Your favorite show has been canceled.
Your favorite show has been canceled by Republicans.
Republicans canceled your favorite show.
Which makes you angriest?
Behold the power of the divine passive. Let's talk about its abuse.
Before we get there, though, let's run quickly through what the divine passive is. Most of us learn two grammatical voices in school: active and passive. Consider these sentences:
The dog bites the person."Dog" is the grammatical subject (that is, the sentence is constructed to be about the dog) and "person" is the grammatical object (that is, the target of the verb). "Dog" is also the agent--the entity that causes the action of the verb--while "person" is the patient--the entity that is acted upon. A sentence where the agent is also the subject is said to use the active voice--it is a sentence about agents doing things, essentially.
The person is bitten by the dog.In this case, even though the sentence describes the same action, and therefore the agent and patient are the same, "person" is now the subject. The agent, "dog," has moved to a prepositional phrase. This sentence is in the passive voice--it is a sentence about things happening to a patient, incidentally caused by an agent.
The person is bitten.I said "incidentally" because, grammatically speaking, "by the dog" in the second sentence was optional. You can drop it without rendering the sentence ungrammatical, and the result is the divine passive: the agent vanishes entirely. We are now in a world where things happen to passive patients, not because some agent causes them to, but because that is the nature of existence.
I hate the divine passive. Oh, sometimes it's okay--I used it myself to define "patient" a couple of paragraphs ago--but it should be used very sparingly. The passive voice is for when you want to focus attention on the patient, but the divine passive erases the agent entirely. Thus, it should only be used when the agent is truly irrelevant, which is pretty rare.
Why does this matter? "Mistakes were made," that's why it matters.
The divine passive allows the speaker to erase the agents that cause action, and thereby erase responsibility. It encourages passivity by asserting that events are the result of impersonal cosmic forces so vast they can't even be named, as opposed to the actions of agents.
Compare another pair of sentences:
One in ten people is unemployed.Starting to see how it's possible for the right to blame unemployment on laziness?
Companies are not employing one in ten people.
One in seven Americans is denied health care.And so on. It's amazing how many issues get much harder to do nothing about when you restate them in active voice.
We deny one in seven Americans health care.
And of course, let's not forget the single most evil phrase in the English language, which derives its power entirely from the divine passive: "supposed to." We're so used to that particular instant of the divine passive that most of us never stop to ask, to quote the endlessly brilliant web comic Triangle and Robert, "Who is doing the supposing and what are their qualifications for doing so?"
Consider the vast difference in norm-setting power between these sentences:
Girls are supposed to like shopping.How much vastly better a place would the world be for, well, everyone if we replaced all instances of "X are supposed to Y" with "I suppose X Y?"
I suppose girls like shopping.
Down with the divine passive!