Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Oct 16, 2021 | Craft, Writing

How to Start a Flamewar Between Writers

Once upon a time, I ran an online writing forum on what is now a defunct, pre-Internet, online service no one remembers. I hired a woman to run a beginners’ writing workshop covering the basics: grammar, punctuation, and general style. In exchange for once-weekly lessons, she got a free VIP account that gave her access to the entire service.

The first night, no one but the instructor, two of my professional writer friends, and I showed up. It was just as well — this gave us a good, relaxing opportunity to do a practice run-through without real students. For some reason, the instructor decided to tackle the age old issue of “Active vs. Passive Voice” for the first lesson. Well, bravo. I’d have started with commas. Simple, declarative sentences in present or simple past tense. But sure — let’s dive in with one of the most controversial and hostility-inducing topics you can throw, like a grenade, into a cocktail party full of writers.

The only thing worse would have been: “Semicolons: Pro or Con?”

The instructor launched into an authoritative lecture on how to construct a passive sentence, typing into the chat window: “Any sentence where ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ are used as ‘helper verbs’ is said to be ‘passive voice.’ For example, ‘The detectives had moved to the city — ”

“Hang on a sec,” I typed.

“Am I going too fast?” she typed back.

I have a degree in English — Rhetoric & Writing, if I want to sound snotty about it — but I obsessively fact-check myself before fact-checking others. “No,” I said, stalling while I combed the pages of several grammar books I had sitting on my bookshelf. There. “No, just… are you sure about this? Isn’t that just past perfect tense?”

“No, it’s passive voice.”

“Mmm, I think it’s past perfect tense. The detectives had moved — they moved themselves. If you’d said, ‘The detectives had been moved,’ it would have been past, um, perfect and passive voice.”

“No, you see the ‘had’ there? That’s what makes it passive.”

“No, you need to add ‘been’ — had been moved — by some implied other person or entity.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. Please double check this before giving a class on it.”
The next thing the instructor typed had us all sitting there open-mouthed. “FUCK YOU!” She disconnected from the network. I pictured her ripping the modem cord from her own wall in a fit of pique.

“Did she just — ”

“Yep.” The three of us who were left all typed ROFL, LOL, and LMAO simultaneously. I quickly composed a note to send her, as I shut down her VIP account: “Your resignation has been accepted.”

Now there’s an example of the past perfect, passive aggressive voice.

Is Passive Voice a Vice?

There’s nothing inherently evil about passive voice. However, when it is used to shirk responsibility for an action, or to absolve a known actor of responsibility, then it is shoddy writing. It can be wordy, too.

  • Active: Margie fed us sandwiches.
  • Passive: We were fed sandwiches [by Margie].
  • Passive: We were given sandwiches and shooed out the door.

That last example may have reasons for being. Who gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door may be less important than the fact that we were fed and shoved outside.

Active and passive: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so we were given sandwiches and shooed out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

In this last example, it’s clear who is doing the giving and the shooing. The focus isn’t on Mom, but on us. That said, we could write the same sentence without passive voice at all: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so she gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

Either is correct, but there is a subtle shift of focus — in the latter example, Mom gets most of the focus. If the story is about us, then passive voice may work a little bit better. It’s a choice. Either works; neither is spawn of the writing devil.

The real problem with passive voice is in reporting facts:

Active: “Joe Smith raped the woman” vs. Passive: “The woman was raped”

Active: “Mr. Carter stole $30,000 from the bank” vs. Passive: “$30,000 was embezzled”

When it is used to obscure and deflect, passive voice gets a well-deserved bad reputation.

Want to start a flamewar? Go to a writing conference and ask, “But really, what’s wrong with passive voice?” Once the brawl starts, say, “You have been HAD. Peace out!” and leave.

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

17 Comments

  1. 4A-HEALTHY-BMI

    ROFL about the ill-prepared instructor having been p0wn3d! 🤣

    There was a shift in scientific and technical writing style while I was in grad school. I went in at a time journals were looking for passive voice. By the time I got out, we were expected to use active voice.

    At first it felt very strange, to acknowledge the presence of the researcher in such an open way. We got over it. Now passive voice in that context sounds antiquated.

    Next I want to hear a post about the Oxford comma, or perhaps article precedence, or how many spaces should follow a period. 😉

    🔥🔥🔥😏
    4A-HEALTHY-BMI recently posted…How I process tomatoesMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I found the punctuation post and re-posted. I’m going to take a break from the PC, but will try to write up my evil and manipulative wager on the Chicago comma.

      Come on, it’s a serial comma. It’s only called “the Oxford comma” because Oxford Press demands it. Well, so does Chicago Manual of Style. It’s like the “little black dress” of the punctuation world, isn’t it? So I’m on a campaign – you know, like the whole “let’s change French fries to freedom fries” nonsense – to get everyone in the US (at least) calling it “the Chicago comma.” Has more of a gangster feel to it, too. Like, don’t mess with my Chicago comma. You don’t get this urge to stick out your pinky finger when you say it. More like “you can have my Chicago comma when you pry my cold, dead middle finger off your AP Style Guide.”
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!My Profile

      Reply
      • 4A-HEALTHY-BMI

        😂

        I like “Serial Comma.” Makes me think of fava beans and a little Chianti…

        🍷

        Reply
        • Holly Jahangiri

          Well, then you’ll enjoy the post I’m about to write. (I’m still Friends with the person mentioned; have occasionally posted this on Facebook, and hope I’ve been forgiven. I know that she’s read it. LOL)
          Holly Jahangiri recently posted…Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive VoiceMy Profile

          Reply
  2. Debbie D.

    Thanks for those clear illustrations of passive and active voice. Grammarly tells me I use the former far too often. Funny story about the instructor! She was much too sensitive. 😄
    Debbie D. recently posted…UNFORESEEN CIRCUMSTANCESMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Grammarly sucks. That is all.

      No, that’s not really fair, but I do think Grammarly gives writers a false sense of security and the idea that they don’t really need to understand the rationale for the rules. I feel a similar distaste for Strunk & White. Understand all the tools of the trade, then you can figure out if you really need them, want them, or not.

      Reply
      • Debbie D.

        I find Grammarly helpful, but then, I don’t have the advanced writing skills you do, Holly. 🙂 Mostly, I’ve been using it to curb my excessive comma habit, but the passive voice suggestions are also helpful.
        Debbie D. recently posted…LIVORNO, PISA AND FLORENCE | DREAM TRIP PART VMy Profile

        Reply
        • Holly Jahangiri

          All these aids and primers can be “helpful” but they are not authoritative. The danger lies in treating them as the Bible of good writing.

          The free online resource I like best is Purdue OWL.
          Holly Jahangiri recently posted…To Stop a Serial Comma KillerMy Profile

          Reply
  3. Jill E Ebstein

    That is the clearest explanation I’ve seen of active and passive voice and a good story was told (yes I just chose passive).

    You’ve got a way with words and explanations, and you entertain us the whole ride long. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Aww, thank you! Yeah, I think we all would have learned these things better if our teachers were funnier. I’m still not “funny on command,” Jill, but I do have a knack for seeing the ridiculous side of things, sometimes! Or maybe, it just finds me.

      Reply
  4. Sunita Saldhana

    Love this post! You have explained it so well. I ask my students if the suject is doing the action or the action is being done to the subject. It is as easy as that.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      It really is that simple! But seriously, it’s a lovely little grenade to lob into a writers’ cocktail party, isn’t it? (Really, the grenade isn’t “what is passive” – normally. It’s “is passive voice a SIN that will send you straight to writers’ hell?”)

      Reply
  5. Mitchell Allen

    This post has been read and enjoyed.
    I like the post!

    I would have been a better student, had you been my English teacher.

    So, sentence number one is passive, number two is active and number three is a compliment. LOL

    Cheers,

    Mitch
    Mitchell Allen recently posted…Shuffling Down Memory LaneMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      Teachers are underpaid and underappreciated. I think that I would have enjoyed teaching English to small groups (I thoroughly enjoyed teaching ESL at Berlitz, and tutoring a couple of teens in creative writing) but I knew that I wanted a higher income, less bureaucratic hassle, and more support for my decisions than being a teacher would ever allow. Most of the teachers I know love teaching and they love kids, but they have to love them a LOT to put up with school administrators and parents.

      Reply
  6. Bob Jasper

    Yes, I remember this post from some time back. Loved it then and now upon rereading it again after my scrimmage with our fearless leader.

    Subject acting or acted upon. Simple as that.

    Great post, Holly. Love your humor and wit. I, too, would have loved to have you as my English teacher, though the ones I had were pretty good, too.

    Reply

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