Me: (curiously) Honey, have you seen the trash bags?
The Boy: I think they got put on top of the fridge.
Wait. What the fuck just happened here. Did the trash bags put themselves on the fridge? Did the dogs do it? I can barely reach the top of the fridge so it can’t have been me. How did they get up there? Ohhhhhhh. The Boy must have done it. What’s wrong? Why won’t he tell me? Why is he using the passive voice again?
Passive voice. That enemy of the people, that scourge of legal and scientific writing, that outmoded artifact of … you get the point.
Passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the noun that should be the object appears as the subject of a sentence. You can usually spot passive construction by looking for a form of “to be” and a past participle.
I write this shit all day long: The car was parked adjacent to the train track on which the 3:30 pm train was scheduled to arrive. Who parked it? Probably my dumbass client, but I’m never going to say “Mr. Jackhole parked on the tracks for the 3:30 train.” You find a lot of passive voice in legalese. You find it in administrative reports. The most common example? “Mistakes were made.” Around my house you can also hear “The coffee was finished” or “The eggs were used up” or “the milk was emptied.” (Science gets a pass on this one because we don’t care who chilled the superconductor, just how cold it was.)
You know what you don’t find in passive construction? Ownership. Responsibility. Being a goddamn grownup about your mistakes. Just admitting “I drank the last of the milk and didn’t write it on the shopping list.” Instead, around here it’s “milk, although empty, wasn’t written on the list.”
Why not say “I put the trash bags on the fridge.” Who else could have done that? “The water glass was knocked over.” By whom, Not Me from the Family Circus? Please, Only Other Person In My House, just say you did it. I don’t care, I just need to know where the goddamn trash bags are. And while I’m on the subject of the trash, what the actual fuck-that-you-are-not-getting-tonight do you mean when you say “the trash needs to be taken out?” I know. It’s overflowing the step-on can that we got so the Fucking Mutt would stop eating it. Are you passive-aggressively asking me to take the trash out? Are you volunteering? It is, after all, your chore. Says so on the Chore Board and everything.
When I identify a problem around the house, I say things like “Crapdoodle, I need to clean that bookshelf off before the shit from my old office falls and kills one of the dogs.” Unless it’s the shitweasel. Sorry, shitweasel. Try to stand under the ConLaw textbook, it’ll be over quickly.
When The Boy identifies house chores, he says “That bookshelf needs to be cleaned.”
The issue is, I can’t tell if I’m supposed to do it, if he’s volunteering, or if he doesn’t care if it ever gets cleaned. Then we end up resenting each other for not doing it. Also the fucking bookshelf is still covered in shit from my old office.
I tell you this, Gentle Reader, that you may learn from our errors. When your English teacher warned you against the passive voice, what he really meant was “your wife will kill you if you blame the trash bags for being where you put them.”