getting past passive

Today’s my birthday, and I’ll get to that, but first I want to talk about passive verbs.

You remember passive verbs! They’re the ones your English teachers abhorred and your physics labs demanded. Whereas the active verb has the subject doing something (i.e. “I snarfed the Oreos”*), the passive verb has the subject having something done to it (i.e., “The Oreos were snarfed”).

In every language that I’ve studied–which isn’t a huge number, but it’s non-singular–there is one verb that always takes a passive form. In French, it was one of the ones you learn after you’ve got the basics of the passé composé down, and you have to remember to conjugate it with être: je suis née. In Latin, as always, it’s one conveniently compact word with a wealth of information jammed into a few letters of morphological difference, and the reason you’re always chanting hodie Christus natus est around this time of year. In English, well, try this: tell your life story from the very beginning. Just like that, your English teacher recoils instinctively, because the first thing out of your mouth is going to be a passive verb!

I was born!

It sort of goes without saying that, duh, you don’t bear yourself into life. But grammatical voice doesn’t always align with the absolute truth of an action: cf. “this article reads like a novel” (articles are read, but they can’t do it themselves) or “sex sells” (true, but someone else is doing the selling). And I know, I’m supposed to be over metaphors! And this is boring and technical! And no one cares about grammar but me, anyway!

I could excuse myself for being selfish since I’m the Birthday Girl, but that’s just the point: I didn’t do anything to deserve such dispensation. I was–just–born.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no way to talk about the start your life off except to place yourself, grammatically and literally, at the mercy of some greater active force. It could be your mother, or your father, or their mothers and their fathers, or the doctor yanking you out, or forces conspiring against you or the universe going inside out for the only time in your whole life. Whatever it is: it’s cool.

Whatever the greater significance of the passive verb, there’s one thing that’s for sure: an acted-upon subject requires an acting-upon agent. Whatever the circumstances, the subject is not alone. You were squeezed out into this world with inky little feet, and only after that first irresistable action do you get to tramp out a story everywhere you go.

You were not born by yourself, not in any sense. Be made happy.

*Example borrowed from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, of course

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