Tuesday, 31 January 2017

the big deal with the passive voice

David Kudler's article What's the big deal with the passive voice? is a good example, perhaps the best example, of misunderstanding the passive voice.
An author I work with recently asked me, “What’s the big deal with the passive voice?”

My first instinct was to answer, “Well, would that question have made as much sense as ‘The big deal with the passive voice is about what?’”
Does he actually think that The big deal with the passive voice is about what is passive? If not, what is he talking about?

As his example active sentence, he gives Dick runs. And his passive example sentence is The running is done by Dick. He could not have given a worse example. The running is done by Dick is not a passive version of Dick runs because Dick runs is intransitive and has no passive equivalent.

And then his reasons for avoiding the passive: it's longer, weaker, and unclear.
My students would write things like The suspect was apprehended by this officer instead of I arrested her or The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle instead of I followed the stolen Ford Taurus in my police car. Honest to goodness — they really did write this stuff. If you were a jury or a supervisor, which would you find clearer and more effective?
What exactly is unclear or weak about The suspect was apprehended by this officer? Kudler doesn't bother to explain.

[I just realized that this officer refers to the author of the sentence, which makes this sentence another terrible example, because it violates the discourse constraint mentioned below.]
The other problem with passive constructions is that they bury the actor, which makes the sentence weaker and more obscure. To stoop to the example that I used in the 1980s with those cops, would you rather watch Debbie Does Dallas or Dallas Was Done by Debbie?
*Dallas Was Done by Debbie is also a horrible example, because it is ungrammatical. I wasn't sure how to explain why it was ungrammatical, so I asked the noted expert on the English passive voice, Geoffrey Pullum. (I could have looked in my copy of Pullum and Huddleston's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, which makes similar points to those that Pullum made to me, but I somehow forgot I had it. I blame the bourbon barrel aged stout.)

The main reason is lexical: do in the sense of "visit" is never passivized. It's like "have" in the sense of ownership.

1a. The madman has a box.
1b. *A box is had by the madman.

2a. The Doctor and Romana did Paris in the spring.
2b. *Paris in the spring was done by the Doctor and Romana.

A second reason is that we tend to put "older or more definite or more established or more empathy-attracting material" in the subject position, and we put "discourse-new information about goals or affected entities or places" in the internal complement. Debbie is in subject position in Debbie does Dallas because Debbie is a human being and is the focus of the movie, while Dallas is a place. So *Dallas Was Done by Debbie sounds weird because it reverses this trend. Are there any real English movie titles that do this?

Kudler's other example The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle is unacceptable because it violates the most important discource constraint on passives. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar gives the generalisation "It is not possible for a subject to be new while the internalised complement is old." In Kudler's example, the internalised complement me is automatically old because it refers to the speaker of the utterance. Kudler seems to be choosing bad examples to prejudice the reader into thinking that any use of the passive is bad.

He ends with an old favourite.
This last trick is a great favorite of corporate, military, and governmental folks everywhere. They turn to it in press releases and at press conferences whenever something has gone pear-shaped, solemnly murmuring, Mistakes were made. This much-abused passive sentence makes it clear that whatever it is that happened was bad, sure, but it also completely avoids taking or assigning any responsibility.

So that’s the big deal about the passive voice: it obscures the relationship of the actor to the act. Unless that’s what you want to do, avoid it!
Alright, so the non-passive sentence mistakes happened is much better because it assigns responsibility and doesn't obscure the relationship of the actor to the act, right?

I recommend that Kudler check out Pullum's essay, Fear and Loathing of the English Passive for a description of what the passive is and what it isn't.

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