Sunday, October 9, 2011

An Argument in Favor of Passive Voice

The Chronical of Higher Education published an interesting piece on passive voice this month.  In it, Geoffrey Pullum argues that criticism of passive voice is overblown.  Here is a snippet:

"More generally, do the writing tutors of the world really think we should not report that a politician has been shot until we can specify the gunman? Do they honestly think it’s wrong to say that the lights are left on all night in an office building without supplying a list of the individuals who controlled the switches? We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke."

I think that passive voice is a particular evil in legal writing because writing clearly about who did what is critical when solving a legal problem.  Any sentence structure that obscures who the actors are is problematic.


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I'm with Geoff Pullum on this. In contract drafting the consequences of hiding the actor can be particularly unfortunate, but even in contract drafting the passive voice has its uses. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago:

Posted by: Ken Adams | Oct 9, 2011 7:00:35 PM

You're absolutely right. In most cases passive voice takes away from the goal of legal writing--to be clear, precise and concise. Passive construction hides who the actor is and usually requires more words. On the other hand, this author is correct in pointing out that there is a place for passive voice. Good writers know when to use passive voice.

Posted by: Teresa Bodwell | Oct 10, 2011 9:57:48 AM

Passive voice in legal writing is "a particular evil"? No, not really. You're thinking of the notorious "mistakes were made" construction and generalizing that to all uses of the passive voice. Passive voice is a tool that all writers should consider available for their use when it suits their purposes. As Pullum notes, sometimes the actor is unknown or unimportant. If you want to focus attention on the action or the object, then you should use passive voice. Calling it evil and therefore something that no good writer should use is a mistake.

Posted by: Brom | Oct 10, 2011 11:21:05 AM

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