During week fourteen of Essentials class, we learn about passive voice. We practice taking a sentence in active voice and making it passive, and we take some passive voice sentences and make them active voice. From this point on, Essentials students will be rewriting sentences in passive voice for homework each week. A mom met me in the hall after Essentials class, wanting to know why we teach passive voice at all. She had been taught in high school to never, ever use passive voice. It was evil. Okay, she didn’t really say that it was evil. But like many of us, she had gotten the idea that using passive voice is always wrong and should be punished with a deduction of points. She wanted to know if we teach it only so students can avoid it.
I get a little defensive about passive voice. I love it. Or, I could say, it is loved by me. In case you have not yet been in Essentials class week fourteen, passive voice is when the subject is not doing the action in the sentence. “I love passive voice” is active: the subject (I) is doing something (loving). If I say, “Passive voice is loved by me,” the meaning is the same, but now the subject is passive, just sitting there doing nothing. “Me” is the object of the preposition now. So the sentence is considered passive voice.
The example we use in class is, “Jesus wept.” This is active voice. We change it to passive voice by doing something like this: “Tears of sorrow were wept by Jesus.” Don’t you like the second version? I am moved by the second version and it is passive voice. Can that be bad? No, it is full of expression and passion and it is beautiful. It is almost poetic. Also notice that changing the sentence’s voice changes the readers’ focus. In the active voice of this example, our attention is on Jesus and what He is doing at that moment. In the passive voice example, our attention is focused on the tears of sorrow, making one imagine what depth of sorrow would make Him weep.
Here are a few more examples of passive voice:
“…all men are created equal, that they are they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Thomas Jefferson, United States Declaration of Independence, 1776.)
“Before Hester Prynne could call together her thoughts, and consider what was practicable to be done in this new and startling aspect of affairs, the sound of military music was heard approaching along a contiguous street. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet letter, 1850.)
“Viri fortes confirmatbuntur.” Translated into English: “The bravery of the men will be encouraged.” (Henle, First Year Latin, 1958.)
As you can see, passive voice is used in historic documents, classics, and Latin, so the study of passive voice is imperative for success in a classical education.
The one type of writing in which I do prefer active voice is the instruction manual for the DVD player or the toaster oven. If I need clear information fast, I want active voice. So, lab reports will not be the place where I let my students experiment with passive voice. If, however, your student would like to read historic documents and classics, or to write about substantial ideas and themes themselves, they should learn to read and use passive voice well.
In their practice with passive voice, there is the risk that your student might lose their subject for a paragraph or two, and the reader may not be able to discern the meaning. If this happens, they may have used too much passive voice and they should rewrite the paragraph to clarify who or what the subject is for their reader. This may simply mean adding one active voice sentence to the beginning of the paragraph for clarity. It may also mean they should rewrite the paragraph in active voice retaining the best, most poetic sentence in passive voice as their conclusion for emphasis.
Passive voice is a poetic, passionate voice. Allow your students to play with it and you may find they are capable of expressing more than you expected in a poetic and passionate way. Just remind them that powerful things should be handled with caution. I hope many of our students will have important things to say and that they will be able to say them powerfully and passionately.