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January 6, 2006 9:12 PM   Subscribe

The Passivator. A passive verb and adverb flagger for Mozilla-derived browsers, Safari, and Opera 7.5, with caveats.
posted by semmi (54 comments total)

 
Now we just need one for e-prime (or non-eprime, technically).

[Good feelings were caused in me by that page, honestly.]
posted by Eideteker at 9:21 PM on January 6, 2006


[This is good.]
posted by keswick at 9:25 PM on January 6, 2006


I could have used this when I was HS sophomore and had an English teacher who tried pounding the concept of passive voice in my head with little success.

Actually, I wonder if I can dig up that teacher's email addy. I think he might like this...

Very cool.
posted by kosher_jenny at 9:37 PM on January 6, 2006


I don't get it. And I regard myself as clever.

Yes, I know one shouldn't start a sentence with "and".
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Awesome at 9:39 PM on January 6, 2006


I love the ly detector and use it daily to perceive my literary failings, and those of others.

The irony is bittersweet...
posted by papakwanz at 9:40 PM on January 6, 2006


I will be enjoying this avidly.
posted by fungible at 9:59 PM on January 6, 2006


So, what's the problem with adverbs? Why are they to be avoided?
posted by jikel_morten at 10:01 PM on January 6, 2006


There's no reason to avoid beginning a sentence with "and," and the passive voice is very useful in many cases, particulary for emphasis, as it allows one to sustain suspense and withold information to the end of a sentence, where it will receive the greatest emphasis.

Also: ending a sentence with a preposition nothing to get your panties in a bunch about.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:07 PM on January 6, 2006


I'm not sure I get this one either. I'm with Joseph Gurl.
posted by Meredith at 10:09 PM on January 6, 2006


From the site:

Note that this program sees no difference between nefarious passive voice (“The dog was bitten by a man.”) and not-so-nefarious tense constructions (“The dog was old.”).

um...not so impressive.
posted by advil at 10:27 PM on January 6, 2006


I had no idea there was this crusade against the passive voice. (I didn't think there was this crusade about the passive tense). Maybe it's an American-only thing? (Maybe it only exists in America?)
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Awesome at 10:28 PM on January 6, 2006


No Proto, it's not American-only. In Dutch it's a common rule too.
I think the reason is that
The dog was bitten by a man
takes more effort from the reader to understand who does what. It's not appealing and a bit tiring to read text that uses a lot of passive voice.
A man did bite the dog
is easier to read.
posted by jouke at 11:36 PM on January 6, 2006


On a kind of related note: I've always found The Gender Genie to be quite impressive. It uses a linguistic algorithm to predict the gender of the writer.

Among other things, they contend that determiners (a, the, that, these) and quantifiers (one, two, more, some) are male indicators while pronouns (I, you, her, their) are female indicators.

I've found it to be quite accurate. It's crazy that you can determine gender from such a simple calculation. I wonder if we subconsciously guess the writer's gender when we read something.
posted by sacrilicious at 11:50 PM on January 6, 2006


Men talk about facts, women about relationships, people generalise.

But it's neat that this generalisation takes so little grammar or AI to measure.
posted by jouke at 11:59 PM on January 6, 2006


Also: ending a sentence with a preposition nothing to get your panties in a bunch about.

"This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” -Winston Churchill

So, what's the problem with adverbs?

Someone got a problem with adverb? Huh?!? What's the f*cking problem with adverb? You got a problem? How about you over there, tough guy -- what's your problem with adverb? Cuz I'll solve it for ya.

Yeah, walk away.... I thought so.

F*ck with adverb and you'll answer to me. ;-)
posted by edverb at 12:13 AM on January 7, 2006


Why do you type f*ck? Is there a rule against invective or profanities on mefi?
Is there a rule against profanity in the US? [Salon ad first]
posted by jouke at 2:03 AM on January 7, 2006


Also: ending a sentence with a preposition nothing to get your panties in a bunch about.

How about a sentence with no verb?
posted by bigmike at 2:51 AM on January 7, 2006


I will have been wishing that FrameMaker had been written so as to include this function. It is also my wish that Microsoft would have included it in Word. Maybe Metafilter, too.

Passive voice makes the reader work harder, as jouke says. That would be OK in some instances, as Joseph Gurl has indicated.

Technical writers avoid passive voice, because it impedes comprehension. Engineers seem to love it, for reasons others can explain better than I can.

Sometimes it looks like passive voice is taking over, especially when people are trying to be official or elegant. Listen to any government or police official make an announcement. Watch one of those judge TV shows, and notice how almost nobody just said something or went somewhere. It's always "We had gone to" and "she had said" in testimony.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:47 AM on January 7, 2006


Sign: "Seat belts must be worn."

But what if they are new and pristine?
posted by fixedgear at 4:01 AM on January 7, 2006


Kirth Gerson: "We had gone to" isn't the passive voice. It's the pluperfect tense.

I think that crusading against the passive voice per se is stupid. Of course, like any other grammatical element, it can be used unneccesarily. But in some situations it is actually the simplest way of phrasing something.

For instance, in the previous paragaph I could have said: "Of course, like any other grammatical element, one can use it unneccesarily." But that isn't easier to read.

Simple phrases like "I was prepared" are, strictly speaking, in the passive voice. But I can't think of an elegant way to rewrite that in the active voice.

This whole thing sounds like it stems from one of those 'rules' that get taught in school, but which are no substitute for real understanding, and actually give the wrong result in many cases.
posted by chrismear at 4:10 AM on January 7, 2006


My English teracher--a man--said onlyh women shouyld use the passive and real men should not at any times be passive. He had a long lecture on the Sissification of the English Language
posted by Postroad at 4:37 AM on January 7, 2006


The passive voice can also cut off information about the entity that effected an occurance; ie. 'A war was fought' vs. 'The empires fought a war'.
posted by Firas at 4:45 AM on January 7, 2006


It is also my wish that Microsoft would have included it in Word.

Word does check for the passive voice in its grammar checker. And it does a much better job flagging true sentences in the passive voice than this thing that flags instances of sentences with "was" or "is" in them.

I didn't know there is a crisis in adverb abuse. I tend to think differently on that one.

Public officials will tend to revert to the passive voice to avoid responsibility or admission for an error.

Mistakes were made by people in the administration.

The administration made mistakes.
posted by birdherder at 4:51 AM on January 7, 2006


No smart person wants to outlaw passive sentences. That's a straw man. The problem is that many writers overuse the passive voice and need to be reminded that they can and often should choose the active voice instead.

The worst users of the passive voice are business and government folk trying to avoid taking responsibility ("errors were made" by no one in particular) while sounding like the distant, inevitable voice of God.

Microsoft Word will warn you about passive sentences if you check the right box in the grammar options. Business and government employees should use simple tools like that (and like the browser plug-in discussed here) to help them recognize the numbing officialese that can creep into your writing when you're surrounded by people who think officialese is the only acceptable way to speak and write at the office.
posted by pracowity at 4:55 AM on January 7, 2006


Ah, I see you hit on the responsibility problem, birdherder.
posted by pracowity at 4:56 AM on January 7, 2006


"The worst users of the passive voice are business and government folk trying to avoid taking responsibility"

I understand that, but in all other cases I don't get what the problem is. I really had no idea the passive tense was considered (ha) objectionable. Or adverbs! how can you do without adverbs? and why should you?

(Then again I'm not a native English speaker, but I never heard about this anti-passive thing in an academic context anyway, at least not in the UK).

Anyway, if this magic tool can't tell the difference between a passive tense and a non-passive use of "is/was/has been" then what is it good for?
posted by funambulist at 5:14 AM on January 7, 2006


The adverb detector doesn't seem very useful either since it's not able to tell apart genuinely informative adverbs from adverbs that are just "padding" like the ubiquitous "quite" or "literally".
posted by blogenstock at 5:57 AM on January 7, 2006


funambulist: I'm not sure but I think you may be mistaking "past tense" for "passive voice."

Passive voice is not strictly grammar. It's certainly not a tense. It's when the sentence's object should be the subject and vice versa. For instance:

"Students often overuse passive voice." This is not passive voice. The students are doing something with the passive voice.

"The passive voice is often overused by students." This is passive voice. While the students are the actors in the sentence, they're relegated to a prepositional phrase at the end of it.

Neither is wrong. It's a matter of aesthetics. But try to get through a few paragraphs of the second variety and it gets old quickly.
posted by condour75 at 6:01 AM on January 7, 2006


Technical writers avoid passive voice, because it impedes comprehension. Engineers seem to love it, for reasons others can explain better than I can.

"Love" is the wrong word. I would use "have had it beaten into them". We are trained since high school to never use the active voice. The reasoning, I gather, is that using the words "I, we, or Our team", place an inappropriate emphasis on the scientist, and not on the "science".

It's a load of horsehockey, and the practice makes much of scientific literature wholly unreadable.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:06 AM on January 7, 2006


I believe the academic, business, and governmental fields that actually prefer the passive voice. Because in those places, it's appropriate to talk in generalities and broad strokes.

But in fiction, or reporting, or screenwriting, etc, it makes for a much punchier, immediate read to avoid using the passive voice alone. If you use the passive voice in these places, you are just encouraged to make sure that it's because it's the best possible way to write what you are trying to communicate, not because it's a habit.

About adverbs, I like them, but I've read that you should avoid them when you can because if you use the proper verb they are redundant. And, the logic goes, they make verb selection a lazy process. For example, instead of saying "He ran swiftly across the field," you could say "He dashed across the field" saying the same thing but with a stronger verb and one less word.

(Again, I'm not sold on this rule, but I can see the thinking and I do try to choose stronger verbs when I can. And then I find that with a stronger verb many adverbs do seem redundant).
posted by visual mechanic at 6:54 AM on January 7, 2006


A man did bite the dog

Still too complex.

A man bit the dog.

The dog bit a man.

Hot man on dog biting action!

(sorry)

I've also found the "ultra-active" form.

Passive: Seat belts must be worn.

Active: You must wear the seat belt.

Ultra-active: Wear the seat belt, dammit!

Dad-ultra-active: Put on that seat belt, dammit, don't think I can't reach you from up here.

And, in unrelated English, English absolfuckinglutly has infixes.
posted by eriko at 7:16 AM on January 7, 2006


condour75: oops, my bad, I meant "passive form" and wrote "passive tense" instead. It was only a typo, I'm not actually confused about what the passive is.

Neither is wrong. It's a matter of aesthetics. But try to get through a few paragraphs of the second variety and it gets old quickly.

I understand, but as others said, it can be also a deliberate style choice that's appropriate for some contexts. Scientific texts being one example.

Anyway, personally I don't even find it unreadable anyway, but that's probably an influence from other languages where the passive is used even more frequently (same thing with adverbs, that's why I'd find "run swiftly" clearer than "dashed". English has too many words already! Adverbs simplify things if you have less vocabulary than a native speaker - you don't have to know all the possible variations of "running", you just add an adverb...)
posted by funambulist at 8:39 AM on January 7, 2006


Sometimes it looks like passive voice is taking over, especially when people are trying to be official or elegant.

People often use overly-formal sentence structure and big words when they're trying to be official, and they often do it wrong. For example, "myself" is used incorrectly about 95% of the time.

The worst users of the passive voice are business and government folk trying to avoid taking responsibility.

President Reagan's "Mistakes were made" comment about Iran-Contra is a classic example. Who made the mistakes?

Business and government employees should use simple tools like that

They should read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:54 AM on January 7, 2006


I understand, but as others said, it can be also a deliberate style choice that's appropriate for some contexts. Scientific texts being one example.

posted by funambulist at 8:39 AM PST on January 7 [!]

It's a load of horsehockey, and the practice makes much of scientific literature wholly unreadable.

posted by Popular Ethics at 6:06 AM PST on January 7 [!]

Scientific style is one of the most counterproductive norms around. The scientific community is fundamentally dependant on effective communication, but scientific writing style could scarcely be designed to better impede comprehension (on a somewhat related note, ever notice how many members in the audience of a scientific talk quickly lapse into unconsciousness?). Despite our pathological inability to communicate effectively, the norm in written communication mandates passive voice constructions, all in the name of some spurious ideal of "objectivity". I try to fight it as much as I can: with multiple author papers, first-person voice goes a long way to simplify and clarify my writing. Sadly, in single author papers, first person singular rubs most reviewers the wrong way. I confess I have been tempted to tack on fictional co-authors just to simplify my writing.
posted by bumpkin at 9:21 AM on January 7, 2006


Passive voice is usually BAD in English; not so in French.

One good use for passive voice is to make the argument of someone you're against sound weaker...I've started doing this in my legal writing.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:27 AM on January 7, 2006


I turned off the passive voice warning in Word. It flags everything I write professionally. You may not like it much, but when you put together a publication you won't get it past peer review if it's written in first person singular. Personally, I don't see it as a problem. I have a hard time drilling it into my students heads when they begin to write scientific papers. They've been taught for so long not to use passive voice that they spend the first few years trying to learn how to do it properly. It needn't be hard to understand, if you take care while writing it. I find that the biggest barrier to understanding a science paper is the terminilogy, not the use of passive voice. Once you learn the terminology of that field you're golden.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:14 AM on January 7, 2006


Another reason to avoid both passive voice and excessive adverb use is to eliminate excess verbosity. Many times adverbs can be eliminated by choosing a more descriptive verb.

For example:
birdherder's "I tend to think differently on that one" can be changed to "I tend to disagree on that one" (or even better, "I disagree on that one" or just "I disagree")

While I believe that passive voice is a much greater problem than adverb abuse (for various reasons such as impeding comprehension, eliminating or hiding the actor, putting inappropriate focus on the object rather than the subject, making the action appear to be an inherent trait of the object, avoiding responsibility, etc etc) it does have its uses (suspense, if the actor is not important or unknown, etc). It's like salt for writing. A little adds flavor in the right places, too much just deadens the whole thing.

With adverbs, I think the main problem is the overuse of a few specific ones, such as "really" "very" "actually" and worst of all, "literally" (especially by sportscasters).
"He actually drove over to her house." What else is he going to do, pretend to drive over to her house?
"He ran very quickly." Isn't "quickly" enough?
"He is really good at sports." So, he's "excellent" at sports.
"He literally took his head off with that tackle!" No, then the player would be dead (apologies to David Cross).

Another problem that I see in many of the essays by my freshman composition students is too much present progressive tense. I always see things such as "John is stealing cars to make money." Really? Right now? At this very moment? How about "John steals cars to make money."?
posted by papakwanz at 10:43 AM on January 7, 2006


The passive voice warning in Word was turned off by me. Everything written professionally by me is flagged by it. It may not be much liked by you, but when a publication is put together by you it will not be gotten past peer review if it's written in first person singular. Personally, it is not seen as a problem by me. When scientific papers are begun to be written, a hard time drilling it into my students' heads is had by me. They've been for so long taught not to use the passive voice that the first few years are spent trying to learn how to do it properly. It needn't be hard to understand, if care is taken while it is being written by you. The biggest barrier to understanding a science paper is found by me to be the terminology, not the use of passive voice. Once the terminology of that field is learned by you, you're golden.

I don't hate the passive voice, but it is - sadly - much abused.
posted by Richard Daly at 10:52 AM on January 7, 2006


scientific writing style could scarcely be designed to better impede comprehension

Uhhh, yeah.
posted by fixedgear at 10:53 AM on January 7, 2006


Of course, now that I look at it again, that last sentence should be, "Once the terminology of that field is learned by you, golden are you.
posted by Richard Daly at 11:01 AM on January 7, 2006


this is great! as soon as I learn how to stop using the passive voice, I can resume my quest to peer inside of my own butthole by standing on a mirror.
posted by mcsweetie at 11:06 AM on January 7, 2006


The Language Log takes The Passivator to task.

The Passivator, an unusually confused and thoughtless implementation of dubious grammatical advice as eye candy, makes me wonder. He takes a bad idea, misunderstands it, applies it earnestly and systematically in a visually attractive form, and then rationalizes its failures as features. Is this what future Semantic Web applications will be like?
posted by ryanhealy at 11:13 AM on January 7, 2006


You may not like it much, but when you put together a publication you won't get it past peer review if it's written in first person singular.

This is quite false in any number of fields.
posted by advil at 11:17 AM on January 7, 2006


Ha. That post by Language Log gives me great joy. Really. Totally. Literally!

I had only skimmed the page and missed the examples of rephrasing like "The cat was tired". Now I have a feeling it's got to be a joke.
posted by funambulist at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2006


"For example, "myself" is used incorrectly about 95% of the time."

That referenced article do not mention the infamous "picture" cases as being acceptable. e.g.
Fred gave Sue a picture of herself
Where is the antecedent subject of herself?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2006


"Once the terminology of that field is learned by you, golden are you."

So, scientists have to learn to write like Yoda? Hmm, makes some sort of sense I suppose...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:44 PM on January 7, 2006


From a style guide in a documentation department where I worked: "Active voice is preferred." Written by a blonde bimbette who was the middle-aged-male manager's lust object. She later was "promoted" to be the IT department director's administrative assistant. :P
posted by alumshubby at 2:15 PM on January 7, 2006


Is the Language Log what languagehat leaves in the toilet?
posted by papakwanz at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2006


[this is being good]
posted by mkultra at 2:59 PM on January 7, 2006


[q]He takes a bad idea, misunderstands it, applies it earnestly and systematically in a visually attractive form, and then rationalizes its failures as features.[/q]

I think George W. Bush created The Passivator.
posted by ryanhealy at 9:56 PM on January 7, 2006


I well remember Mark's wonderfully cranky takedown of The Passivator, and Ford's massive dose of humble pie:
Unfortunately, while I made the distinction between "guidance" and "uglifying" when I wrote the bookmarklet, I didn't make it when I wrote about the bookmarklet, and many now see the Passivator as some sort of writing pal. I should have put something in big bright lights at the top of the Passivator piece that says "FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY--DOES NOT REPLACE REAL GRAMMAR KNOWLEDGE." ... To defend myself, I was hammering away to make a point, and those sentences are overwrought as a result ... yes, I did leave passive constructions in there, and several others throughout the piece ... The point I wanted to make in doing so was that to-be form verbs aren't always evil, and I can see now that this was way, way, way too subtle a way to make that point... The people who've been reading me for years, I think, tend to get it when I'm off in that world of textual perturbation and having fun, but of course when I wrote the Passivator piece I was, if not directly giving advice, implying that I know something. That is the opposite of my personal motto, which is "I have much to learn." .... Alas, I should have followed my own advice more carefully, and since no one seems to get what I'm up to on this one, aside from folks who've known me for years, the problem clearly rests with the author.
Ayup.

And I highly recommend Language Log, which is written by real linguists with PhD's and everything, unlike yours truly, who fled academia in horror over a quarter of a century ago.
posted by languagehat at 5:38 AM on January 8, 2006


Ah, languagehat, it's good to have such fond memories. Bad, however, to paste large sections of content without providing attribution, even if one is being condescending.

Ayup.
posted by ftrain at 12:34 PM on January 8, 2006


(Note: that "Ayup" is quoted from languagehat's post.)
posted by ftrain at 12:40 PM on January 8, 2006


Sorry, I figured "Ford" plus the reference to the LL post (where your response is linked from) was enough attribution, but I aim to please, so: here.

I should add that I love your writing, I just thought The Passivator was pretty silly and enjoyed Mark's rant.
posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on January 8, 2006


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