The Passive Voice Should Be Avoided, Right?

The Elements of StyleLike most of you who have taken classes with teachers who provided grammatical and stylistic critiques of your papers, I was told to avoid the passive voice as much as possible. Yet I was never really completely convinced of the notion. The Greek New Testament is full of passives, I rebutted, and a grammatical active may be a semantic passive (yet these, strangely, never got marked as improper). I just never felt like the case against passives was convincing. It was more of an unquestionable rule of proper writing style.

But not everyone is afraid to question this prevailing notion. I just read a scathing (understatement!) review of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style that addresses the issue of passives, among other things. It was written by Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is the head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh.

Here’s his discussion of passives:

“Use the active voice” is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.

We are told 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.

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice,” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

If you have any interest in grammar and style, I encourage you to read the whole thing: “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” Pullum makes many valuable observations and leaves the reader with much worth chewing on.

Update: Justin Taylor picks it up as well and adds a helpful response from Pullum on recommended alternatives.

HT: Kent Hendricks

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10 Responses to The Passive Voice Should Be Avoided, Right?

  1. Mike Aubrey April 11, 2009 at 11:05 am #

    Phil, Pullum is fantastic. He’s also the author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Langauge—over a thousand pages of expensive grammatical delight.

    I don’t know if you’re aware, but he regularly blogs at The Language Log:

    The blogs other posts on the passive are fantastic reads—just put “passive voice” in the search box.

  2. Phil Gons April 11, 2009 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks, Mike. Good to know!

  3. bob bixby April 11, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    I’m not a grammarian or a writer. I’m just a regular person that has an amateur interest in grammar and even I found the Strunk and White book to be problematic when I first read it. I’m glad to see a professional critique. Thanks for the link.

  4. Mark Snoeberger April 13, 2009 at 4:43 am #

    As a writing instructor, I regard Strunk & White as emergency first aid for hemorrhaging writers. While I belong to the guild of strange people who read English grammars, I work daily with people who guffaw at the very thought of a “thousand pages of grammatical delight.” But I can get them to read S&W. The array of clipped generalities that is S&W lacks the precision of the “thousand pages of grammatical delight,” so it grates on the editor-types. But it does offer some basic principles that can help poor writers.


  5. Mike Aubrey April 15, 2009 at 5:44 pm #

    Mark Snoeberger: There’s an abridged version for those of us who don’t have $160 or time to read 1000 pages:

    A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar

    But even still, neither version is a style guide – they’re grammars. I’m wondering what other style guides there are out there that perhaps don’t repeat the grammatical errors of S&W…

  6. Josh Jensen July 16, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    First: I’m a big fan of Pullum. Fantastic linguist.

    Second: Sometimes Pullum’s criticisms can be unfair. If Pullum won you over in his Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, take a look at this well-written response: I think Pullum reads S&W the way Bible-debunkers read the Scriptures. Pick a sentence and make it look stupid.

    I’m not a big fan of S&W, but it’s a good rough-and-ready guide that I doubt anyone takes as seriously as Pullum thinks they do. (“Anyone … they” — look it up in the book I recommend below.)

    @Mike Aubrey: Take a look at Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. They recommend it at Language Log, and it really is quite good.

  7. David Davidson April 13, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    What a delightful takedown of Strunk & White that was!
    I agree, though, with Mark Snoeberger that it—S&W—does offer a certain tourniquet-type utility, to borrow his conceit. I’ve had a very hard time finding grammars that are both valuable and approachable for 101-/high school–level students. On the composition end of things, Graff & Birkenstein’s “They Say, I Say”* is a smart little handbook; it’s been a long-serving didactic tool for me. If only those two would release an accompanying grammar.

    *(the lack of italicization options in web comment forms is one of life’s small torments)


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