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Passive voice has its uses

Geoffrey K. Pullum reports at Lingua Franca that a colleague whom he had asked to read a manuscript returned it with the advice that he should avoid the passive voice.

I know, I know. You will have crawled under the desk to wait for the concussion to shake plaster from the ceiling. But actually, his response was quite mild—no suggestions of disinterring Strunk and White and George Orwell and displaying their heads on poles on the National Mall. He merely pointed to a couple of his sentences and explained mildly his reasons for casting them in the passive.

Then he turned to a piece of the colleague’s work and demonstrated just how frequently she resorted to the passive voice.

Of all the bogus pieces of advice about English usage, and it is as common as nostrums purported to cure cancer, baldness, and erectile dysfunction, few can rival the uninformed belief that the passive voice is, in and of itself, a Bad Thing. This is quackery, and I want you to be freed from its spell.

If you want a thoroughgoing, technical explanation of how the passive voice functions in English, I recommend a post by Professor Pullum at Language Log. There are subtleties. If you stay here, I’m offering a streamlined account.

The active voice in its simplest form follows a subject-verb-object pattern in which the subject of the sentence performs the action the verb describes: Quack writes nonsense.

The passive voice in its commonest form combines a form of be with the past participle of a verb in a sentence in which the subject receives the action rather than performing it: Bad advice is followed by the credulous.*

People scorn the passive voice because it can be used in reprehensible mistakes-were-made constructions to dodge responsibility. But the active voice can be used just as cravenly. The weasely mock apology I am sorry if my remarks offended anyone is not a passive construction.

There are places in which the passive voice is perfectly acceptable, even desirable. The two most common are sentences in which the actor causing the action is unknown, and sentences in which the action or the object of the action are more important than the actor.

In the first category: The door was jimmied after midnight. You could write a flabby active-voice Someone jimmied the door after midnight, but since you can’t identify who the someone is, the action is more important information.

In the second: The university president was arrested and accused of drunken driving. Who arrested him? Who d’you think arrested him, the faculty senate? You can assume that the police arrested him. The more important information is who got behind the wheel while hammered, and the passive construction allows you to put that information up front in the sentence for more impact.

Professor Pullum’s conclusion at Lingua Franca: “[T]his is where modern American writing instruction has brought us. Totally unmotivated warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who (unwittingly) often use such sentences more than the people they criticize. And the warnings are consumed by people who don’t know enough grammar to evaluate them (which is why the percentage of passives in published prose continues basically unchanged over time). The blind warning the blind about a danger that isn’t there.”

 

*It’s notable that the quacks and the people who make the mistake of taking their advice frequently misidentify passives. Not every sentence containing a form of be is a passive. They are paying attention to Pullum is not a passive construction. There is no reason to panic is not a passive construction.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:02 PM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

No more catering to peevers, John, you can be bolder than this!

It's not just that the passive voice "has its uses", it's not just that it is "perfectly acceptable, even desirable" - this is all too apologetic.

The active and the passive are just two voices, two ways of expressing the impact of the verb. Neither is better or worse than the other. Neither needs an excuse to appear. Neither has to pass some special usefulness test. They are just two ways English does sentences. Use what seems best at the time.

Well said (both John and Picky). Too many people still think that the passive should be avoided unless there's some special need for it, which perpetuates the idea that there's something innately wrong with it. It can be misused, but so can the active voice.

At the risk of repeating myself, I repeat myself: the passive voice is something which is reveled in by me! Now that I've got that horribly constructed sentence out of the way, I think there is a notable parallel between language and law here. As Picky points out quite incisively, the active and passive voices "are just two ways English does sentences. Use what seems best at the time." So it is with the law regarding evidence.

Circumstantial evidence has gotten a bad rap in novels, television, and movies and this has wormed its way into news reports by people who should know better: "The jury found him guilty based on merely circumstantial evidence." As if this makes the conviction somehow suspect!

I hope not to bore anyone, but here goes an attempt to clear the matter up. Direct evidence directly proves a fact. Circumstantial evidence proves one or more facts from which you can draw a conclusion that another fact is true. Imagine you are at home in your living room at night with the drapes closed. You hear what sounds like rain beating against the window; you hear what sounds like thunder rumbling outside; you see what look like lightning flashes through the closed drapes; you look toward the front door and see what look like wet footprints leading in from outside. Based on all those proved circumstances, you can draw the conclusion that it is in fact raining outside. If you want direct evidence you can go outside and stand in the rain, but few people would require you to do so to prove that it was raining that night.

It's the same with passive and active voice. As Picky said, and here I purposefully and unapologetically repeat myself, "Use what seems best at the time." Indeed.

Cheers,
Tim

My education was apparently sorely lacking, as in over 20 years of formal instruction I never encountered the concept of passive voice. However when I first used Word's grammar-checker, it flagged some of my sentences mysteriously as "passive voice, consider revising". I wondered briefly what that meant and decided the answer was, "nothing important".

In more recent times, as the internet has played a larger role in my life, I've learnt a little about passive voice. I've discovered that in fact I was taught to use it in high school; it was the preferred way of writing up science experiments. One must not write, "I boiled the water", rather, "The water was boiled".

Knowing that Americans don't like passive voice hasn't changed my writing style, or my enjoyment or otherwise of American writing. It is just one of those little cultural differences that amuse me.

I agree with the point of this essay. The passive voice is not always to be avoided. Nonetheless, it should still be avoided in some cases, such as when it can make a sentence in a persuasive essay stronger and more effective.

So, if I may...

"This is quackery, and I want you to be freed from its spell," could well benefit from avoiding the passive voice in the second clause, thus, "This is quackery, and I intend to free you from its spell."

And yet,I want you to be freed from quackery, whether at my hands, or Professor Pullum's, or someone else's. Which is why the passive voice in that sentence is completely unexceptionable.

The debate on the use of freed or free reminds me that I've rarely seen a proposed change from passive to active that was worth the trouble. Usually the writer got it right the first time.

I've got to agree that "I want you to be freed from its spell" is not just unexceptionable but probably preferable. It doesn't matter who's doing the freeing; what matters is that you're freed.

This is a brilliant article. Can't wait to begin using this in my own writings.

The problem of the passive voice emerges when it becomes habitual phrasing. Most readers here will happily accept a smart and warranted passive - usually when the agent of an action is unknown, or the action is more important than the agent.

Truly, when the passive is the right casting, the editor's hand will be an unwanted intrusion that changes meaning for the worse. Take vireya's suggestion above "I intend to free you from its spell." The insertion of "intend" is wholly unjustified editorial abuse.

Yet in cases where sentence after sentence is passive due to the writer's timidity or preference for ambiguity, revision to the active form can make a passage stronger and more vigorous. The editor should not apply a rule like "avoid the passive voice" willy nilly "just because." As with anything else, the question should be, "can the writer's meaning be clarified?"

GSB Super, Vireya's comment is the one above her name. It was Kelli who suggested "intend."

Cheers,
Tim

Hmm, I find it impossible to denounce the use of passive voice without employing it.

Which goes to show that passive voice can be harmless in the hands of a capable practitioner (or people like me).

Usually the advice against passive voice serves the greater goal of paring extra words from a sentence. Active sentences typically read shorter, so attacking passive voice produces greater economy of language. Two birds, one stone.

Also, passive voice deadens the copy of so many rookie/incompetent writers that there's a temptation to think active voice produces better writers. If only.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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