Friday, January 4, 2019

“How to use the passive voice”

At the OUPblog, Edwin L. Battistella writes about how to use the passive voice. He zooms in on a familiar target:

Writing instructors and books often inveigh against the passive voice. My thrift-store copy of Strunk and White’s 1957 Elements of Style says “Use the Active Voice,” explaining that it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.”
Like the passive voice, The Elements of Style (1959 not 1957) has become an easy target. But the book offers more nuance on the passive voice that Battistella allows. Yes, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White offer “Use the active voice” (no cap on active or voice) as an “elementary principle of composition.” But they immediately qualify this maxim: the active voice is “usually more direct and vigorous than the passive” (my emphasis). And: “This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

Like Battistella, Strunk and White recognize that a writer’s emphasis will determine the choice of voice. Battistella says that the choice of passive voice puts “the focus on the object of the action rather than the subject.” Strunk and White give two sample sentences to show exactly that:
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the preferred form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing.
Granted, Battistella goes on to enumerate more contexts in which the passive voice is appropriate. But I think it would be difficult for him, or for any writer, to disagree with Strunk and White’s conclusion: “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible [forceful?] writing.” Or as William Zinsser puts it, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style — in clarity and vigor — is the difference between life and death for a writer.” Any teacher who has seen student-writers work to strip all sense of agency from their sentences (“It will be argued that,” “It is observed that”) understands the point of “Use the active voice.”

Related reading
All OCA Elements of Style posts (Pinboard)
Oliver Kamm on The Elements of Style and the passive voice
Steven Pinker on The Elements of Style and the passive voice
Geoffrey Pullum on The Elements of Style and the passive voice

[I’m not a fan of The Elements of Style as a resource for teachers, but I think it’s important to distinguish what the book says from what folklore says the book says. For instance: Geoffrey Pullum’s claim that Strunk and White prohibit adjectives and adverbs. All Elements of Style quotations are from the 1959 edition that Battistella cites. The Zinsser quotation is from On Writing Well (2001). I left a much shorter version of this post as a comment at OUPblog, where it has yet to appear.]

comments: 3

Unknown said...

It is probably no coincidence that it was you who pointed me to what I think is one of the best discussions of when to use the active voice: Michael Harvey's analysis of FDR's "Day of Infamy" speech in The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. As Harvey points out, the president used the passive voice to emphasize an unprovoked attack but switches to the active when he tells his listeners what America intends to do about it.

If you haven't read it already, you might enjoy Scott Korb's NYT piece earlier this year on "The Soul Crushing Student Essay." The title seems a little misleading, but I like Korb's point that "years of 'texts being read' and “tests being taken' have created the sense in them that whatever they’re devoted to doesn’t matter much to the rest of us." The passive voice helps them write as though that's true.

I guess that my point is this: there may be more to it than lively or dull writing. Orwell notes that the passive voice in political writing is often a kind of euphemism designed to make "banal" statements appear profound. At the end of "Politics and the English Language," he lists five (six?) rules, including rule 4: "Never use the passive voice when you can use the active." This is far less qualified than Strunk and White's advice. Why isn't anyone hassling Orwell?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, that’s an excellent analysis in Harvey’s book.

People do slam Orwell too — I think Pullum is probably the best example. But The Elements seems to be the more favored target, as it’s the thing that so many people recommend, often in exaggerated terms — the only book you’ll need, &c. But as you know, questions of what works in writing always bring in exceptions and qualifications.

I’m pretty sure I read Korb’s essay but I’ll have to look back. Having just listened to Donald Trump’s stream of consciousness for an hour, I think I’ve hurt my head.

Michael Leddy said...

Here’s a link to Scott Korb’s essay for anyone who’s followed this far: “The Soul-Crushing Student Essay.” Reading it reminds me that of a conversation I had with a student who had written an essay that ended up totally (and unconsciously) contradicting its starting point. “I get the feeling,” I said, “that when you were writing in high school, it didn’t really matter what you said.” The student agreed.