An Apologia for the Passive Voice

Ironically, I have learned more about English by translating dead languages than I have in actual English classes.

Everyone ought to learn another language simply for the experience of having to translate from one language into another. And it should not be mere stilted translation, but real, elegant translation from one idiom to another.

One of the things that I find most irritating about English classes and their approach to writing is their attempt to abolish the passive voice in the English language.

Granted, our passive system is absurd and awkward, but I don’t believe that we should abolish it. Rather, I believe we should embrace it and emphasize the proper use of the passive voice.

One of the virtues of Latin or Greek is its flexible word order, which allows for a greater flexibility in how authors can present information. One of the best features of Latin is its ability to place the important character or subject at the beginning of a sentence. “Topic fronting” is an extremely useful rhetorical device which can increase the comprehension of a reader. Ancient authors do this constantly, and English often lacks the flexibility that would allow a translator to reflect this.

Another feature of both Latin and Greek is its ability to present information in logical or even chronological order. The nouns and their modifiers could be radically displaced to indicate chronological order of events, and yet English insists that we must put everything into a nice subject-verb-object order, or else use cleft sentences.

However, some of these features indeed CAN be preserved through proper use of the passive voice, such as preserving the “topic” if it is at the beginning of a Latin or Greek sentence. The “topic” very well may be the object of the verb, which means that an author might have placed the object at the beginning of the sentence.

To use a simple example: Hectorem Achilles occidit. Literally, it means “Achilles killed Hector.” This is probably a gross oversimplification of what can be ridiculously complicated, but I want to illustrate that by putting Hector first, the author draws our attention to Hector as the main focus of the sentence, even though he his not the grammatical subject of the verb. So, if we want to be perfectly correct in our English, one translates, “Achilles killed Hector.”

However, another option that we have is translating the sentence passively to preserve the fronted topic. “Hector was killed by Achilles.” The meaning is essentially the same, but we retain Hector at the front of the sentence, just like the original. From there, you can debate whether it is acceptable or not to convert an active to a passive, but that’s another debate.
The point is: sometimes we NEED to use the passive voice.

Another equally important thing worth noting about the passive is that most languages don’t like to “subjectify” inanimate objects. E.g. we don’t think it is acceptable to say, “An arrow killed Achilles.” Now, I suppose in the heights of poetic fervor one might think that is an acceptable thing to say, but in most contexts, it isn’t really good English. Rather, it is more appropriate to say, “Achilles was killed by (means of) an arrow.” This can be used in a number of highly rhetorical ways. For example, if Achilles were killed by an anonymous bowman, we could emphasize that with a passive.

It is very regrettable that the passive voice has been all but abolished in usual English classes, but it is very possible to use a passive to good effect. Instead of telling everyone to stop using it altogether, perhaps teachers should explain how passives ought to be used.

Once I realized that the passive voice is actually a very useful tool, it seemed like there were new avenues of expression that I had never realized before, and new subtleties to explore. Instead of focusing on how not to use a passive constructive, I focus on whether a passive construction would help me get my point across more effectively. My ability to write English improved almost instantly.

But I have a Latin professor to thank for that.


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