THE local papers don’t seem to have a rule against the passive voice, the less crisp, less forceful sibling of the active voice. They either don’t have a rule against it or they just can’t see how it can weaken and dilute a sentence. That’s a shame given how we’re such a rule-loving, law-abiding country.
Every so often, you see the passive voice rearing its ugly head, turning sentences into mere vehicles of inert information that leave you guessing: “So, who are the agents, the actors behind the central action in the sentence?”
If I were a passive voice police, it looks like I have my work cut out for me. With the barrage of news, voices, and opinions flooding the media in this season of rousing rhetoric and intense campaigning, business could well be brisk. I caught my first offender yesterday, the day after Nomination Day. Her name is Lee U-Wen, the reporter behind yesterday’s front page piece in the Business Times: For the first time, a fight for every seat.
Here are her opening paragraphs:
History was made on Tuesday when a contest was declared for all the 29 constituencies for the Sept 11 general election (GE), ensuring that there was no walkover declared on Nomination Day for the first time in Singapore since Independence.
There were a couple of close shaves – involving the opposition parties Singaporeans First (SingFirst) and the Reform Party (RP) – when there were lapses in their nomination forms, but these were fixed in time to prevent their teams from getting disqualified.
Here’s my suggestion:
For the first time since Singapore’s Independence, all 29 constituencies will be contesting for the General Election on Sept. 11, making this a landmark election without any walkovers. This was declared after all the parties and candidates had submitted their nomination forms—all in order—on Nomination Day yesterday.
Initial lapses in the paperwork of the opposition parties Singaporeans First (SingFirst) and the Reform Party (RP) almost threatened a walkover in two constituencies, but they were spotted and fixed in time.
Stiff, Stilted, and a Little Off
There’s nothing grammatically faulty with Ms. Lee’s opening paragraph, but what is it about Ms. Lee’s “History was made” line that sounds stiff and stilted, and just a little off?
So you say, “Well, great, ‘History was made,’ but by who?” Now, that’s tough. Was it the candidates who made history, or was it Singapore? Then you end up having to make writing choices like this:
(a) History was made by Singapore
(b) History was made by all nine parties and two independent candidates
(c) Singapore made history
(d) All nine parties and two independent candidates made history
I don’t even feel like doing an MCQ exercise on this because none of them sound right, though the active voice options sound a touch more sensible.
Repetition of a Passive Verb
My other beef with Ms. Lee’s opening paragraph is the appearance of “declared” twice: that’s passive voice multiplied by two.
I’ve used the verb only once, but have done so within the context of a parallel action and detail: “after all the parties and candidates had submitted their nomination forms—all in order—on Nomination Day yesterday.”
Saying “History Was Made” Not Once, But Twice
Ms. Lee could have tightened her prose more aggressively. Notice how her paragraph opens: “History was made.” Notice how it closes: “for the first time in Singapore since Independence.”
Those two phrases convey the same idea—a first, a first time—so couldn’t they be tightened and merged, rather than appearing as two scattered and separate entities—one at the start of the sentence and the other at the end?
Watch how I compressed mine:
For the first time since Singapore’s Independence, all 29 constituencies will be contesting for the General Election on Sep 11, making this a landmark election without any walkovers.
Notice I deleted “the” in Ms. Lee’s “all the 29 constituencies.”
When Not To Malign the Passive Voice
Now, enough of all my policing and nitpicking. I just want to say that the passive voice isn’t always bad. They can do wonders by shifting the subject-object focus. Consider these two sentences:
The cat chased the rat. (Active)
The rat was chased by the cat. (Passive)
The passive voice, in this instance, is superior to the active voice because it not only heightens the hot pursuit of prey by predator, it portrays the rat as a hopeless goner, bound for the bloodthirsty fangs and claws of Cat the Villain.
Which isn’t exactly the kind of story Reform Party’s M. Ravi intended, but it has a hint of it. Here’s what he said just three of four lines before his “Send vote for the PAP” gaffe on Nomination Day:
For far too long, the PAP has pissed and pushed us. We have been pushed and pushed and pushed. We shall be pushed no more. It is time to say enough and enough and to claim our country back. It is time to send a signal to the PAP: we are no longer second-class citizens and beggars of our own country.
Yes, we hear you, Mr. Ravi: “We have been pushed and pushed and pushed.” That’s a pretty strategic use of passive voice right there—so good you’re not going to get a passive voice summons from me.
Oh, and by the way, did we tell you we liked the repetition trick?
We invite you to share your thoughts if you have other editorial suggestions, or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any curious, odd encounters with language you’d like us to feature and fix.
“Improve It!” offers insights on how to revise, rewrite, snip, edit, move words around for style, clarity, and conciseness. We take a short extract from an article, polish it, and show you how and why we made the changes we did.