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Passive panic | The Economist

September 27, 2016

PITY the passive voice. No feature of the grammar of English has such a bad reputation. Style guides, including that of The Economist, as well as usage books like the celebrated American “Elements of Style”, warn writers off the passive, and automated grammar-checkers often suggest that passive clauses be redrafted. There are just two problems with this advice. One is that a diminishing proportion of the world’s pundits seem to know what the passive voice is. And the other is that the advice is an unwieldy hammer, when not every writing problem is a nail.

The proper brief against the passive is twofold. One is that it can obscure who did what in a sentence. Barack Obama said recently that “There is no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been,” the passive voice hiding who did that killing: drones under the president’s command. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee to replace Mr Obama as president, tried to slip away from the controversy of his racist comments about a Mexican-American judge: “Questions were raised” about the judge’s impartiality, said Mr Trump. Who raised those questions? Why, Mr Trump.

But critics of the passive often go wrong. Stephen King, a horror novelist, in an entertaining rant against the passive in his autobiography, refers to it several times as the “passive tense”. It isn’t a tense. Tense has to do with when things happen in time. Voice structures who did what to whom in a sentence. In the typical active sentence, the subject is the doer of the action: he kicked the ball. In the typical passive sentence, the recipient of action becomes the subject: the ball was kicked.

Where critics have gone wrong is in diagnosing all kinds of vagueness as passive voice, even when there’s no grammatical passive to be found. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that “there are no immediate plans for the £50 note…The feedback is that the notes need to be smaller; different sizes, but smaller.” A critic in America’sNational Review carped: “Excellent use of the passive voice, Governor.” Except that there is no passive at all: “there are no immediate plans…the feedback is…” may be flabby, but passive they aren’t.

The problem is in confusing action and vigorous writing with the active voice, and weak, vague sentences with the passive. Voice has little to do with content. “The journalist dozed on his desk” is active. “London was destroyed by aliens” is passive. Nor is clarity always an issue. The active voice can be vague: “Someone ate my cake.” The passive can be quite clear: “My cake was eaten by the neighbours’ kids.” (Only the “short passive” omits the miscreant: “The cake was eaten.”)

The passive can be useful. “I’ll never forget the day my pet hamster was run over” emphasises the speaker’s emotion, and the poor hamster. Only if the villain needs emphasising should this be “I’ll never forget the day Steve ran over my hamster.” And the passive can be good for connecting things: “Jim loved nothing more than his oboe. Then one day it was stolen.” The oboe is the last thing mentioned in the first sentence. While fresh in the readers mind, it should be the subject of the second.

The advice needed is stylistic, not grammatical. The problem with the “short passive” is that it can be incomplete: where full information is important, the real advice should be “include all needed information” rather than “never use the passive.” Where passive voices plod one after the other, the writer should vary sentence structure and where the passive results in awkward flow, use sentence structure to link information sensibly for the reader’s sake.

Inexperienced writers can certainly overdo the passive, which can feel “grown up”, serious. Telling them to prefer the active would be good advice. But to demonise a useful grammatical tool takes things too far. Many mistakes have been made in castigating the passive; not to name names, but it is time the language mavens improved their advice.

Source: Passive panic | The Economist

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