Monday 25 March 2013

In praise of the passive

Politicians give it a bad name. Business tycoons have a similar proclivity. Even church leaders aren't averse to doing it. In fact, anyone who wants to shirk their responsibilities is helping to discredit the passive voice.

US President Reagan used the phrase “mistakes were made” when describing the Iran-Contra affair in 1986. In the phone-hacking scandal which came to prominence in the UK in 2011, part of Rupert Murdoch’s apology for the serious wrongdoings committed by his newspapers, included the words, “We are sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected”. In 2006, Pope Benedict was accused of ducking out of a full apology when he said, “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address [in a speech he gave in Germany] ... which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.”
Bizarrely, in 2011 Liam Fox, the defence minister in the UK coalition government, in evading a full and complete admission of guilt for a breach of office for which he had to resign, used a double passive: “The ministerial code has been found to be breached”.

What strikes the reader of course, is that the individuals or organisations making the mistakes, inflicting the hurt, causing the offence or breaching the code are not specified by name. And it’s precisely because of statements like these, which lack the action of an agent and thus create an impression that the buck is being passed, that the passive voice gets a bad press.

Modern style guides tell us to avoid using the passive whenever we write. Some advisers treat it as a grammatical pariah, advising us to eliminate the passive voice wherever possible.
Here are just a few of the reasons they advise us not to use the passive. 

Always write so that the reader knows who the actor is
Passive language can sound impersonal and bureaucratic
Avoid using passive verbs as they result in a vague, over-formal tone
The passive voice is rarely valuable
An active sentence is short and to the point, a passive one requires more words and ends up saying something less clearly

And who has not, for instance, seen the words “Passive Voice (consider revising)”, flash up on their spelling and grammar checker? It has, as it were, become gospel truth.

So, with so many people wanting to ditch the passive, does it have a future? The answer is probably yes, and with good reason. It has its legitimate uses. Like the active voice, the passive voice has been with us for time immemorial and is not likely to go away for a while yet. After all, even those who are most vehemently advocating its demise are using it – and a lot of the time.

George Orwell, amongst others, was disparaging of the passive. In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), he wrote, “Never use the passive where you can use the active”. Professor Geoff Pullum*, a linguist who was the co-author of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (2002) and who frequently writes in defence of the passive, calculated that in Orwell's essay alone, 26% of transitive verbs used were in the passive voice. For a typical prose, such as a newspaper article, this is around 13%. Orwell is just one example of a writer who passes judgment on the passive, whilst actually making excessive use of it.

The main arguments against the passive seem to be that it impersonalises the language, because often we don’t know who the agent is. The result is formal, vague, stilted and verbose. But is this actually the case?

Most style guides which advise against its use, invariably quote bad examples of the passive. They try to prove their point by fabricating the examples themselves so that it becomes blindingly obvious an active sentence is better. For example:
I enjoyed the film (active) and The film was enjoyed (by me).
The student had to rewrite the essay (active) and The essay had to be rewritten by the student (passive).

It is perfectly legitimate (and proper) to use the passive. For example, in situations where the agent is unknown or irrelevant. If you don’t know who is responsible for an action, then a passive construction is just as useful as an active one, if not better (unless you are being deliberately misleading). In fact, where the object (receiver) of the action is more important than the subject (agent) of the sentence, then a passive sentence is the most obvious choice.

Take the following examples of passive structures from a newspaper report today (about snowstorms hitting Britain) and try reconstructing them into the active. Ask yourself if they would be an improvement: 
The snow and ice is expected to cause continued problems on the UK's transport network. 
The severe weather is also thought to have led to the death of a woman in Cornwall. 
Many sports fixtures, including Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Russia and two race meetings, were called off on Saturday.
In each of the sentences, the agents – i.e. those who expect, those who think, and those who call off – are not known, neither are they relevant within the context. In fact, in the last example, multiple agents are involved and you would be hard pressed to attempt to mention them all in an active sentence, let alone identify them. And, more to the point, you could hardly say the sentences were clumsily written or difficult to understand.

It is ironic that many universities produce style guides admonishing use of the passive, not least because academic and scientific writing demands use of agentless texts using the passive. In fact, there is a conscious choice to ignore use of the 1st person singular or plural in research papers, as this might affect the objectivity of the experiment.
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
Sentences like these leave the reader in no real doubt that it was the scientist who was doing the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on the experiment rather than the analyst. Use of the passive does not make it any less legible and the opening paragraphs of a scientific paper will usually make it obvious who the agent (scientist) was.

More than often it is not the passive voice which is at fault, as is often claimed, but sloppy use of the language. Sloppiness is not limited solely to use of the passive however. It may range from acronyms, ostentatious wordage and jargon which is deliberately used to confuse us, to bad spelling, punctuation and grammar (including, for instance, poor use of the active voice). Ultimately, it is about clarity and readability and the passive voice can be used as effectively as any other medium of language to achieve this.

* Geoff Pullum (and others) have written some interesting articles on the use of the passive. This link provides a good starting point.