Sunday, March 22, 2009

Use passive; lose power.

We were talking about words having power. Today we talk about words losing power - in the passive voice.

Let's take a look at some memorable and powerful words re-written, not in the active voice with the subject doing the action, but in the passive voice with the receiver of action in the subject position. Let's begin with an easy one - the slogan of a brand name that will be quite familiar to you:

Nike slogan (re-written in the passive voice): "It must be done by you!" Can you see that on billboards around America? Doesn't have the same ring to it as "Just do it!", does it? How about naming a movie, that has just been released, in the passive voice:

Movie (in the passive voice): "You are loved by me, man!" Doesn't grab you? How about, "I love you, man."

You may find your escape in movies while others find their escape in drugs. To them we suggest, "No, should be said by you to drugs!" That's a lot for a bumper sticker, isn't it? It will obviously work less well than, "Just say no to drugs," which didn't work that well anyway.

But, it is good advice, isn't it? "Just say no to drugs." The subject is "you understood," the action verbs is "say" and the object is "no." Simple. Just like this time-honored good advice, "The consumption of an apple a day by you, and the doctor will be kept away by the apple." Too passive for your taste? Me, too. I prefer the power of Subject-Action Verb-Object, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

If you're like the rest of us, we remember certain advertising slogans better than we remember important birthdays. Does anyone remember this slogan: "The Charmin must not be squeezed by you"? No? Well then, do you remember this popular McDonald's message, "It is being loved by me"? No? How about this 80's McDonald's slogan, "A break is deserved by you today"? I'm sure you don't. It just doesn't stimulate the way this active voice message did, "You deserve a break today", which, by the way, has to be one of the best ad slogans of all time (who among us does not believe he or she deserves a break today).

Perhaps because we all want a break, we think less about what we might do for others. You may remember that John F. Kennedy asked us in his inaugural address to do something. In the passive voice I translate his inaugural request thus, "The question should not be asked what can be done for me by my country. The question should be asked what can be done by me for my country." Does that inspire you?

One of the masters of inspiration, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in front of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC, and told the world, "The mountain has been visited by me!" Wait, that wasn't it, was it?! No, I think he said, "I've been to the mountain." And, Winston Churchill motivating the British during WW II, said, "We will fight on the land, on the seas, in the towns...." When he wanted to move and inspire his audience, he used the active voice, as did JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, when you want your words to have force and power, use active voice. Remember, though, that passive voice has useful functions, especially to avoid confrontation. But, if you're testifying before a grand jury and you want your peers to believe you, don't say, "Sexual relations with that woman were not had by me." Even if it's not true, you're better off using active voice!

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