Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Passive Voice

When I was in school, I was taught that I should avoid the passive voice.  Later, I learned a little better rule that said that no more than 10% of sentences should be in passive.  But, this rule was still problematic.  What 10% should be in the passive voice?  This was just another mechanical rule that provided no real guidance.

A recent article by Geoffrey Pullum gives more guidance to students: Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting.

He writes, "Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years. . .  So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good English (1982), by Edward D. Johnson, also known as The Washington Square Press Handbook of Good English, is a bit more sensible on the topic than most works addressed to the general public in the past half century."

Some good advice: “Don’t be afraid of the passive voice,” he says firmly [Johnson]. Adults “can forget that ‘Avoid the passive’ rule”: It’s for kids. “The passive voice is respectable, is capable of expressing shades of meaning that the active voice cannot express, and is sometimes more compact and direct than the active voice.”

He asks, "When does the passive express a shade of meaning that the active doesn’t? In what could be called the finger-pointing use of long passives. A passive with a by-phrase lays stress on the agent."

He continues, "And when is the passive more compact and direct? One class of such cases comprises Johnson’s “trouble-saving passive.” If you were to take a sentence like Smith was arrested, indicted, and found guilty, but the money was never recovered and try to wrestle it into the active voice, as so many writing guides insist you should, you would have to find subjects for all the active verb phrases. You’d need subjects for arrested Smith (the police department? the county sheriff?), and indicted him (a grand jury, as in the U.S.? the Crown Prosecution Service, as in Britain?), and for found him guilty (a judge? a trial jury?), and for recovered the money (the detectives? some bank or post office? the people whose cash had been stolen?). Implementing this pointless and clumsy elaboration would make the sentence nearly twice as long."

Johnson also notes the utility of what he calls “the pussyfooting passive,” which he says “is essential in journalism” because “often the writer does not know who did something or is not free to say who did it, but he wants to say it was done.”

Pullum concludes: "Edward Johnson’s discussion of the passive and when to use it, then, while not complete or perfect, is vastly superior to the “use the active voice” dogma repeated in so many dreadful books and articles and web pages on writing."

I agree with Pullum's and Johnson's comments, but I don't think they have gone far enough.

In my book, Legal Writing Exercises: A Practical Guide to Clear and Persuasive Writing for Lawyers 12-17 (ABA Pub. 2014), I stated, "You should only use the passive voice when you have a particular reason to do so."  I continued, "Effective writing uses both active and passive sentences. The passive voice may sometimes be preferable, such as where the actor is obvious or where the writer wants the actor to be ambiguous."


Mistakes were made. (In this example, the person who made the mistakes is hidden to de-emphasize the subject)
Mistakes were made by Jim. (In this example, the fact that Jim made the mistakes is de-emphasized.)
John was shot by Jim. (In this example, I wanted to emphasize John so I used the passive voice.)

In addition, the passive voice can affect emphasis and paragraph coherence.  As I wrote in Chapter Four of my book, "The above sentences say the same thing and, for the most part, they sound equally correct. The version one chooses depends on the emphasis desired (and how the sentence fits with other sentences in the paragraph). A writer should never settle for the first version but should consider all correct means of expression."

In other words, a writer should not apply a mechanical rule to the use of the active and passive voice, but she should choose the voice based on the intended meaning, emphasis, coherence and sound.  As I stressed throughout my writing book, while you should know the rules of writing, the number one thing is to follow your ear.

(Scott Fruehwald) (hat tip: Volokh Conspiracy)

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