The most heated East-West argument I ever participated in was over grammar concept called the Passive Voice. The scene was a hotel in Amman, Jordan; the event an educational convention for teachers of English as a second language. The combatants: American native English speakers teaching English in Jordan who insisted the passive voice in the English language was undesirable and to be eliminated versus Jordanian Arabic-speaking administrators who insisted cultivation of the passive voice was a sign of deep educational achievement. As a fairly educated American specimen, I had done enough exercises in advanced English composition courses changing passive voice to active voice to know that active voice is one way to make writing clearer, more accurate and less ambigious. Among Americans at least, overdoing the passive voice is a sure sign of the novice.
Now in the hotel, an eighty-year-old American English teacher explained the scourge of Passive Voice more eloquantly. Suppose you take the sentence: “Taxes were raised.” The sentence has no subject, but it is still a complete sentence. That’s because it’s in passive voice. But to Americans it’s a very unsatisfactory sentence, becauase they want to know WHO raised taxes. In fact, that’s the only interesting part of the whole sentence, and why is it left out anyway????? The Passive Voice smacks of evasion.
Now that I have had time to look up passive voice and its correct usuage, I can say the two occasions where passive voice is appropriate is (1) the subject of the sentence is not known and (2) the subject of the sentence is not important. The classic example for both of these is a newpaper review of a play. It may not be known who is producing a particular play and it is certainly not important to the public. The author of the play, the main actors, the theater, and the quality of the performance are all much more important bits of information.
This week I have run across more public uses of the passive voice. In the Friday-Saturday edition of the Jordan Times: “The war was triggered after Hizbollah fighters crossed Israel’s northern border, killed three soldiers and returned to Lebanon with two captured Israeli soldiers.” The war was triggered. Finally I can understand the Arab love-affair with passive voice. How else could an Arab publication frankly discuss the events of the war. On the American side, this week U.S.Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in reference to the firing of 8 US attorneys, said “Mistakes were made,” echoing the late President Reagan when he commented on the Iran contra affair when the U.S. secretly sold weapons to Iran to raise money for the clandestine anti-Sandanista rebellion in Nicaragua. Passive voice to the rescue.