Monday, May 14, 2007

The passive should not be used

I can't remember what led me to this site expressing opinions about grammar and writing. In one post the writer takes up arms against the evil passive. Here are some snippets to give a sense of the argument:

  • Passive voice and passive writing doesn’t accomplish anything – nor does it seek or have the goal of accomplishing anything.

  • lack of emphasis on anything in particular happening

  • It just doesn’t make sense to beat around the bush in a business because nothing is going to get done.

  • passive voice seems not only natural but in an over-abundance.

  • I find passive voice distracting.

  • it can be eliminated just about every time.

So one would expect him to avoid the passive in his post. He certainly should if he believes his own argument that the passive voice lacks urgency and accomplishes nothing.

Let me make it clear that I am not simply trying to highlight someone else's grammar mistakes. I'm not a high school English teacher (anymore). The passive voice is not a mistake. I don't even consider it poor writing. There are times when the passive voice makes for the clearest and most direct expression. There are also writers who abuse the passive voice. But when a self-proclaimed "grammarian" takes the stand against a form we have a right to evaluate the testimony. What we find is that the form of grammatical apologetics will either support the content or refute it. Very often we see that the argument relies on those very forms it tries to subjugate.

Here's what we find in the piece:

  • "Being that I haven’t been inspired as of late"

  • "Her thoughts were well spoken"
  • : Okay these might be attributive and earn a pass. But then would a hyphen in "well-spoken" help to eliminate some of the ambiguity? As he has written this it could be an inversion of the passive "spoken well."

  • "In the way that those stories are told"

  • "it can be eliminated just about every time"

  • "there is a sincere lack of attention paid to how things get written when something more formal is required."

  • "What’s worse is that when I am asked to write something for someone in my office, it gets rewritten with passive voice"
  • : Wow a "two-fer"...

He offers the following illustration of a sentence that he thinks is worse when a manager rewrites it in the passive.

I wrote: I need these forms to be signed by the end of the week, or Mr. X will not be able to get you your money.

Manager rewrote: These forms will need your signature sometime this week, so that your money may be sent out in a timely fashion.

We got our signed papers three days late. It's not straight-forward, and there's no sense of urgency.

The rewrite is an improvement. The tone is less patronising and more focused on a desirable outcome with positive claims instead of negation. Instead of ominously warning the client you might not get the money the rewrite offers a plan by which the money will be sent quickly. And one passive was simply traded for another.

He plays around with the passive voice in his last sentence (follow the link above to read it). It's a nice try. The joke falls flat after so many unwitting slips into the very mire he says all good writing avoids. It's like a tiny pie in the face of someone who's slopping around in a vat of banana cream. Too little to be funny.


  1. One wonders how these buffoons get legitimised, especially with their own writing as full of the violations of grammatical shibboleths as the writing they seek to deplore!

    It seems that any half-wit with even a rudimentary knowledge of standard, 'correct' English composition rules can gain credibility by parroting such drivel.

    If you want to argue against the passive, do it in a more sophisticated manner. Perhaps it is overused in writing, and occasionally used where it probably shouldn't be. But that's no reason whatsoever to ban its use entirely. A more sensible approach would be to teach effective writing, whether that means using the passive in one instance, or avoiding it in another.

  2. Perfect example: The sentence in my comment above "perhaps it is overused" is much better than the active, given the intended information structure of the clause. "perhaps people do overuse it" doesn't quite sound as good to me in that context.

  3. I agree. The common examples are so ineffective. And the arguments are so weak but forcefully made.

    How about this. I did some backtracking and found where I first encountered this anti-passive writer. He left a comment on John McIntyre's blog. In his comment he claims to be a linguist. HMMmmm...

  4. I didn't read much of what this guy says, so he genuinely might be a sleezeball, but I do feel like playing devil's advocate here. Dryden says he's a fiction editor of sorts, and in that post he's talking mainly about passive voice in stories. I can see where he's coming from, as beginning fiction writers use the passive voice about like freshman comp students use vague or generalized language--unconsciously and too often.

    Then again, I don't have a clue what Dryden's talking about vis-a-vis postmodern slice-of-life stories or whatever. One effect of passive voice in fiction is that it takes agency away from the characters, making them soulless in a way. One existential issue in some post-modern fiction (I'm thinking of early Barth) is the tension between decisions and impulses--do characters make conscious decisions based on a certain narrative, or is the narrative a myth, their actions always impulsive? I'm talking out of my ass here a little bit, but it seems like an existentialist would agree that a narrative is a fiction that results in denying responsibility, but it also seems hard to weigh impulses as strongly as conscious decisions.

    Point being that the passive voice serves the philosophic base for some of those older post-modern novels, so maybe Dryden's complaint isn't with the passive voice per se, but rather that he finds that philosophical inquiry uninteresting (it is sort of a dead end, and most current fiction writers aren't messing around with it so much anymore).

  5. Oh sure. If I thought it likely that he is thinking that much about it. Here's how his weaving and strafing eludes your advocacy:

    He claims to be speaking as a "grammarian" as well as a fiction editor.

    He appeals to the context of business writing

    He composes so many sentences in the passive that would otherwise be awkward and so counter his point.

    He composes so many sentences in the passive that are awkward and so counter his credibility

    His ultimate example of a sentence rewritten into the passive shows that he can't distinguish one passive from another and he doesn't recognise an improvement in style.


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