NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 5

For the first time in this experiment, I find myself relieved to agree with the Practical, and on no less a subject than the passive voice: The passive voice is often talked about, but rarely defended. This is a travesty. I am uncommonly fond of the passive voice, because it is important and useful. The difference between the example sentences above is a nuance, but one of the best things about language is its ability to convey very fine shades of distinction. Telling beginning writers/students to avoid the passive voice as though it is the writerly equivalent of a cravat or corset is leaving out a very useful technique. It is one of the many things that makes me grumpy when I read George Orwell.

Orwell's objection to the passive voice is that it allows the result to stand out more than the agent. So that instead of saying, "I screwed up," a politician might say, "Mistakes were made." And there is some truth to that. But there is also a case to be made for keeping the passive voice, even in political speech. For instance: the celebrated phrase: "all men are created equal." There's your passive voice right there. The Declaration of Independence is a far from passive document, and this phrase more than any other has become an axe to wield against anything resembling inequality (as opponents of gay marriage are in the process of finding out). And though it goes on to mention that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, it is not the Creator or the question of his existence that is important in this passage. It is people. For this reason, it is stronger and clearer to say that men are created or are endowed, since through the passive voice it becomes an existential condition. Man is a creature with rights.

For contrast, imagine this sentiment in the active voice: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, that the Creator endowed them with certain unalienable Rights. Man -- political, democratic, revolutionary man -- has all but disappeared from the text. He goes from the verb's subject to its object. And despite the presence of the word unalienable, it stands to reason that if God endows you with something, he could just as well un-endow you if he ever felt like it.

As is, strangely, the passive voice becomes the stronger voice, the voice that lets man take an active role in the creation of a new system of government.