Should the passive voice be avoided? And what’s wrong with Strunk? And what about White, while we’re at it?

  1. The bill was signed by the president.
  2. The bill remained on the president’s desk for five days.
  3. Mistakes were made.

All three of those sentences are in the passive voice, right?

Actually, wrong. Only the first and third are.

So why is the general public so confused about what “passive voice” means? We have to understand the terminology before we can argue about when/whether the passive should be avoided, so here’s the agenda, in order:

  1. What is the “passive voice”?
  2. Why are people confused about that?
  3. Should the passive be avoided? Sometimes, always, never?

Now we open the envelope and find the answers:

  1. The passive voice is a construction in which the direct object of a transitive verb is transformed to become the subject, and the original subject becomes the object of the preposition by or is omitted altogether. For example, in the first sentence at the top of this piece, the original (“active”) form is The president signed the billwhere the subject of the sentence (president) is doing the signing; this is then transformed into The bill was signed (by the president), where the parenthesized phrase can optionally be omitted. End of story.
  2. People are confused because linguistics, like mathematics, sometimes uses ordinary English words with specialized meaning. In math, for example, we have similar and tangent with meanings that are clearly related to their meanings in non-technical English but are definitely not identical. So why, you may ask, does this cause a much bigger problem in linguistics than it does in math? That’s because people who don’t understand math are scared by it, so they don’t assume they know something that they don’t know. In fact, it’s more often the other way around—people who say “I can’t do math” when they really can. But in linguistics everyone says “I understand language, I use English all the time,” so they do assume they know something when they really don’t. Therein lies the problem. Words like passive and voice are standard English, but the technical meanings in linguistics are definitely not the everyday meanings! That difficulty leads people to claim that the second example at the top of this piece is in the passive voice, even though it isn’t: they say that remaining is not an action, so it can’t be active voice. Wrong!
  3. So what’s the true story about the oft-given advice to avoid the passive voice? For this we should turn to Strunk and White’s The Elements of StyleOr, I should say, we should turn away from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; we will see why in the remaining paragraphs of this post.

Many people worship this offensive book. What they don’t see is that both Strunk and White are like Donald Trump: they ignore evidence, focus egocentrically on themselves, and promulgate incorrect opinions—or “alternative facts,” as we call them today. In discussing the passive voice, I will summarize a couple of points in Geoffrey Pullum’s wonderful essay, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” but you should go read the entire essay yourself. (BTW, at this point it’s 62 years, not 50.) Geoffrey Pullum is a prominent linguist who uses evidence, not made-up facts, to support his views, so pay attention!

Let’s look at Pullum’s first two counterexamples to Strunk and White’s advice to avoid the passive:

  • The bill was paid by me.
  • The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor.

Pullum points out that the first of these sentences sounds silly at best, but the second one is fine. It’s “perfectly natural,” in Pullum’s words. Yet Strunk would ban it. White too.

And then we can circle back to the first point in this post. I will quote Pullum rather than paraphrasing:

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.)

Evidence, folks, evidence! Read Pullum’s essay, and you’ll find some answers to when the passive voice should be avoided. (Sometimes it should be…). Then go back and identify where I’ve used the passive in this post.


Categories: Linguistics