Grammar and the Passive American


Modern English . . . is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration. ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Our difficulties as Americans and as human beings do not stem from the government. They stem, instead, from the words and concepts and ideas that take root and grow in our minds ' from the ways in which, as one word and one thought connects and relates to the next to create meaning, we conceptualize ourselves and our lives.

The Greeks and Romans lived in the same material world we live in. But we have computers and automobiles and televisions ' things they could not have imagined. And, simply put, we have them because we conceptualize the world differently than they did. They looked at a beach and saw sand. We look at it and see computer chips.

People once conceptualized lightning as a punishment from God, and as a result of that conception, they believed that obedience to God would make them less susceptible to being hit. Doctors once believed that too much blood in your body caused fevers, and as a result of that conception, they bled people to reduce their fevers. In 1799, doctors bled George Washington so much that he cooled off rather permanently. We now conceptualize these things differently, and as a result of these conceptions, we take different preventative and remedial steps.

If we conceptualize alcoholism as a 'weakness of the spirit,' we seek a spiritual healer, like a minister. If we conceptualize it as a 'physical disease,' we seek a physical healer, like a doctor. If we conceptualize it as a 'mental disease,' we seek a mental healer, like a psychiatrist.

If we want to find the possible defects in our thoughts, then, that lead us into difficulties, we need to discover how we conceptualize the world. Theodore Dalrymple's recent book Life at the Bottom: the Worldview That Makes the Underclass is an excellent examination of how a person's conceptualization of himself, his life, and his world ' the words and ideas and concepts in his head ' can, essentially, destroy him.

One way an individual can begin looking at and examining the thoughts and concepts in his own head is to look at them grammatically. After all, before we can think about individual thoughts, it only stands to reason that we must first consider the matter of thoughts and thinking in general. Now, certainly many people shudder and even shut down mentally when the term 'grammar' is brought up. But that's not surprising when you conceive of modern American 'education' as government indoctrination ' when you conceive of modern American culture and schooling as ways of keeping the populace dull, stupid, and illiterate. After all, as Hannah Arendt said in her essay Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government, 'The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions, but to destroy the capacity to form any.'

A simple understanding of basic grammar gives an individual the ability to consciously understand how he constructs sentences ' how he connects words one to another to establish relationships and thus constructs his thoughts. Language is our way of translating and reconstructing the world in the mind, and grammar is simply the way in which we do that.

Any sentence, for example, has at least one independent clause, and that clause contains two things: a subject and a verb. After all, the world, physically speaking, is made of two things: matter and energy (quantum physics says these are just different manifestations of the same thing). We call words that refer to matter, to things, 'nouns,' and we call words that refer to energy, to actions, 'verbs.' Combine matter and energy, and you have the beginnings of reality. Combine nouns and verbs, and you have the beginnings of thought.

Verbs sit between the nouns, between the subject and the object of an action, at the center of thought. English has, basically, three of them: to do, to have, and to be. Most English verbs concern doing because, of course, so many things can happen. You can walk, or run, or think, or eat. All four of those verbs are things you can do. They all involve action, energy, and in a basic English sentence, that energy moves from the subject to the object. We say that such a clause uses 'active voice' because the subject is active ' he is performing the action in that clause. If I say, for example, that 'Reggie hit the ball,' I'm using active voice. The action, 'hitting,' moves from its subject, its originator ('Reggie') to the object, or recipient ('ball'). Likewise, if 'I love you,' love moves from me to you.

However, although we have in English thousands of action verbs, the verb most favored and most used by the writing students with whom I have worked is not an action at all: it's 'to be.' In fact, in their initial essays, almost all students use some form of being at least 75% of the time, if not more. And when I point this out to them, when I explain the dangers of such heavy reliance on this verb and ask them to rethink what they've written, almost all of them have a very difficult time of it, as if they literally cannot think except in terms of being: as if they live mentally in a world in which things don't happen, they just are. Their world then becomes static, unchanging, and even empty.

In such a sentence, you no longer have a flow of action from subject to object because you no longer have action. 'Being' works, in most cases, like an equal sign (=) in math, indicating that the things on either side of it are the same. And since you have no action, you have no one responsible for it, and it becomes easy to assign an empty subject to this lack of movement, resulting in such constructions as 'it is' or 'there are.' While both these examples do comprise independent clauses, neither of them have any information content at all, thus allowing you to say or think something without saying or thinking anything.

Without action at the center of thought, a person becomes unable to think deeply into things and see the relationships of and connections between one thing to another. And that, of course, is bad enough. But it leads to related and even more dangerous way of conceptualizing the world: it leads to passive thinking.

While in active voice the subject of the clause performs the action, in passive voice it does not. Instead of acting, it is acted upon. In passive voice, 'Reggie hit the ball' becomes 'the ball was hit by Reggie.' And if you want, you don't need to mention Reggie at all. Where once he was the first thing mentioned, now he's so irrelevant you don't even need to mention him. And what used to be the verb has now been reduced to an adjective, to just another quality: the ball was round, scuffed, white, hit, lost. When you speak or think in passive voice, nothing happens and no one need have responsibility for anything ' least of all yourself.

Consider, for example, a sentence probably everyone has either said or heard at one time or another: 'something should be done about that.' People who say that 'think,' though it's really no more than a vague impression, that they have thus expressed themselves, made their wishes known. But what have they really said? 'Something' (I don't know what) 'should be done' (again, I don't know what, nor do I know who should do it) 'about that' (whatever 'that' is). Translated into active voice, this could become anything from 'you should mow the lawn today, Jim' to 'the military just should kill them all and let God sort them out.' Either way, something is being done about that; the latter, though, may be a little more than you had in mind.

And it's just this kind of sloppy, vague, imprecise thinking, multiplied in each individual mind and then multiplied again by the sheer number of individuals, that has led us to this dangerous point in history. Our vague, passive thinking has made us a vague, passive people, unwilling and often unable to take responsibility and act because we not only can't conceive of what to do, we can't even conceive of doing. So many of us live, like my students, in a conceptual world in which nothing happens and everything simply is.

Our difficulties do not stem from the government; the government stems from our difficulties. And if we truly want to end this fast-creeping fascist takeover, each of us needs to begin, as silly and useless and insignificant as it might sound, by beginning to understand the grammar of our language and, through it, the way our minds work, the ways in which we construct our conceptual world, and how these concepts affect and determine our actions. As Orwell wrote, 'one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.'

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.


kborer's picture

I enjoyed reading this article.