Divorcing the Passive Voice

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

While my own romantic ramblings have done little to either confirm or deny the existence of love at first sight, my affair with the passive voice began long before we even met. We did not have our first formal introduction until my freshman year of high school, and until that time my prose ran freely and passively, filling pages with tangled clauses and verbs lacking volition.

I spent the majority of my middle school career straining through pages in this manner, unabashedly robbing my subjects of action, or sometimes simply assassinating them altogether. Educated in a public school until ninth grade wherein the primary object of English class was merely to construct a sentence consisting of a subject and predicate – preferably in that order – my ability to coherently veer from this norm in the form of the passive voice was actually a source of praise. While subjects languished in the confusion of inactivity and orphaned verbs wavered in uncertainty, my tyrannical grip on the passive voice continued unchecked.

Upon entering prep school, I inherently believed that the passive voice was my own personal – not to mention ingenious – stylistic creation. With my first graded paper, I received a number of red circled clauses along with instructions to “avoid passive language.” Not knowing what this meant, I ignored it. If there was one thing I knew with absolute certainty, it was that no one could teach me anything I didn’t already know about writing. With the usual leniency afforded freshmen, my blatant disregard for active language was able to continue for the majority of the first semester without any significant damage to my GPA. However, as a late Christmas gift upon returning in January, I received a C on an essay on Julius Caesar, with strict instructions to rewrite every passive clause. With this welcome back, I learned that not only was the newly titled “passive voice” a grammatical structure not of my own creation, but moreover, a rhetorically inappropriate one, thus marking both my formal introduction to the passive voice as well as the end of our torrid affair.

Like any spurned lover, I initially tried to fight the dissolution of our relationship. When my English teacher gave us examples of simple sentences to help illustrate the passive voice, I responded indignantly. “The food was eaten by the dog” painted my beloved syntactical infraction in an unnecessarily atrocious light, and I vehemently argued – and believed – that my own use of the passive voice was far more eloquent.

When this failed, I took to more drastic measures, surrounding myself with a small army of Victorian novelists. I shuffled through the pages of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, demanding my English teacher tell me how Hardy could more actively convey the idea that “Justice was done.” If Thomas Hardy could use the passive voice, then so could I. My teacher, though, was unconvinced.

If Thomas Hardy couldn’t save me, I had no choice but to submit to the tyrannical will of my English teacher. However, after I had finished mourning the perceived death of my creative license, I begrudgingly noticed the active voice sweeping across my writing, doing almost everything my teacher had promised it would. Not only were my once idle subjects taking responsibility for their actions, but I was taking responsibility for my own ideas.

Until this time, I knew with absolute certainty that no one could teach me anything about writing. But as I saw my prose tighten and my ideas transform into active assertions under the guidance of my teacher, I realized that I had no use for simply “knowing.” Rather, I wanted to learn. I had always had a passion for knowledge, but through my battle with the passive voice, I gained a far more important passion: learning.

Leave a Comment