It is usually context, not wording, that renders language vague. The use of "inappropriate" is a perfect example; there are, in fact, settings in which certain language is irrelevant, destructive (intentionally or not), or in violation of fiduciary duty, and is thus not proper to a situation -- i.e. is inappropriate. In such settings, adults tend to know what "inappropriate" means, if not always noticing sleight of tongue, and ought, therefore, to be able to explain its relevance in honest employment.

Shane Jones

Phil Howison's picture

"The letter has been received by me. There are copies, one of which was certainly ripped up by me"

A classic example of passive verbiage, from Parliament yesterday.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

A powerful swift upper-cut to those whose weasel-words disguise their tyrannical agenda, PC. And a reminder not to be taken in by them, nor to use weasel words ourselves. "The world is perishing from an orgy of weasel word(er)s"—and passive verbs are one of their lubricants.

Weasel words on our side are for the anti-"rage" brigade—the limp-dicks! Smiling

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.