It Was a Passive Voice
Recently, my husband Steve and I spent a day away from home helping our oldest son move across two state lines. We left early in the morning and wouldn’t be back until evening, so we recruited our middle son, who lives nearby, to check in on our two Labrador Retrievers, Tilly and Harper.
Before I go any further, I should tell you that Tilly is 10 years old, has grown out of most of her bad habits, and generally has the run of the house, even when we’re gone. Harper, on the other hand, is only 20 months old—still a puppy as far as Labs go—and is limited to a crate when we are gone, mostly because bad habits like digging on the furniture and chewing on shoes continue to beset her.
When we stopped for lunch just south of Milwaukee, Steve checked in with Caleb, and he was just leaving our house. The dogs were fine; everything was fine. But when we arrived home a few hours later, things just seemed … oh I don’t know … off. Wet paper towels were floating in the trash can. A pair of my socks was lying in the middle of the living room. And upstairs, our youngest son’s shoe was sitting near the door in our bedroom, just one of the pair, despite the gate being up to restrict the dogs from going to the second floor of the house.
“Something weird must have happened,” I said to Steve, holding up my socks. “These were lying on the living room floor.”
“Must have been the dogs,” he said with a shrug.
“And this,” I held up Jacob’s shoe. “This was sitting near the door in our bedroom. And just the one. I can’t find the other.”
“But the gate was up.”
We talked for days about the strange appearance of the socks and the shoe, always referring to them mysteriously with the passive voice. And to be fair, with two dogs in the family, the passive voice finds its way into our language often. Mostly because things happen and we never know how. Water was spilled. Mud was tracked. Crumbs were dropped … and eaten. And passive verbs aren’t the only things dogs are good for; they elicit quite a lot of passive aggressiveness, too. Like the day I was taking a little too long fussing over my hair in the bathroom, and my husband told the dogs, “She’s going to be late, isn’t she?” But I digress.
This passive way we talk about the strange goings on in our house “eliminate the doer of the deed from view,” as Lawrence Weinstein writes in Grammar for a Full Life, and “reinforce the misunderstanding that things ‘just happen,’” when we know very well they did not. It was the dogs! Every time something goes missing or gets destroyed, it’s the dogs. Well, almost every time. And maybe it’s that little hint of uncertainty that keeps us speaking as if “no person (or cat)—or dog, in our case!—were involved.”
Of course there are other reasons, though, reasons I might not have even recognized were it not for Weinstein’s astute observations. For one, the passive voice is often invoked “to avoid being held accountable for bad decisions.” When we had one naughty dog, we assumed it was her fault. Now that we have two, we’re pretty sure we are to blame. If we blame the dogs outright every time a sock goes missing, it’s almost as if we are pointing a finger at ourselves.
Then there’s the issue of agency.
“In representing the events of life as happening with no person at the helm, choosing to act, the passive voice robs us over time of our core sense of agency,” Weinstein writes.
Here’s a confession: We don’t know what to do about our unruly dogs. So we talk about them as if the matter is completely out of our hands. But here’s another confession: Sometimes I feel helpless in the face of my unruly life, too. I talk about it as if I have no control.
“The plans were messed up.”
“The bill was paid late.”
“The article was rejected.”
“The branches were strewn across the back yard.”
Weinstein reminds us that we aren’t always victims. “Within certain, quite important limits, we remain the makers of our fate,” he writes. The passive voice can “lead us to forget that fact,” but other grammatical constructions, like transitive-active verbs, “keep the fact of life alive to consciousness, so that we are able to reshape the world anew from day to day, with at least some traces of a four-year-old’s gusto.”
So yes, it was the dog who brought the socks into the living room that day. Our son later confirmed it. But it was probably because I dropped them on the way downstairs. And our son also is the one who put the shoe in our bedroom after Harper ran through the house with it in her mouth. We still don’t know how she got it, but I did eventually locate the other one under our youngest son’s bed.
We may never know how it got there, but I have a good guess.
In his new book Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, Lawrence Weinstein invites readers into their own journey of well-being through the intentional uses of grammar. We invite you to join us as Charity Singleton Craig leads our discussion.
Grammar for a Full Life Book Club Announcement
June 2: Grammar to Take Life in Hand plus Grammar for Creative Passivity
June 9: Grammar for Belonging and Grammar for Freedom
June 16: Grammar for Morale, Grammar for Mindfulness, and Grammar for the End
Photo by Claudio Gennari, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: On Becoming Less Possessive - June 16, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: Chilling Out on the Grammar Rules - June 9, 2021
- Grammar for a Full Life Book Club: A Passive Voice - June 2, 2021