Leave a comment

The Passive Tense

And now, a rumination on language.

Some background:  Most people cannot speak or write English very well.  (This is not to say that I’m William Shakespeare, but I at least understand the proper mechanics and grammar.)  I am a grammar and vocabulary snob.  I worship the book On Writing by Stephen King.

There is a pervasive habit I’ve noticed in my coworkers, and once recognized I could never unsee it; it now haunts me daily, and I have one more reason to cringe when they speak or (God help me) write me an incoherent email.  Let’s see if you can see it:

“I was able to make some moves on the floor…”

“I ended up finding out those numbers…”

“We were able to finish the reticketing…”

“If you wind up being able to do that project…”

Are you annoyed yet?  Is it just me?  If it is, stop reading this; no one’s forcing you.  This post is admittedly self-indulgent anyway.

Those godforsaken “helping” phrases.  “Was able.”  “Ended up.”  My coworkers, one in particular, use these phrases all the time.  It’s a highly passive (-agressive?) way of speaking/writing that only reminds me of how much they talk and how little they say.  To bolster my argument, I’ll let Uncle Stevie say it better than I could:

“Verbs come in two types, active and passive.  With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something.  With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.  The subject is just letting is happen…  I think timid writers like [passive verbs] for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners.  The passive voice is safe.  There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria.  I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty…  The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’ clock because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know.’  Purge this quisling thought!  Don’t be a muggle!  Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge!  Write The meeting’s at seven.  There, by God!  Don’t you feel better?”  (On Writing, 116)

I think the people I work with speak in this manner for exactly the reasons given: to avoid conflict, and to inflect some imagined authority.  More words don’t make you sound smarter; simplest is often best.  Or, to put it in the words of another bard, say what you need to say.


I am annoyed by this habit.  //  This habit annoys me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: