Most don’t understand the English passive, but they are ready to criticise it anyway

Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, has published a wonderful paper titled Fear and Loathing of the English Passive. His main claim, which he demonstrates easily with many examples, is that most people, including professionals writers, journalists and authors of usage guides, don’t understand the English passive enough to criticise it properly.

Pullum is a regular blogger and his 23-page academic paper is quite readable. But I’m pulling out a few examples here that make it easy to understand Pullum’s frustration. First one from a respected book of English usage, The Elements of Style by William Strunk:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.

Pullum says, “Directness, boldness, and concision are not even relevant here, because Strunk’s disrecommended example … cannot be used in any normal kind of context.” And if you think about it, that makes sense. The passive construction is just odd and would never be used in spoken English, let alone written English.

Here’s another one from the BBC News Style Guide:

Compare these examples. The first is in the passive, the second active:

1. There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which
police clashed with stone-throwing youths.

2. Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in
Northern England last night.

The main reason for recommending that passive should not be used is that it tends to obscure or attenuate agency (ie the doer). But, as Pullum writes, “the former is not a passive, and no clear agency or responsibility issue arises (in both versions the youths threw the stones, and in neither version is the instigator of the riots named or implied).”

The best example comes quite early in the essay because of its “strangely ill-chosen metaphor”, where Sherry Roberts writes in 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business:

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gun-fight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

As the underlined word indicates, and Pullum writes, “Notice that she unthinkingly uses a passive while making the above statements.”

Finally, Pullum nails it with an analysis of Orwell’s own writing. It was Orwell who wrote in his now-famous essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.”

By my count, about 17% of the transitive verbs (those that require an object) in random prose are likely to be passive, while a careful count of the whole of Orwell’s essay shows that 26% are passive … Orwell uses more than one and a half times as many passives as typical writers.

In writing the paper, Pullum addresses the main criticism that could be levelled against him that may be he is being too prescriptive, that language changes and that people’s definition of passive is broader than he lays it out. But the sheer breadth of examples that his blog readers have brought to his notice makes it clear to him that that isn’t the case.

How and why has this happened?

Oversimplification and overkill by well-meaning advisers may have a lot to do with it. It is right and good, of course, to instruct students and novice writers in how they might improve their writing. But handing them simplistic prescriptions and prohibitions is not doing them any favors. ‘Avoid the passive’ is typical of such virtually useless advice.

As I have always understood it, the use of passive voice should be avoided if it affects clarity. But Pullum argues that, when most people cannot even recognise what is a passive and what is not, this standard teaching about shunning the passive “should be abandoned entirely”.

Even if they managed to follow the advice rigorously (which they can hardly do if it is not clear to them what a passive is), it would usually not improve their writing one whit. It would certainly make them write less like great writers of the past—and more like a little child.

Taking Pullum’s advice seriously, it is important that we understand how to spot a passive. Here’s a short guide from the University of North Carolina’s Writing Centre:

  1. Look for the passive voice: “to be” + a past participle (usually, but not always, ending in “ed”). If you don’t see both components, move on.
  2. Does the sentence describe an action? If so, where is the actor? Is he/she/it in the grammatical subject position (at the front of the sentence) or in the object position (at the end of the sentence, or missing entirely)?
  3. Does the sentence end with “by…”? Many passive sentences include the actor at the end of the sentence in a “by” phrase, like “The ball was hit by the player” or “The shoe was chewed up by the dog.” “By” by itself isn’t a conclusive sign of the passive voice, but it can prompt you to take a closer look.

There are however some problems with such simplistic advice. For example, rule 1 could exclude many types of passives:

  1. Prepositional passives: eg. He was laughed at.
  2. Bare passives: subject+past participle. eg. That said, however, I like girls. One of its ads shows a washed-out manager, arms folded, sitting in a corner.
  3. Get passives: got+past participle. eg. Marie got photographed.
  4. Adjectival passives: eg. The door seemed locked, as far as I could tell
  5. Concealed passives: eg. The situation needs looking into by experts.

Similarly, rule 2 won’t be able to catch an adjectival passive. And rule 3 won’t catch many short passives which exclude a by-phrase (and where one may not be obvious).

All that to say: perhaps the best advice to follow on the debate about passives is that we must worry less about using (or spotting) passives and more about achieving clarity in writing by whatever means possible. This advice, I think, might be less controversial.