Monday 13 October 2014

Why passives should not be shunned

hmm…. can a passive be said to be sneaky?

Scanning the pages of endless style guides, Geoffrey Pullum was startled at the amount of ruthless criticism devoted to the passive voice. Authors, journalists and writing tutors continuously discourage the use of the passive in writing, describing it as evasive, and somehow linking it to a lack of responsibility. But not only do these critics lack a coherent definition of the passive, they also seem to do little to justify their position.  So the researcher set out to thoroughly describe the passive from a syntactic perspective. He cuts the language mavens' arguments to ribbons.

Passives come in all sorts, from the canonical The president’s authority has been much diminished to Marie got photographed by a journalist. Contrary to popular belief, passives may specify the agent very clearly, usually by means of a ­by-phrase, as in It was thrown at them by hooligans – where we know exactly who is responsible for the action. Now and then passives occur without be or a past participle, for instance, That said, however, Korea is Korea, not the Philippines. 

Pullum identified four kinds of criticisms in relation to passives. They are alleged to be
·      sneaky or evasive
·      avoided by good writers
·      dull and static
·      weak

Item number one refers to the vagueness of responsibility. As Sherry Roberts  put it:
A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.[1]

There are two ways of dealing with this criticism. First, in some cases the agent cannot or need not be specified at all. It can be irrelevant or unknowable, as the two sentences below demonstrate:

When the patient was first diagnosed with cancer her symptoms were minor.
Perhaps the mysterious mound was constructed as a memorial.

Second, a so-called long passive (with a ­by-phrase) can be an effective device to emphasize agency, as it gives details of the agent.

Another supposed fault of the passive is that they are omitted by good authors. In his essay Politics and the English language George Orwell, a celebrated writer, warned: ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’[2]. Yet in the very piece of writing containing this advice, 20 % of the transitive verbs are passives! An average writer passivises only about 13% of verbs, which means that, in fact, Mr. Orwell resorted to this construction rather frequently.

As regards the two other criticisms, weakness and dullness, these are much more dependent on the content of the text, rather than on a specific syntactic construction.

To sum up, the holy war against the passive voice, launched by style guide authors and writing tutors since the early 20th century, has little to do with the passive as such. When used appropriately, it can be as dynamic, powerful and accurate as any other form of language. The key question is to use it wisely and appropriately.

[1], in Section 7, ‘Be Active’
[2] Orwell, G., 1946. Politics and the English language. Horizon, 252–264


Geoffrey K. Pullum (2014) Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication 37: 60-74.

doi. http://dx/ 

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska