Tuesday, April 08, 2008

the passive voice. (or, how not to say yr sorry.)

active voice: 'i have eaten the plums that were in the ice box'.
passive voice: 'the plums that were in the ice box were eaten'.

using the passive voice is generally considered bad form. it's obfuscatory-- sometimes lazily imprecise, sometimes downright equivocal. it often indicates a lack of confidence-- not just uncertainty about who the actor is, but a lack of confidence in one's own authority to say so. students notoriously write this way: "it might be argued that...", "it is often said...", so that whatever claim is being made, having issued from nowhere in particular, seems to issue from everywhere, from the vast universe itself. but when we use the passive voice we often fail to communicate all of the relevant information, or to acknowledge the weakness of our own claims (is it often said? who says it? is it credible?), and even when we've just moved all of the information around ('the plums that were in the ice box were eaten by me'), we've shifted the meaning all around, made the object the subject and the subject an afterthought.

the passive voice leaves us with an actor-less act, a mover-less move, a claimant-less claim. no one is particular seems to be responsible for the act, the move, the claim. when we want to know or say more about it, where should we look? who can we ask? inspect? praise? blame? the plums that were in the icebox have been eaten, and you were probably saving them for breakfast! now you can no more have them for breakfast if i ate them than you could if the man in the moon ate them, and that's a fact. if what you're concerned about is your relationship to the plums, then the passive construction might give you all the information worth having. but if you're concerned with our relationship (you and me-- friend and friend, guest and host, narrator and reader), you might care very much whether it was me or the man and the moon, and where i acknowledge i ate them, you might rightly discern some difference in meaning between my saying so in a way that highlights my involvement as opposed to downplaying my involvement.

i'm reading a book right now (which i quote from in my last post) by a philosopher named nick smith, and it's about apologies. as it turns out, the passive voice has a sordid history in the realm of apology. it's the difference between "i'm sorry i hurt you" and "i'm sorry you were hurt" (coming from the injurer in question). i'm sorry i. i'm sorry you. as you might guess, smith argues that apologies in the passive voice are bad apologies. passive apologies may amount, smith explains, to thin and self-serving expressions of sympathy, meant to do the relationship-repairing work of an admission of wrong doing without the wrong-doer actually having to admit any such thing. these apologies have the same general problem that all passive constructions have-- they aren't specific enough, and according to smith one of the keys to apologies is being very clear about just who is apologizing and what that person or entity is apologizing for. and in the case of apologies the passive voice has the particularly devastating effect of failing to assign or emphasize responsibility in a case where the whole point of the phrase is to so assign and emphasize. this all makes good sense-- everyone has felt the maddening insult of the passive apology-- the feeling of wanting her to be sorry she did it, sorry because it was wrong of her, when all she's sorry for is that you were somehow hurt, sorry that you feel that way.

yes. totally. i more than agree. but, listen, i decided a long time ago that praise and blame and Moral Responsibility are a shady business in this vast world of causes. and this is the part where i'm suppose to explain and talk about metaphysical commitments. meh. the idea, roughly, is that to keep the idea of a clearly delineated individuals buck-stops-here-responsible for clearly delineated acts, you're going to have to commit yourself to the existence of entities like Souls and external Values and Unmoved Movers-- all manner of simultaneously powerful and unverifiable stuff that does the explaining-- and even that probably won't get you what you want. if you don't want to have to argue for the existence of stuff like that, then what you're likely to have instead is a hard time thinking of people or acts as discrete units and moral responsibility as so easy to define and assign. blah, blah, you've heard it all before, dear readers. anyway, by metaphysical commitments (ontological commitments, more specifically), i just mean the foundational commitments that we are or aren't willing to make about what kinds of things exist (we've almost come full circle, see, we're almost there). it's important when i make a claim about the world that i'm not half-consciously helping myself to belief in some entity that, if i thought about it, i wouldn't actually say i believe in.

ok, i haven't finished. i just inched a little further. someday soon i'm going to bring it all home, tie it all together. i do have some idea how. just not all idea how, or time.


Miranda said...

Reading the last two words of your post I wondered what promises might have to do with apologies. In my personal experience they are often linked in a chronological way. As in, "I'm sorry I did such and such; I PROMISE I won't do it again." Does stating an apology in the passive voice allow one to take less responsibility for future actions as well? I feel like this formulation also happens in American politics.

I also appreciated the reassurance that "metaphysical commitments" won't be too obscure. Can't wait!

Lowry said...

As one who has many times undertaken to explain the passive voice and its insidious, pernicious ways, I say: nice job.

My favorite example: Ronald Reagan's immortal "Mistakes were made."

I don't think this is what you're talking about, but there is a whole nother use of "to be" which I am fascinated by (and which you can take up later at some point in your copious spare time), and that is the use of it to say that one thing "is" something else, in particular its use to generate metaphor by saying that a thing "is" something that it clearly is not.
So, not to signify existence, but to...what?