Passive Voice

Think back…way back…to your junior high grammar classes. Your teacher probably mentioned something called, "Passive voice." It's a way we phrase sentences when the noun, usually the person or thing responsible for the action of the verb, is relegated to the end of the sentence or is perhaps unknown. Along the lines of, "It was determined by the task force that the report needed further missional discernment."I clearly remember a college writing professor saying that passive voice is not a preferred way to write a sentence. Ever. It's like Tabasco: a little goes a long way.

Beginning writers tend to use passive voice because they think it sounds more intelligent. Lawyers love passive voice because, the logic goes, it focuses upon the action and not the person who did the thing s/he shouldn't have done. And politicians. For the love of Jesus do politicians love passive voice.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Chris Christie said, regarding the lane closure debacle, "Mistakes were made."

Passive voice.

I think any breathing human could figure out when lanes of traffic on a busy bridge were closed for no reason that involved safety or construction work, mistakes were made.

What we really wanted to know was who made the mistakes?

Gnomes? Unicorns? Vampires? Does Christie really have no idea who made some mistakes? Maybe so, but my observation is that passive voice shows up in our dialogue because we want to avoid responsibility.

Christie isn't the only one who uses passive voice. I've heard politicians from both sides of the aisle use it. I've heard it in the speeches President Obama gives. I've heard higher ups from Holy Mother Church use it when speaking about wrongs perpetrated by those whom they refuse to implicate. I've heard it when people whose acts were damaging to others speak of those acts as if they, too, were simply passive people in the wrongs.

Passive voice nuances the act, leaving us guessing as to who may be responsible for the act or non-act that hurt others. Passive voice passes the buck to the unknown actors. Mistakes were made; acts were perpetrated; people were hurt.

By whom?

The active voice of responsibility answers that question. I made mistakes. We perpetrated acts. We hurt people. Active voice owns the act and the consequences.

Active voice is holy language. It is the courageous voice of faith and trust, realizing we all make mistakes and hurt others with our mistakes.  A life of faith is not a life lived mistake-free or a life lived under the shame of, "Oh my gosh I screwed up so I need to mitigate it to make sure God still loves me." A life of faith is not concerned with saving face through grammatical manipulation. It is a life sure and certain of God's active love for us, a love that loves us in our glory and loves us in our mistakes. A life of faith doesn't need passive voice in confession. God knows who mucked it up, anyway.

We confess that we have sinned against you in thought and word and deed.

No passive voice there. It's all an active voice of faith.

A life of faith is lived in active voice, both in joyful triumphs and blindly bad mistakes. God invites us to say, "I made mistakes."

Only then can we fully live into the active voice of forgiveness of God.


Meredith Gould said…
You could predict I'd love this post because, as you know, I spent a great percentage of my professional life editing people out of the passive voice. Church folks are prime offenders, possibly because the passive voice is perceived as having more gravitas. In fact, it's deadly boring and pompous...not that I have an opinion.

I was so happy to read this: "A life of faith is lived in active voice..." Amen! A quotable quote for sure.

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