I learned about passive voice through an ultimatum: I was to eliminate all “to be” verbs from my ninth grade History paper upon pain of a docked letter grade. As such, upon composing my essay, I pounded “Ctrl-F” on my keyboard to smoke out those vermin of the English language. “Served as” replaced “was,” “exists” established itself in lieu of “is,” and “act” or “remain” percolated through sentences where I had eradicated the word “be.” With my finished piece respiring hot ink from my printer born in the 90s, I submitted the essay, secure that I had accomplished my mission: the annihilation of the passive voice.
It took me a while to excavate the landfill of my exposition to find the true meaning of the passive voice. Doing so required I contrast passive sentences with active ones–those exercises in verbs and metaphors that read with enthusiasm and clarity. In playing with language, I found my favorite rhetorical toy and the superlative genre of words: the verb. Adverbs are crutches of the profoundly lazy; adjective-writers love dictionaries and thesauri and flaunt their vocabularies to exiguous effect, because they manage neither to impress nor to empathize with their audiences. Nouns exhaust themselves at the boundaries of vocabulary, but verbs–verbs sketch asymptotes at the limits of imagination. Verbs can do anything.
I edited an English major’s paper once; she thanked me for my red marks with an eye-roll, declaring in so many words that rules of standard English do not apply to those with experience in literature. My background in science, I guess, did not translate to my authority in the written word. The idea has infiltrated our attitudes that, if you’re good enough, you don’t have to follow the rules. I would offer that experienced writers ought to embrace rules of usage not as law but as guidelines for enhancing and clarifying prose. As in all truth-pursuits, we must aspire toward humility; we must struggle always to learn more.