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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Passive Voices: When A Verb Reveals The Heart

"You may not use any 'be' verbs in your paper."

It was a bold statement and I was well aware of how it would affect my students, an expectation that proved correct when their mouths dropped open, their eyes bugged out, and a gasp of dismay filled the room. The senior English class had been shuffled off to me mid-semester in hopes of salvaging their deficient writing skills. Excited about the challenge, but overwhelmed with the task, I spent much of class time teaching them a holy dissatisfaction with their current quality of written expression and demanding that they show me their intelligent, intricate, God-reflecting souls on paper. They had made some progress. But they weren't done yet.

After shuffling through the simpler problems of comma rules and unclear pronoun references, we had come to the issue of strong verbs. No linking verbs. No "is" or "are." No "was" or "were." Their papers must flourish like living gardens full of meaning in which word weeds were not permitted. But they stood on the edge of their plots of land and looked with despair at the tiny, forbidden words. Most of all, they felt the impossibility of removing all passive voice from the papers. It took weeks, but eventually they shifted their language and began to turn "Sally was given a flower by her sister" to "Sally's sister gave her a flower." Which soon, to my extreme delight, became "Sally's sister surprised her with a flower."

Like many first year English majors, I developed my hatred for passive voice in my freshman English class. I chased it out of my papers with fiery passion and guarded every sentence from the deleterious effects of weak syntax. "Live!" I told my words. "Express!" I demanded of myself. I knew subconsciously that passive voice had a place, but it was mostly considered a mistake. I think this phase of my life was necessary. It taught me how the right word matters and makes the difference between communicating and saying.

But the construct of active verbs attracted my already law-driven heart to a form of self worship. Already addicted to the self-righteous arrogance of doing things for God, my obsession for active rather than passive verbs revealed my dysfunctional relationship with him. Nothing was done for me, passive. I did everything, active.

Nowhere is this more evident than my journaled prayers from college.

"God, I will love you."
"God, I will serve you." 
"God, I will go wherever you want." 
"God, I will destroy sin in my life."

These were my frantic efforts to do what I felt I had to do to be loved. I became the source of all my own grace, which is not grace, but self sufficiency and death. I did not realize that the passive "be loved" is not achieved by activity "do." Passive verbs are gifts. They are expressions of what is done and what is given.

The other day I heard a song that struck me for its use of passive voice.
The main line is "stop holding on and just be held."

The linguistic change is minor.
From "hold on" to "be held" you do not change the verb but the position of the action.

I did not know that there would be so much peace and joy in a passive verb.

I did not know that I don't have to hold on, because I am held.


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