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Fear and Loathing of the English Passive
July 10, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Geoffrey Pullum talks about the passive voice [pdf]. (via)

A couple shorter articles by Geoff Pullum on the same topic:

Mistakes Are Made (previously)
Confusion over avoiding the passive
posted by nangar (37 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
The passive voice was talked about by Geoff Pullum.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:55 PM on July 10 [32 favorites]


The obvious joke that we all wanted to make was made by charlie don't surf.
posted by Curious Artificer at 2:04 PM on July 10 [21 favorites]


Apathetic voice could win but doesn't care.
posted by srboisvert at 2:09 PM on July 10


I think this is a war on the German elements of the English language. Active, passive, accustative, dative, they all get a ride on my yellow submarine. It was terribly frustrating writing a thesis which is thought, without passive voice. Thought is passive. Yeah, I think this thinking discriminates against thinkers, and people who live in the past and future, anywhere but the present. Go figure. How can you be with out the infinitive, which is passive? I think, therefore I am. Never mind.
posted by Oyéah at 2:10 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Thought is passive.

I can't think of a case where this is true. Do you have an example?
posted by mochapickle at 2:16 PM on July 10


The obvious joke that we all wanted to make was made by charlie don't surf.

My obvious joke for the passive voice is always and forever "mistakes were made"
posted by mcstayinskool at 2:19 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


That is a very interesting set of observations. I think sometimes linguists protest too much that laypeople are getting it wrong about grammar, but his examples are certainly persuasive that the widespread advice to "avoid passive voice" is misguided or even really intending to advise against something else.

I do think there's some good writing principle underlying that advice, and I suppose it's a matter of figuring out what it is. Avoid clunky or dull constructions, and avoid impersonal constructions if the person doing the action matters, maybe.

It's a useful exercise for students to try rephrasing their sentences in different ways - going from active to passive or vice versa, moving around where the subject clause occurs in the sentence, etc. I've seen plenty of writers paint themselves into a corner with a clunky sentence and then just gamely plod along to the end, when they should really just go back to the beginning and shift things around.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:19 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


If you spend much time with writers' critique groups, you'll see people saying "Don't write this, it's passive" with things like progressive tenses ("She was running") and "be+adjective" clauses ("The sky was blue.") And while it may be better (in some contexts) to write "She ran," or "She stared up into the blue sky," it leads to a maddening fuzzy gray area between the passive as a objective grammatical description and the passive as a subjective judgment about a sentence that doesn't have enough action in it.

But that's a larger problem with people shouting slogans ("Adverbs are bad!" "No weather descriptions!") rather than engaging with the work in front of them.
posted by Jeanne at 2:25 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


the reason you should use the active voice is that sometimes you need to use the passive voice and using it all the time blunts it.

"The letter was inadvertently not mailed."

You need that passive to take out the actor (usually yourself).
posted by Ironmouth at 2:25 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Many people seem to think that the passive voice always signals some kind of moral evasion of responsibility (it is used to do this, of course). But the true hater of passive voice actually seems to think that it is pissing in the face of Aristotle, and subverting the true substance and predicate metaphysical order of reality. It seems innocent, but it leads you to accept a drunken life playing piano in some kind of metaphysical whorehouse, where relational properties are first-class citizens.
posted by thelonius at 2:30 PM on July 10 [14 favorites]


Well, thelonius, I've been sold. That sounds like an excellent reality.
posted by The Gaffer at 2:32 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


the reason you should use the active voice is that sometimes you need to use the passive voice and using it all the time blunts it

Nobody uses the passive voice all the time, so this is a non-problem.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:33 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I do think there's some good writing principle underlying that advice, and I suppose it's a matter of figuring out what it is. Avoid clunky or dull constructions, and avoid impersonal constructions if the person doing the action matters, maybe.

I think the kernel of truth there is roughly this: if a sentence jumps out at you as being in the passive voice — or in general, if you find the syntactic construction of it grabbing your attention more than its semantic content does — then something has gone wrong and you should try to rephrase it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:34 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


There's also a kind of confirmation bias that goes on here for passive-voice-haters. When they read an elegantly written sentence in the passive voice — one where the passive voice is appropriate and unremarkable — they tend to skim over it without thinking about it too much. When they read a really crappy sentence in the passive voice, that they notice, because the sheer crappiness of it grabs their attention.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:37 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


This is a much better post than I would have made! Thank you.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:44 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


As someone who works in theater, all I ask is that of everything in my life, please, let me at least have an occasional sentence that features an absent actor.
posted by maxsparber at 2:45 PM on July 10 [6 favorites]


I really like how the linked articles discuss how different sentence constructions shift the emphasis of a sentence, and which construction you should choose depends on what information you want to emphasize.

Some scientific journals now make you use the active voice in your methods section because of anti-passive nonsense. It sounds terrible and makes me crazy. The methods section is fundamentally about THE EXPERIMENTS. All emphasis should be placed on what is happening to the actual scientific materials themselves, not on the experimenter, who is not the focus of the paper. It is the perfect time to use the passive voice.

A sentence like "the test tubes were centrifuged at 15,000 g for 15 min," which nicely highlights the important pieces of information (the tubes and what happened to them), becomes "We centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g" when the active voice is used. Who is this "we"? Well typically the article doesn't even specify, and because lab techs are so common the person hiding behind "we" is often not even an author on the paper. Yet the use of the active voice places this unidentified mystery agent right up front in every single sentence.

A methods section in the active voice might as well be written "Dear Diary, today I centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g." I don't care about you, just tell me about the experiment!
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 2:48 PM on July 10 [21 favorites]


"Dear Diary, today I centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g."

"It was subsequently noted that the resulting explosion was impactful."
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:51 PM on July 10 [8 favorites]


nebulawindphone has it.

Good writing doesn't come from writers who slavishly follow arbitrary rules; it comes from writers who have a deep and intuitive understanding of the language they're writing in, and who think carefully about what they're actually saying.

People love to correct other people's grammar (whether they know what they're talking about or not), and people carry around a lot of internalized anxiety from grade-school English classes (which are themselves guilty of purveying misinformation).

The passive voice is fine. It all depends on what you want to emphasize, and what kind of tone you want to set.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:55 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: A metaphysical whorehouse, where relational properties are first-class citizens.
posted by virago at 3:08 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


The obvious joke that we all wanted to make was made by charlie don't surf.

Well, the passive aggressive voice can still be used but that is fine, whatever.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:08 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


My obvious joke for the passive voice is always and forever "mistakes were made"

Slightly OT but even that contains an action verb which implies however vaguely that responsiblity rests on some person. When someone fucks up, even quite deliberately fucks something up on purpose, I've heard bureaucrats say "there was a misunderstanding" way more often. This thing, this misunderstanding, existed. We can't help that a thing exists, can we? It was a thing, which existed!
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:12 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


The point is that the passive need not be shifty in marking the actor, nor is there a lack of linguistic tricks by which the shifty can dodge responsibility.
posted by Thing at 3:21 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


Or rather, "mistakes were made by the utterly feckless drone John Smith in section 6c", is passive, yet John Smith is clearly not long for this side of employment.
posted by Thing at 3:23 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


The point is that the passive need not be shifty...

Need not, no, but it often comes across that way.

This week I'm editing a document that is basically a 20-page navel-gaze that we have to send up the chain to the campus level. Campus will then use it as part of a larger review of our program, so there are some relatively high stakes.

The document was written and pieced together by five people who work with the program in question. There's a whole big pile of backstory and interpersonal drama that explains why, but the entire thing is in passive voice. It's driving me fucking batty. I mean, this is the self-review document that we're putting forward, describing the strengths of our program and how we've adapted and dealt with budget cutbacks, etc., but the passive voice just makes the program directors sound like milquetoast chickenshits. (Which they admittedly are, but come on -- let's put a better face forward.)

Talking about a challenge, and then describing its resolution with "a plan was developed to" is inherently less -- well, less something, I'm not exactly sure what -- than saying "we developed a plan to...."

Anyway. Sorry. This is a hot-button issue for me today. Today, a pet peeve was aggravated. :)
posted by mudpuppie at 3:34 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


The document was written and pieced together by five people who work with the program in question.

Yes, I know, I know.

My point was, it may not be commendable as a hard and fast rule, but there are definitely times where using the passive voice weakens your message. (I don't think my use of the passive voice in my previous comment is one of those times.)
posted by mudpuppie at 3:36 PM on July 10


To heck with the passive voice, I want to know about the hardcore bears.
posted by darksasami at 3:58 PM on July 10


The point is that the passive need not be shifty in marking the actor, nor is there a lack of linguistic tricks by which the shifty can dodge responsibility.

The merely shifty may dodge responsibility, but only the truly dodgy can shift responsibility.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:04 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


Grammatical mistakes were made.
posted by y2karl at 4:28 PM on July 10


"We centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g" when the active voice is used. Who is this "we"?

All right, let's make it a little more informative: "A student lab-tech who costs us almost nothing in salary because she's on work-study to supplement the loan program that Congress cut back this year centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g -- or at least that's what she thinks she did, but it was toward the end of finals week and she hadn't slept for two days by that point, unfortunately."
posted by jamjam at 5:29 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Talking about a challenge, and then describing its resolution with "a plan was developed to" is inherently less -- well, less something, I'm not exactly sure what -- than saying "we developed a plan to...."

I am totally stealing this as an example of how writing can be bad and in the passive voice but it's not bad because of the passive voice. Why that sentence is problematic is covered in the article but I'll expand on it here, because it looks like most commenters in this thread haven't read and/or understood it.

The subject in the basic clause in English normally has two features: It is the highest ranked semantic role of the verb (that is the agent or 'doer' of a transitive verb or the subject of an intransitive one) and it is the topic - meaning that it is previously given information that the listener will use to relate any new information to the understanding. New information will appear elsewhere in the clause, either as the object or as predicate, being the verb and object treated as a phrase.

The passive voice allows the speaker to promote a lower ranking semantic argument to subject position by deleting the transitive agent of the verb and putting the object (the patient, recipient or theme of the verb) into subject position. This allows you get around the information structure constraints that old information appear in subject position, even though it is not the highest ranked argument of the verb.

So, let's look at the sentence in question:

A plan was developed to

What a turd of a sentence.

The indefinite article shows that the plan has not been mentioned before - it is new information. Mudpuppie mentions that the preceding tranche of text regarded not the plan but the problem, making the problem that given information. So having a plan in subject position violates the information structure constraint whereby only given given information should occur there.

Alternatives include:
We developed a plan
The speaker (we in this case) is always given information.

The problem required developing a plan.
The problem is given information being discourse-old.

After sentences like this, the solution is old information and can then occur in subject position whether in active or passive clauses. Likewise if the preceding text had been about the the plan then the sentence The plan was developed to would be completely unremarkable.

Addressing other comments:
All right, let's make it a little more informative: "A student lab-tech who costs us almost nothing in salary because she's on work-study to supplement the loan program that Congress cut back this year centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g -- or at least that's what she thinks she did, but it was toward the end of finals week and she hadn't slept for two days by that point, unfortunately."
This would violate Grice's maxims by including information than is relevant, I mean anybody reading the a methodology section of a paper knows what that it involved treating a grad student like a lackey.

If you spend much time with writers' critique groups, you'll see people saying "Don't write this, it's passive" with things like progressive tenses ("She was running") and "be+adjective" clauses ("The sky was blue.") And while it may be better (in some contexts) to write "She ran," or "She stared up into the blue sky," it leads to a maddening fuzzy gray area between the passive as a objective grammatical description and the passive as a subjective judgment about a sentence that doesn't have enough action in it.

It's not necessarily that these are subjective judgements about action, it's that your examples could be interpreted as stative clauses - there is no action. The progressive aspect in English is often difficult to distinguish from the equivalent stative so "she was running" is interpreted similarly to "she was tall", "she was blue" etc. in that they describe states rather than activity (there is no inherent do predicate to the verb). They don't advance time and give background to the story rather than advancing it.

Many people seem to think that the passive voice always signals some kind of moral evasion of responsibility (it is used to do this, of course). But the true hater of passive voice actually seems to think that it is pissing in the face of Aristotle, and subverting the true substance and predicate metaphysical order of reality. It seems innocent, but it leads you to accept a drunken life playing piano in some kind of metaphysical whorehouse, where relational properties are first-class citizens.

I know you're only joking but lots of people trained in formal logic still think that human language is somehow a variant of that system rather than a system of communicative social action. describing people's linguistic behaviour is so much more than formal objects, properties and categories. People around the world have used language to get things done for thousands of years without having to give a fuck about what Aristotle thinks.
posted by elephantday at 6:24 PM on July 10 [4 favorites]


"A student lab-tech who costs us almost nothing in salary because she's on work-study to supplement the loan program that Congress cut back this year centrifuged the test tubes for 15 min at 15,000 g -- or at least that's what she thinks she did, but it was toward the end of finals week and she hadn't slept for two days by that point, unfortunately."

#overlyhonestmethods
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:38 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I know you're only joking but lots of people trained in formal logic still think that human language is somehow a variant of that system rather than a system of communicative social action.

I took a graduate philosophy of language introduction once, and I think they said that Davidson thinks that truth-functional, propositional logic is all you need to have an adequate theory of language - not even predicate logic. I may be misremembering that but yeah, some of those guys take this hardline position about logic which, I guess, comes from their concept of what philosophy is, not from any empirical study of the actual things we speak and write.
posted by thelonius at 7:24 PM on July 10


I work in communications and I see shelf opinions about this a lot. I'm currently working with a comms manager who is absolutely rapid about it, and I must say say it gives me the shits.

Prescriptivists miss the forest for the trees; sentences are built for clarity and comprehension and there are lots of waits to get there.

Additionally, in my role at least, there is also the consideration that every edit you make to someone's work decreases their sense of ownership and happiness with you. It is not advisable sometimes to meddle once you do the cost benefit analysis.
posted by smoke at 11:04 PM on July 10


The forest has been missed for the trees, here, but I think Pullum is doing the missing.

Yes, prescriptivism is bad, but before you bend over backward defending the passive voice and bashing its detractors, remember that generally, the active voice is superior. It's stronger and less clunky. And the passive voice probably shouldn't be used without active consideration of whether it strengthens the sentence.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 3:26 PM on July 11


remember that generally, the active voice is superior

Generally, if your high-school English teacher taught you a hard-and-fast rule about grammar, it's probably wrong.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:24 AM on July 12


Generally, if your high-school English teacher taught you a hard-and-fast rule about grammar, it's probably wrong.

My high school teacher didn't teach me that. 17 years of professional writing has more or less proved it.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:16 PM on July 12


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