Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Passive Voice

“The dog bites me” is not at all the same as “I am bitten by the dog.” An English major will tell you that the first is active voice the second passive and that when at all possible one should use the former, that it is more interesting and more engaging. Simply better writing. The structural difference is that in the active voice the subject, in English the first noun (in many other languages the noun in the nominative case) is the doer, while in the passive voice the subject is acted upon. The dog is the subject of the first sentence, “me” could very well be cut out - “the dog bites.” While technically conveying the same idea this is not at all equivalent to the second sentence, which could exclude the dog entirely - “I am bitten.” The tendency is for the active voice to emphasize doing while the passive voice emphasizes being - the dog does bite, I am bitten - and thus the debate over the use of the passive voice addresses the essential dichotomy of existence - doing or being, being or becoming, changing or unchanging - of which every student of western philosophy is familiar. It has also been claimed that the passive voice, as per its name, emphasizes a passive view of the universe, men as acted upon, either victims, witnesses, flowers swiftly fading, or whatever depending on one’s opinion of passivity. In the active voice on the other hand, men are the doers, men control their lives, men act upon the world; obviously this is the more popular viewpoint in modern society; and thus the scorning of the passive voice.
I cannot speak for anyone else but I will firmly maintain that I have very little control over my own life, that I am an observer of the world around me and that my existence is much better described by the passive voice than the active. A simple series of questions will prove this:
Where am I? - At Seattle University studying history and literature.
Why am I here? - Because after traveling alone for a couple weeks and craving intellectual stimulation the thought occurred to be to go to college and this school and one other popped into my head, this ended up being the one I could afford.
Why did this school pop into my head? - Because one of my friends in high school applied here and told me that if he did not get into several other schools to which he applied he would choose between this one and UW, so I always had the notion that this was one of the two best schools in the pacific northwest.
Why did I have that conversation? - because the guy who would become my friend made a comment about Myst IV during Mr. Brender’s math class and I, who was also playing that game, approached him later to talk about it.
Why was I in that class? - because I tested into the IB program and thus got transfered from Lynnwood HS to Edmonds-Woodway.
Why did I test into the IB program? - because my only friend from elementary school’s older brother had enjoyed it and she was testing too.
This was 8th grade, how did I know she was testing? - because I still talked to her every day because I was chosen by lot, three weeks before the beginning of 7th grade to attend Maplewood Co-Op, where my friend had already been admitted, instead of Alderwood MS.
In short, a literally random event, a lottery, determined the course of my life; all I did was observe my circumstances and make a series of simple, logical decisions - I want to go to same school as my friend; I want to talk to that guy, we might have something in common; I find traveling alone stressful, if I go to college I could meet people to travel with; etc.
In conclusion, the world I see is described much better by the passive voice than by the active and thus I will use it as much as I damn well please (psychological ramifications aside). And if at any time in the future one more person is criticizing me for its use I will be stapling a copy of this essay to their forehead shortly thereafter.

This has been angry venting with Jacob Smith, tune in text time to hear Jacob say, “speling shud bee funetik.”

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