Fear and loathing of the passive voice

A great many people are unsure what the passive voice is, and what (if anything) is wrong with it. That wouldn’t be such a problem, except that a lot of those people misidentify and misrepresent the passive voice from positions of authority – whether they’re authors of writing manuals or journalists in need of a rhetorical scapegoat.

This is why you’ll often find writers deploring the passive while using it naturally in their own prose, blithely unaware of the double standard. For example, The Elements of Style says, ‘Use the active voice.’ But the first paragraph of E.B. White’s introduction to the book has five transitive verbs, four of which are (perfectly unobjectionable) passives.

E.B. White passive voice in Elements of Style - Geoff Pullum

‘Fear and Loathing of the English Passive’ is the name of a recent paper (PDF; HTML) by linguist Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice. He has followed it with a series of six short videos on the topic (whence the image above). I’ve embedded them all below, for convenience.

So if you’ve ever wanted clarity on the passive voice, set an hour aside. This instructive and entertaining series systematically explains the different types of passive and the rules of their use, then catalogues writers in eminent positions leading their readers astray. With the right information you can avoid the same fate.

*

*

*

*

*

*

*

Thanks to Gretchen McCulloch at the ever-excellent All Things Linguistic for alerting me to the videos. If you fancy wandering deeper into the grammatical rabbit hole, see further discussion and links here.

Update:

Prof. Pullum has brought my attention to a short recent article he wrote, ‘On the Myth that Passives are Wordy‘ (PDF) (eSENSE, 37(1-5), 2015).

34 Responses to Fear and loathing of the passive voice

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Interesting that you post on this. I belong to a closed group which monitors (among other topics) the passive voice used in newspaper headlines when women are victims of male violence. More often than not the passive is striking in its over usage in such headlines. We are of the opinion it is deliberate. “Woman raped and murdered.”

    XO
    WWW

    • Stan Carey says:

      The same structure is used as a matter of course in a range of contexts, though: Baby kidnapped; Witness assaulted; Officer shot, etc. I think it has more to do with foregrounding the subject than with sexism, but I’d be interested in seeing data based on a systematic study. (None of which is to say we don’t live in a sexist society and a rape culture, which we undoubtedly do.)

  2. nugget59 says:

    Thanks for posting the videos. Almost through the second. Concise and understandable.

  3. Ian Loveless says:

    Anything worth knowing about the passive voice can be had by reading this article—over and over again.

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922

  4. giffmacshane says:

    Thanks for this article. Now I don’t have to argue this point anymore. I’ll simply refer people to these videos!

  5. Ian Loveless says:

    Although it does not mention the information structure conditions.

  6. astraya says:

    Looking at this immediately after a post-lunch snooze, I blearily read ‘Fear and loathing of the passive vice’! The active vice is obviously to be preferred.

  7. Greg says:

    I recently wrote a brief explanation of why English uses the passive voice here.

    There is actually a point behind admonitions not to use the passive voice, but too many grammatically illiterate people confuse “passive voice” with other devices that are used to deemphasise the actor in the sentence.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Agreed – at least, there is a point behind some such admonitions. What is remarkable is how common this ignorance of grammar is among learned and intelligent people.

  8. Greg says:

    Having now listened to the talk, I found it easy to get caught up in Pullum’s indignation at the unwarranted defamation of the passive. The restriction on information structure was something new, although this is obviously what lies behind the unnaturalness of many of the straw-man sentences that are put up to show why the passive is so bad.

    There was one point I didn’t totally agree with Pullum on. For me, “The ring got given to somebody else” is fine.

  9. I find it amusing that linguists, including those who generally criticize language peevery, get so peevish about technical terms being used in a nontechnical way. It would be like astronomers complaining about “light-years”, physicists about “quantum leap”, traffic engineers about “gridlock” or mathematicians about “least common denominator”. Except that I never see such complaints.

    The linguistic fact is that the passive voice is, in English, the most natural way to express impersonal constructions of the type that would be indicated by “man” is German or “on” in French or reflexive verbs in Spanish or Italian. (For example, “man spricht Deutsch”, “on parle français”, “se habla español”, but “English spoken”.) And so it seems natural, in lay usage, to extend the meaning of “passive voice” to mean impersonal language generally. Why is it so hard for grammarians to accept that?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t think that analogy holds. If I said teleportation technology was ‘light-years’ away or required a ‘quantum leap’, I’m obviously using those phrases metaphorically: no listener will think I mean them in their strictly technical senses. (This is why you don’t see them complained about.) But when writers use the term ‘passive voice’ inaccurately to criticise aspects of language usage that they object to, they’re not extending it as a metaphor – they’re trying to use it in the technical sense from a position of ignorance, so they end up confusing or misleading some of their readers.

      • astraya says:

        I think the more accurate analogy would be laymen using ‘light year’ when they really mean ‘parsec’, or ‘quantum leap’ when they really mean ‘radioactive decay’.

    • Greg Pringle says:

      Mainly because the authorities who warn against use of the passive are not presenting themselves as laymen. They are presenting themselves as experts on the correct use of language. If they are going to present themselves as authorities and experts, they should understand what they are talking about. Not knowing what “passive voice” is, is an unforgivable error on the part of an expert on language. It is the ignorance of these “authorities” that has led to general sloppiness on the part of laymen, a sloppiness which you are now defending as perfectly ok — to the extent that you want to label grammarians as being in the wrong for insisting on the correct usage.

      If these experts want to warn against vague or impersonal language they should do so without erroneously invoking grammatical jargon like “passive voice”.

  10. astraya says:

    Quite apart from questions of use and abuse of passive voice, as an ESL teacher, I have noticed the difficulties which many students have with verb [be] and past participles.

    [Be] is the only English verb with three forms in present tense and two in past tense, and the only one where the plain present form is different from the plain form (aka infinitive). As well as [be] as a main verb, this also affects present and past continuous tenses of other main verbs, and all the ‘[be] going to’ forms of ‘future tense’.

    Regular past participles and most irregulars are not a particular problem, because the past simple and past participle forms are identical. But ‘ABC irregular verbs’ are among the most common, and have pronunciation traps. My list of irregular verbs has 36 in the ‘eat – ate- eaten’ and ‘drink – drank – drunk’ groups.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Be-forms are a real morphological thicket. From a native speaker’s POV it’s easy to say they show the great richness of English etymology, with so many languages contributing to the paradigm. But the difficulty this presents to language learners is undeniable.

      • astraya says:

        Last year in Australia a Chinese student opined that she’d rather learn an ‘easy’ language like Spanish. I invited the Spanish speaker in the class to write up all the forms of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’. Suddenly the Chinese student seemed a whole lot less enthusiastic.

  11. astraya says:

    PS (As far as I know) there’s an overwhelming preference among languages to put the agent first, although (again as far as I know) many/most/all languages have grammatical resources to focus other parts of the clause.

  12. ahiggins2013 says:

    Great post! I teach Freshman Composition at my university, and deal with this problem regularly. But I also write poetry, and here’s one in which I play with it: The Receiver of the Action

    Active verbs bite better than passive ones.
    They grow teeth.
    The subject smiles as the Doer of the Action.
    I turn the medal.
    I know the church.
    I resist pain.
    The cheetah curls her lip.

    So much more interesting to do
    than to be done to.
    For Lent, I give up helping verbs,
    adverbs.
    I say stations on the street.
    I replace my old litany of the verbs to be:
    appear, become, continue,
    feel , grow, look, remain, seem…
    With some of the million verbs to do:
    applaud, berate, count,
    fry, grapple, leer, reenact, squash…
    Words that cry for vengeance.

  13. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good afternoon, Stan!
    I’ve just completed viewing the first three videos by Professor Geoffrey Pullum (thanks for them…He’s excellent!) and would like your input on a lingering question I have (voiced before reading the comment section of this post): Why does the man and bear analogy violate the passive construction given by this professor, since “by the man” is the same as “man” located in the opening sentence? In other words, the man orders the beer and honey after the two enter the bar. Therefore, the man in the prepositional phrase is the same as the man in the opening sentence, and the order placed by the man occurs after the two enter the bar. This time sequence seems to honor Professor Pullum’s passive time expectation, even though the phrasing is awkward. Maybe I’m missing something. Thanks for your clarification.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Vinetta. This constraint is about the information structure of long passives, not their time sequence. Material in the ‘by phrase’ should be new to the reader, or at least no older than material in the subject of the passive clause. Chronology doesn’t necessarily enter into it.

      Pullum’s example is: A man walks into a bar, leading a bear on a chain. A beer and a pot of honey are ordered by him. In the ‘by phrase’, ‘him’ refers back to the man, with whom we’re already familiar; in fact, this element is older in the discourse than the subject of the clause (the beer and pot of honey), so it violates the rule Pullum describes.

      I hope that helps.

  14. astraya says:

    One of the textbooks we have been assigned has a section on passive voice. It explains it in terms of ‘focus’: ‘We use active voice when we want to focus on the person or thing doing the action … We use passive voice when we want to focus on the person or thing receiving the action’. There’s a few sentences in active to be re-written in passive then a speaking activity, beginning ‘Who wrote your favourite book?’ (example answer) ‘My favourite book was written by Arundhati Roy’. I am surely not the only person to think that ‘My favourite book was written by Arundhati Roy’ is a very unnatural answer to ‘Who wrote your favourite book’. (Though I could easily accept it as the response to the request ‘Tell us about your favourite book’.) I dutifully led them through the activity then said ‘In real life, we wouldn’t answer like that. We would answer “Arundhati Roy wrote my favourite book” or just “Arundhati Roy”‘.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh dear. Well, the textbook authors deserve a little credit for not castigating the passive. But trying to explain it in terms of ‘doers of an action’ will only invite difficulty. The example they’ve invented is woefully unnatural and therefore completely unhelpful.

      • astraya says:

        I can’t recall any ESL textbook I’ve seen ‘castigating the passive’. As far as I know, all of them state that it has its uses, and most give reasonable examples.

        Even Prof Pullum and/or Prof Huddleston introduce(s) passive clauses in terms of ‘actor’ and ‘patient’ (in A Student’s Guide): “In clauses describing some deliberate action, the subject is usually aligned with the active participant (the actor) in the active voice, but with the passive participant (the patient) in the passive voice … Many clauses, of course, do not describe actions, but they can be assigned to the active and passive categories on the basis of their syntactic likeness to clauses like [their example of a passive clause].”

  15. […] ‘Fear and loathing of the passive voice’, I shared a series of videos that explain what the passive voice is, what it isn’t, and why so […]

  16. sarahlivne says:

    What I don’t understand is Pullum’s objection to the verb ‘became’ as introducing a passive. It isn’t transitive, but as he himself pointed out in the first video – there are many passive forms, in some of them the passive clause serves as adjective. I think all the linking verbs that can replace ‘be’ still do introduce a passive voice (not that there’s anything wrong with it): His health became impaired (or was impaired – still passive), she felt heart-broken, the box looked opened, the house smelled lived-in – aren’t all those passives? For some reason he agrees to this when the linking verb is ‘got’ but not when it is ‘became’. Why?

    • Greg Pringle says:

      So you would say:

      He was arrested by the police / He got arrested by the police / He became arrested by the police

      He was slapped in the face by his girlfriend / He got slapped in the face by his girlfriend / He became slapped in the face by his girlfriend

      The third member of each set is very strange English and is certainly strained as ‘passive voice’. I think the adjectival use of the past participle and passive voice are two different things and need to be kept distinct.

      I don’t think that “He was heart-broken / He got heart-broken / He became heart-broken” are the same thing. The first is not a passive: it represents a state. The last two represent a transition to a state. None of the three is the passive voice of a verb, even though ‘heart-broken’ might be passive in sense since it is based on a past participle.

      • sarahlivne says:

        No, I’m not at all saying that the meaning or usage of all these linking verbs are interchangeable. BTW, even in the video he said that the meaning of ‘was’ and ‘got’ are not necessarily interchangeable and in many cases you would not use ‘became’ because its meaning is not suitable. I’m saying that from a syntactic POV they serve the same role in introducing a state, in the form of an adjective (rather than an object of a transitive verb: compare ‘I felt a sense of longing’ – transitive, to ‘I felt sad’ – state, adjective, which in some cases can be passive, e.g. ‘I felt heart-broken’. At least according to Pullum himself, who said there are many ways for passive voice to appear, not just as the simple transposition of a transitive verb in the active voice. So I’m saying in this case (e.g. ‘impared’ or ‘heart-broken’, or ‘opened’ or ‘lived-in’), the use of the participle DOES indicate a passive voice (and again there’s nothing wrong with that).

  17. […] as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s