When my family and I moved into a new home, many of our neighbors greeted us. The two families on either side of us welcomed us, told us all about the neighborhood watch and made sure we had the phone numbers of the neighborhood on a gridded map. One neighbor noticed our dog Remington and introduced us to his. He said to be sure to let us know if Moose’s barking bothered us. We agreed and asked him to do the same if our dog bothered him. We kept our dog inside when we went to work. We didn’t think Remi would be a problem, but were happy to be in such a friendly place.
About a month later, I opened a letter from the Humane Society. A neighbor had called to complain. The letter stated that our dog was a problem. If we didn’t stop his barking, the authorities would issue us a $100 dollar ticket. It went on to explain that dog barking could be corrected, and it was important we keep our neighbors happy. My heart beat up into my throat. My face, I’m sure, flushed the bright red that lets everyone know when I’m upset. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors report us instead of just telling me. I couldn’t understand when my dog was barking when he was inside all day. How could he be bothering anyone?
After asking around, I found out that it was a neighbor in the far corner. They had told someone else that our dog barked at 5:30 when I let him out each morning. This woke them up since it was next to their bedroom at the corner of our yard. Of course, I stopped letting him stay out until he barked and made sure he came in. But I never much liked those neighbors who tattled on me instead of asking me directly. They didn’t speak to me themselves. They had someone else do it for them. Because they told me indirectly, I had to work to know when exactly my dog was bothering them. They were ‘passive.’ As it turns out, no one much likes passivity in writing, either.
The Passive Voice in Grammar
Much like my neighbors passed the action on to the animal shelter, the passive voice in grammar hides the ‘agent’ of the sentence. The object of a sentence becomes the subject. This sounds crazy but here is an example to help explain:
The Ridgeback dog caught the ball.
Subject = The Ridgeback
Verb = caught
Object = the ball
The ball was caught by the Ridgeback dog.
Subject = The ball
Verb = was caught
Object (agent) = by the Ridgeback dog
The passive voice always has a form of ‘to be’ together with the past participle (3rd form of the verb). Be careful not to think of passive as any construction with the verb ‘to be.’ The continuous tenses also have ‘to be’ but are not always passive. Next week I’ll come up with another fascinating grammar tale to explain the continuous.
I like to think of politicians and executives who have done wrong when I think about the passive voice. “The bill was passed,” said Mr. Schmo the politico. “The money was stolen by someone,” said the executive in the congressional hearing. People often use the passive voice to cover up who did something other people may not like.
Sometimes the purpose is less nefarious. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter who did something. For example: “The building was built in 1972.” It wouldn’t help anyone to know the names of all the construction workers involved in the project.
If you’d like to know more and practice in order to wrap your neurons around the idea, here are a few sites with more examples and exercises:
Examples with all the English Tenses
Easy Exercise to Explain the Idea to Your Brain
More Difficult Exercise to Practice Writing Skills
The last exercise is especially helpful because many of the sentences are not passive and some work well in the passive voice. Sometimes passive works in writing and in the rest of life. The practice of writing and rewriting gives you choices when you understand how to use the language.
Like the neighbors who didn’t deal with me directly, passive often leaves a reader feeling like the writer should have told you something she didn’t. Understanding what it looks like by breaking it down can help you give your readers more clarity. And clarity pulls a reader into the writing more completely. Test a few sentences and see whether you feel more like you’ve gotten a letter from the humane society or if you feel like your neighbor let you know what was happening with your dog.