‘Active’ Clears Your Croaky ‘Voice’, ‘Passive’ Frees Officials From ‘Cold’

‘Active’ Clears Your Croaky ‘Voice’, ‘Passive’ Frees Officials From ‘Cold’

Never use the passive where you can use active – George Orwell, Why I Write

Arup Chakraborty Updated: Saturday, September 30, 2023, 11:22 PM IST
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If a man and a woman argue over any particular issue, it means they are close to each other. Both are so open to each other that they can voice their anger. It is a healthy sign. Such is the relationship between the active and the passive.

Mavens demonise the active: scholars speak for the passive. If used cautiously, the passive, otherwise considered anaemic, often adds vitality to a sentence.

Administrative writing contains mostly passive sentences. Yet, nobody knows how and when it began.

A few powerful people may have laid down the law: the administrative writing must be impersonal and indirect.

Since that day, passive sentences have crept into the official writings and multiplied faster than rodents.

Yet, it does not mean the passive is always bad. If they are used wisely, they are good.

What is a passive sentence? Many of us learnt this definition in our high school days, but it may have gone into dim recollection.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action and, in the passive, the subject is acted upon.

For example, I rang the bell (active voice). The bell was rung by me (passive voice).

Then what is the difference? A sentence written in the active is more energetic and vital than the one written in the passive.

On the contrary, the passive slows down a sentence. The authors – like Strunk and White, Jefferson D Bates and Lane Greene – warn us against using passive.

Bates writes: “Obviously, any device that can cut average sentence length by roughly a third – and that’s what changing passives to actives can do – is worth using.”

Direct writing is concise, and there is nothing wrong in repeating that. More than 75 per cent of sentences in government and in industry are written indirectly. It signifies the subject becomes the object.

The transitive verbs generally take the passive form. For example, I saw him. He was seen by me. But he goes to market, if changed to the passive, will be absurd.

Many verbs are both transitive and intransitive. For example, the day breaks. He breaks a glass.

The first sentence, if changed to the passive, will go haywire, but turning the second sentence into the passive voice does not cause any trouble to a writer. Yet, one should avoid such a sentence.

The passive may often be used to avoid an ungrammatical sentence. So, instead of writing, when he arrived home the police arrested him, it is better to write: when he arrived at home he was arrested (by the police).

To avoid any responsibility or to disclaim any disagreeable announcements, a speaker may use the passive. Such sentences are written for psychological reasons.

Ten percent of salary of each employee will be deducted this month, because the company is facing loss.

On the contrary, the active is used to announce something positive. For example, the company is going to increase bonus from 8.33% to 20%.

The passive is used when we know who was behind a particular action but want to hide the subject.

Instead of saying, he has written a nasty letter, we may say a nasty letter has been written.

George Orwell rightly argues that the corrupt and powerful often use passive to avoid responsibility for actions: “The report has been studied, and it must now be admitted that mistakes were made.” The purpose is not to accept one’s mistakes.

If a crime reporter writes: A necklace was stolen from the purse of a woman. The sentence indicates that the reporter does not know the doer.

A little research could have helped him use the active: the woman’s teen age son stole the necklace from her purse.

In Glamour of Grammar, Roy Peter Clark writes: “It will not get us anywhere to demonise the passive or forms of the verb to be while we lionize the active.”

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