C&B Notes

Active vs. Passive Debate (A Different One!)

Orwell, Strunk and White, and the Great Victor Cabas criticized the use of the passive voice against the clarity and strength of the active voice.  Scandalously, the Financial Times offers this (mild) defense of the passive construct.

“Never use the passive where you can use the active.”  So goes one of George Orwell’s best-known admonitions in his essay “Politics and the English Language”.  Many style guides contain the same instruction.  “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,” says Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a key text for US journalists.  The style guides say the active voice is braver and more honest.  It accepts responsibility.  Writers, chief executives and government ministers who use the active voice say: “I made mistakes.”  They do not wriggle away with the passive “mistakes were made”.

But some experts reject Orwell’s advice. Watch the six-part video series by Geoffrey Pullum, a linguistics professor at Edinburgh university. (You can also read his article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive”.)  Prof. Pullum starts off gently, but by the time he gets to Strunk and White he is furious.  This apparently mild academic calls The Elements of Style “the book that I hate the most”.  For a start, he says, its authors do not know what the passive voice is.  They say, for example, that it is better to write the active “dead leaves covered the ground” than the passive “there were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground”.  The first sentence may be shorter and better, but the second is not in the passive voice, he points out. Prof Pullum also points to a 2003 BBC style guide that calls this a passive-voice sentence: “There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.”  There are no passives in that.  Why not? Because, in their most recognizable form, passive-voice sentences involve someone or something having something done to them.  They contain a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle. “President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald” is in the passive voice. “Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy” is active.  In the Strunk and White dead leaves example and BBC riots sentences, nothing is having anything done to it.  The leaves are lying on the ground.  Riots are taking place.  The sentences may be wordy, but they are active…

But, second, the English passive is not easy.  Explaining it takes up almost two pages in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Prof. Pullum’s six videos last more than an hour.  The President Kennedy active and passive sentences are straightforward.  Other passive forms are more complex.  As Prof. Pullum points out, there are sometimes passive clauses embedded in active ones: “The government had the case investigated by the police.”  It starts out active — “the government had the case” — followed by the passive clause “investigated by the police”.  There are also what Prof. Pullum calls “bare passive clauses” without any use of the verb “to be”: “That said, Korea is still Korea, not the Philippines.”  But if the style guides often make mistakes about the passive voice, does that mean that they, and Orwell, are wrong to advise writers to avoid using it?  It depends what you are trying to do.  Fowler’s contrasts the active “France beat Brazil in the final” with the passive “Brazil were beaten by France in the final”.  The first sentence is snappier, and two words shorter.  If you are writing about what happened in the 1998 football World Cup, the active voice is probably better.  If you are writing about France’s footballing history, it is clearly preferable, too. But if you are focusing on Brazilian football, then the passive-voice “Brazil were beaten by France” makes more sense.

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