13 April 2009

Hunting Down the False Passive

Mark Liberman at Language Log recently had cause to note how modern American prose stylists' dislike of the passive voice has morphed into something more:

In recording the mutation of the term "passive voice", I've been focusing on the way that the word passive has gradually lost its technical grammatical meaning, and taken on a sense crystallizing around notions of passive as "unassertive", "lacking in force", "failing to take responsibility for what happens", "submissive".
Specifically, a New Yorker writer had stated that Bernard Madoff spoke in "passive voice" when he said: "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly..." Grammatically, that's active voice (as well as a direct admission of starting a Ponzi scheme). But the second clause does have a bit of "failing to take responsibility."

Jan Freeman, the Boston Globe "The Word" columnist, noted how our relatively recent worry about the passive voice has long been linked to issues of gender:
Linguist Arnold Zwicky [also at Language Log] found the passive first described as a weakness in US writing handbooks of the 1930s and '40s, in discussion freighted "with images of strength, muscularity, and action (that is, symbolic masculinity)."

George Orwell spread the anti-passive gospel in "Politics and the English Language," his famous (and passive-laden) 1946 essay. American students imbibed it from Strunk and [E. B.] White's "Elements of Style," though probably a few of them noticed - as linguist Geoff Pullum did - that the book's section on the passive employs the passive...
Those mid-century decades were when Ernest Hemingway's muscular prose dominated American letters, part of a reaction to the ornate overstatement of the previous century. Naturally a literary technique labeled "passive" would be out of fashion (along with that "pathetic" fallacy).

In his new Chronicle of Higher Education attack on The Elements of Style, Pullum himself (another Language Log regular) noted that three of Strunk & White's four examples of passive constructions to avoid aren't grammatically passive at all. So nearly from the start our prohibition against the passive voice swept up other frequently vague or wishy-washy constructions as well.

Pullum explained the value of the passive voice this way:
We are told [by Strunk & White] that the active clause "I will always remember my first trip to Boston" sounds much better than the corresponding passive "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me." It sure does. But that's because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows "by").

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying "The bill was paid by me," with no stress on "me," would sound inane. (I'm the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. "The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor" sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.
In my writing groups I've noticed some members suffering another misconception about the passive voice: that a "was" or "were" construction is the tip-off to it. Yes, "I was hit by a wombat" is in the passive voice (and properly so according to Pullum, if the wombat is a "newer and less established" element). But "I was hitting the the wombat" is not only active voice, but an image of strength and muscularity.

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