Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Dark Divinity of Passivity

Which of these three sentences makes you saddest?

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.
Companies are not employing one in ten people.
Starting to see how it's possible for the right to blame unemployment on laziness?
One in seven Americans is denied health care.
We deny one in seven Americans 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.

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.
I suppose girls 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?"

Down with the divine passive!


  1. "you are supposed to..." has shifted its effective meaning, too, from "it is believed that you..." to "you ought to..."

    (There are lots of ways to say "you ought to" in English, without ever saying who thinks it. Russian, too - I translated a few pages of technical manual once, and it used something like eight different formulations.)

    I'm not a Sapir-Whorfian at all, but I do still think that the way things are phrased influences the way people think about them. Consider "illegal immigrants" vs "refugees" vs "asylum seekers" vs "economic migrants".

    1. See, I think linguistic relativism is one of those things where the strong formulation is too strong to be likely to be true, but the weak formulation is kind of a no-brainer. I think it's definitely true that phrasing influences how people think on a question; heck, it's a major factor in designing surveys. How you ask a question can heavily influence how people answer it. Which, I think, is why this kind of thing matters.

  2. Strictly speaking some of your examples of misusing passive are not passive at all.

    "I lack thingy" isn't a passive voice sentence, for example, (even if the word for lack in Latin is, as I recall, deponent. Nevermind, I checked and Cassell's has no idea what I'm talking about offering only active verbs. Maybe it was Greek? Maybe I imagined it.)


    There are lots of ways to say "you ought to" in English, without ever saying who thinks it.

    This one I don't even need to look up to be sure. (But I did anyway.) "Ought to" is impersonal in Latin. Always third person it can be translated as "It ought to be the case that..." Or you can just take the clause it rules and make the subject of that your subject. "It ought to be the case that boys like pink fingernail polish" becomes, "Boys ought to like pink fingernail polish."

    The Latin word is "oportet, -tere, -tuit" and like I said, it's impersonal. It never has a subject (except insofar as any finite Latin verb has a subject contained in its ending), we supply the subject as the amorphous "it" or by rearranging the form of the sentence.

    You can also get at "ought to" via "debeo, dēbēre, dēbuī, dēbitum," which means "to owe" the idea being that your transferring the meaning to the metaphoric and what you owe is owed to fate/logic/necessity/natural law, thus you should/must/ought to do it.


    Leaving Latin aside, good article.

    1. You're right; I don't know what I was thinking. I'm going to edit those sentences to "are denied health care" and "we deny"; unfortunately, I can't do that until I get home, because the browser I'm forced to use at work is crap.

      I know "unemployed" is a bit borderline, too, but I choose to consider it a participle being used to form the passive, rather than a participle being used as an adjective.

      Any others I'm missing? This post was written hastily, alas, which is less than ideal for a grammar post...

    2. This post was written hastily, alas, which is less than ideal for a grammar post...

      Yeah, I was in a panic that my grammar post was going to be full of problems, fortunately I was able to get two last minute proofreaders.


      Any others I'm missing?

      Took a quick look over it (I'm low on time) and I didn't see any. All that I caught was a typo: "the agetnt and patient".


      I would like to add that in cases where the agent is unknown using passive without agent is quite useful as it saves us the trouble of adding "Someone or something or some group," to sentences. Which is what you were doing in the sentence you pointed to where you used it.

    3. "I would like to add that in cases where the agent is unknown using passive without agent is quite useful as it saves us the trouble of adding "Someone or something or some group," to sentences."

      This is true, but as I said, I feel this use of the divine passive is correct but pretty rare, while its abuse to obscure a known agent is much more common.

    4. Okay, I updated the article to fix "agetnt" and the health care example.

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I'm a science communicator, which means I spend a lot of time "translating" scientific statements into things that the public can understand. Scientific writing is absolutely riddled with the divine passive because clearly, science is completely objective and done by God him/herself or natural forces, not people. I talked a lot about Science Studies in graduate school, and while I believe that field of study goes a little too far into saying science is subjective, they have a good point that science is done by people. Plus, passive voice just makes things really confusing and unclear. Active voice is almost always clearer.


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