Service of the Passive Tense
April 22nd, 2010
Categories: Arrogance, Communications, Information, Language, Manner of Speech, Passive Tense, Speaking
People use the passive tense to address something painful or uncomfortable such as a death or firing: “Joe will be missed.” Those words are removed from the situation and don’t tug at heartstrings. They are impersonal and far less difficult to say than “I or we will miss Joe.” I’ve always felt that this is why people who normally speak clearly revert to an archaic, haughty turn-of-phrase like this.
A boss or parent who wants to duck confrontation might say, “Responsibility must be taken,” instead of “Felicia, please make this happen-I’m counting on you.” The first version is so fuzzy that the speaker risks nobody within hearing distance picking up that gauntlet. The effect? I predict inactivity and more increasingly desperate passive pronouncements.
Some think the passive voice is appropriate for formal occasions because it makes them sound elegant, like a proper English butler. “It is expected that our members enjoy the holiday punch,” makes my eyes glaze over and not because I’ve had too much of the spiked potion. So much more, well, punch accompanies “Members crowd the bar from Thanksgiving through New Years for the frisky fisherman’s punch.”
The passive comes in handy when a writer doesn’t know something or can’t be bothered to look it up. “Likenesses of US Presidents are carved into a South Dakota mountain,” sounds as though there’s a chunk of information somewhere when actually the writer was too lazy to look up that “Gutzon Borglum sculpted the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln into Mount Rushmore, located in the Keystone, S.D. vicinity.”
Do you use the passive tense? When? Does hearing it spoken annoy you more than reading it?