I’m a language person, as you know if you’ve seen my Twitter rants on the incorrect usage of words like notorious and fulsome. Words matter. Not only that, but the arrangement of the words matters, giving us that thing we call grammar. I love grammar, partly because I like the orderly structure of it, but even more because grammar allows us to be precise in communication. Grammar is about things like tense, which tells us exactly when something happens. I eat cereal and I’m eating cereal are both present tense sentences, but the first is the simple present and the second is the present progressive. If your friend calls in the middle of breakfast and asks what you’re doing, you automatically respond with the second, even if you never heard of the present progressive tense. Grammar is hardwired into our brains, and we make grammatical choices every time we open our mouths.
We now also have computer software that checks our grammar, just in case we don’t have English-teacher friends to do it for us. When I write something, I always run a grammar check, just to be sure everything is clear. It usually reminds me not to start sentences with conjunctions. I know that’s incorrect. But sometimes I want to emphasize a point. My grammar check may also tell me not to use sentence fragments. Seriously, though?
One thing almost everybody gets snagged on with grammar check is the use of passive voice. Most grammar software programs hate passive voice. If you’re not a grammar person, you probably aren’t sure what passive voice even is, but it just sounds like it must be weak writing, right? You don’t want to be a passive person. Software seems to look at sentences as if they were people – let’s make sure they all stay active!
Except sometimes keeping all sentences in the active voice is ridiculous or impossible. Here’s a sentence in the passive voice, taken from an HGTV show today:
The house was built in 1890.
It’s passive because the subject of the sentence, the house, performs no action. The actors – those doing the building – aren’t in the sentence. That may well be because we don’t know who they are. If I try to change the sentence to the active voice, I get
Some people whose identities are unknown built the house in 1890.
That’s a silly sentence, so HGTV’s original passive-voice sentence works much better, and they’re right to use it. When we’re writing sentences about houses, it seems logical not to expect them to be active, but what about human beings?
There are times when there is a good reason that a sentence focuses on the person receiving the action rather than on the actor.
Thousands of soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.
That headline and others like it in 1940 gave hope to those at home. Later, maybe, they would hear about how the rescue took place and who performed it, but their immediate need was to be reassured that thousands of soldiers, their loved ones, were safe. In that moment, those who had been rescued were the most important.
Here’s another use of the passive voice.
Stones and bottles were thrown during the demonstration.
Now things get a little murky. This sentence uses the passive voice to focus on stones and bottles without saying who threw them. We’re writing a journalistically neutral story, and we don’t want to place blame. Besides, it looked like everybody was throwing stones and bottles, so how can we know who started it? The grammar is correct, but the ethics? Maybe not.
Later, maybe the follow-up story on that demonstration will say things like.
A man was injured.
Arrests were made.
Laws were broken.
Grammatically, the subjects of these sentences did nothing; something was done to them. They did not act; they were acted upon. We don’t know who injured the man, who made the arrests, or who broke the laws. The passive voice can be a convenient grammatical hiding place. Listen to how often a politician on the news says, “Mistakes were made.”
In the Gospels, Jesus uses the word forgiven nineteen times; in eighteen of those instances, he uses the passive voice.
You are forgiven.
Your sins are forgiven.
Their sins will be forgiven them.
There’s no question about who is doing the forgiving. In each instance, Jesus could have said, “I forgive you.” Why did he hide himself grammatically? When he could have been naming himself as the divine actor, he instead excluded himself from the sentence, pointing us back to ourselves.
We have adopted that use of the passive voice. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are blessed. But have we taken what Jesus did and turned it backward? In grammar, as in all things, God has acted, and we have received. Jesus made us the subject of those sentences, and we accept that gratefully in our repetitions. The difference is that Jesus spoke in the second person – you – and we repeat in the first person – we. Jesus kept himself out of the sentence to focus on us; our repetition in the passive voice focuses us on – us.
Maybe Jesus put us in that grammatical place because it’s usually the subject that performs the action. His use of you as subject moves us into an active role. If we are forgiven, loved, blessed, it’s because God has acted on our behalf. If Jesus makes us the subjects, it’s because we are to act in his name. We forgive. We love. We bless.