Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Annoy a Linguist Day

It's that time of year again. This time I want to write about the fetish for avoiding the passive voice. Recently I've spoken to writers who think it's their duty to avoid the passive at all costs. The irony is sweet when they proceed to misidentify the passive. Look at this article on passive avoidance where of all the examples the writer gives of the evil passive voice, only one is actually passive.

I'm baffled at this hostility towards a completely normal and useful grammatical structure. I like to blame Orwell, but it's older than that. Supposed grammar experts tell us that the passive voice is dull, it's sneaky, it's feeble, it's not used by good writers - and none of these things are true, as Geoff Pullum explains. I've been told it's hard to understand but I don't think that is true either.

I’ve also been told it is unclear, because it hides the agent (the person doing the action). The implication is that all we have to do is avoid the passive, and our writing will be automatically clearer. This seems like very bad advice. The agent can be hidden in the active voice, and it's possible to write passive sentences where the agent is expressed.

I’ll talk about the second point first. 1a is active, and 1b is passive, and the agent (me) is equally clear in both:

1a. I wrote a book.
1b. The book was written by me.

Yes, passive sentences can omit the agent, as in 2:

2a. We served dinner.
2b. Dinner was served.

If you want to focus on the dinner then you could argue that 2b is better, because it places the dinner at the beginning of the sentence, and omits unnecessary information. Clarity has nothing to do with expressing the agent, it's to do with making clear what you want to make clear.

And non-passive sentences can omit the agent as well. These sentences are all non-passive, but they have no agents:

3. The book fell off the table. (Who pushed it?)
4. The case took on racial overtones. (Whose fault was that?)
5. The beer pours easily. (Who's pouring it?)
6. I am afraid. (What’s scaring me?)

Many passive sentences can easily be made non-passive with no change in semantics:

7a. The window is displayed.
7b. The window appears. (Who made it appear?)

8a. Mistakes were made.
8b. Mistakes happened. (Who made them?)

9a. I was given a gift.
9b. I received a gift. (Who gave it to me?)

The A sentences are passive, the B sentences are non-passive. I don't see how the non-passive sentences are clearer than the passive sentences. The agent is equally invisible in both.

Simply avoiding the passive voice doesn't help you write clearly. If your goal is to express the agent, then you need to think about what the agent is, and make sure you've expressed it, and you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence. And if you want to focus on something other than the agent, you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence.

Previously on Annoy a Linguist Day:
taking grammar seriously
What is grammar anyway?

2 comments :

John Emerson said...

Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" is one source. If the taboo became prominent only in the 50s (don't know) it would be THE source, in my opinion. More likely he just accounts for its popularity. Like E B White's book, His essay is a staple of college writing classes.

Speaking of bureaucratic prose, he said "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active." He had in mind the specific use of the passive to avoid assigning responsibility -- as the joke has it, "Mistakes were made".


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language

goofy said...

But you can just as easily avoid assigning responsibility without using the passive, as in my example "mistakes happened". To blame the passive voice is to miss the point.