They say it divinely


By Susan Allen

Cooper Point Journal (Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA)

January 24, 1985


When I was six and seven, I enjoyed reading nursery rhymes. I could read most of them easily, and their simple, direct language evoked clear and delightful images. One nursery rhyme, however, always bothered me. It went, "Tom, Tom, the piper's son, stole a pig and away he run. The pig was eat and Tom was beat, which sent him howling down the street." Who ate the pig? Who beat Tom? Did the same person who ate the pig also beat Tom? If so, was that fair? 'This was my first encounter with what Richard Mitchell calls "Divine Passive" in his book, Less Than Words Can Say.


Divine Passive is a voice that declares action in a sentence an Act of God. In active voice, Tom stole a pig. In passive voice, a pig was stolen by Tom. In Divine Passive (voice), a pig was stolen. Like a bolt of lightning, the event just "happens." The author doesn't assign any responsibility for the act, he gives the reader only half the story.


Besides making a nursery rhyme bothersome, Divine Passive also obscures important information. "Food prices were raised twenty percent this month.” Who or what raised them? “Food prices were raised twenty percent this month by wholesalers." That is better, but the passive voice remains. The sentence lacks energy. It is monotonous and awkward. "Wholesalers raised food prices twenty percent this month." Why not say so in the first place?


Divine Passive coaxes the reader to allow the author a "given." It appears to give complete information, "Food prices were raised." Divine Passive is a lot like They. You know what They say, and They are always right.


Divine Passive is dangerous. It is dangerous because the reader will not usually ask who is acting. It is considered rude to ask, "Sez who?" Did you catch that? Who considers it rude? I, the author? The Reagan administration? They? The subject of the sentence is absent. By asserting, in passive voice, "It is considered rude by bureaucrats to say ’Sez who?', I let you know who "considers." But again, the sentence is monotonous and awkward. Rather, I should write, “Bureaucrats consider it rude to say, 'Sez who?'" However, by using Divine Passive, the actor remains an anonymous force considering actions rude, raising prices, or believing Elvis has really been kidnapped by aliens.


Divine Passive is also dangerous because it sounds official. “Grain shipments to Ethiopia have been temporarily delayed." If this ran along the bottom of my television screen while I was watching "Martin at the Movies," I would accept it as fact. I may not even wonder who had delayed the shipments or who released the information. The sentence “tells all" without telling the most important part: who is delaying.

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