Our dog and the passive voice


Mya, our 'Odin' dog

Mya, our ‘Odin’ dog

“What happened to your dog’s eye?”

We were at the dog park and Mya was running around like the year-old high energy pup she is when the 7 year old son of another dog owner asked the question.

“What happened to your dog’s eye?”

Mya only has one eye. The other was removed and her eyelid sewn shut before we adopted her. She had been found as a frightened and seriously injured stray under a bridge in Tennessee in July – someone had shot her. The bullet went through her eye and out the back of her neck.

You’d never know that she had been in such dire straits just a few months ago. Mya is hardly affected by being a one-eyed dog. While she won’t be chasing down and catching frisbees or tennis balls with any great success, she is happy, a fast runner, and gentle around both people and other dogs.

The little boy wasn’t afraid or upset about Mya’s one eye; he was just curious. And I struggled with what to tell him.

I could have chosen the direct route: Someone shot her. But I dreaded the questions that would come after: Why would someone do that? How could someone have hurt a dog? These were questions I had no answers for, particularly not for a stranger’s 7 year old at a dog park. Perhaps if he had been a child I knew, if I had a relationship with his mother, I might have felt more comfortable having that conversation. But not knowing this child’s experiences, I didn’t feel comfortable talking about violence around him.

As a writer, I strive to communicate well: to speak directly and elegantly. One of the rules of writing effectively is to avoid the passive voice. “Mistakes were made” is passive. No one is the lead actor and there is no real action or event. Contrast that to “The manager made a mistake.” There is a clear subject and an action – someone did something.

Someone shot Mya. An active sentence. A clear sentence. One I didn’t want to utter.

Instead, I fumbled for words and ultimately said:

“Mya was hurt. Mya was hurt and the veterinarian had to remove one of her eyes. But she’s fine now, and we’re taking good care of her.”

Mya was hurt. Passive voice. A distancing maneuver. It was a safe phrase that didn’t really answer the question, but allowed me to say something that was both true and non-committal.

I’m not sure I really have a point here, other than I’ve been thinking about that brief interaction at the dog park all week now. I didn’t lie to the child, but I did use language to avoid telling the full truth. And maybe that’s exactly what t I’m trying to clarify for myself: that language is powerful and the way we use it has consequences.

40 pounds of lap dog

40 pounds of lap dog

And please don’t feel bad for Mya. She is a happy, goofy pup and aside from bumping into furniture and people when she gets too excited, her monocular vision doesn’t seem to bother her at all.

LJ Cohen

LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, reading omnivore, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. In love with words since early childhood, Lisa filled dozens of notebooks with her scribbles long before there were such a thing as word processors.

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  1. My mom is monocular – she sort of sees out of her left eye, but can’t coordinate it with her right. The biggest difference is that she can’t see some optical illusions.

    • Huh – does she have any problems with depth perception? Mya’s not a fan of going down stairs at night.

    • I can only see out of one eye at a time. My contact lenses take advantage of that (One is for seeing close up and the other for farther away, like bifocals but different). There are a lot of optica illusions I cannot see and I save a lot of money at the movies since I cannot see the 3D versions.

      • And, like Mya, I have no depth perception. Put small runners on the stairs so she can tell where the center of each is.


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