On the Language Log Geoff Pullum returns to the subject of the passive voice. He has written a paper (Fear and Loathing of the English Passive) that starts with a description of what the passive voice is and follows it by a multitude of examples of sentences that are said to be passive, and are criticised for being so, when they plainly are not.
I had rather assumed that the misunderstanding of the passive (as opposed to giving warnings against it) was an American phenomenon.
In A Guide to English Language Usage I give a standard structural description of the passive (including its use with a subject that is the IO of an equivalent active sentence) but limit myself to saying this in terms of usage:
The passive is used when the focus of attention is on the subject rather than the agent: Othello was written by Shakespeare; Faust was written by Marlowe or when it is not possible, or not desirable, or not necessary to name the agent: This wine is made in Italy; Unfortunately, your DVD recorder was damaged while it was being repaired; Nowadays more food can be grown on a hectare of land than was possible 100 years ago.
The passive is a useful way of avoiding a long subject: The new hospital will be built by Ferguson and McDonald, a Scottish construction company which has a good record of building health centres but has not yet built anything on this scale is preferable to Ferguson and McDonald, a Scottish construction company which has a good record of building health centres but has not yet built anything on this scale, will build the new hospital.
The passive voice is widely used in scientific writing because it provides anonymity, focusing on the action rather than the actor.
However, I have mentioned here that the Guardian has failed to identify the passive properly and now in Pullum’s article I find this (example 40):
From the BBC News Style Guide:
Compare these examples. The first is in the passive, the second active:
- There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.
- Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
But the former is not a passive, and no clear agency or responsibility issue arises (in both versions the youths threw the stones, and in neither version is the instigator of the riots named or implied).
The conclusion of the Pullum’s paper is interesting and true:
The topic of this paper is not so much a construction as a strange cultural trend emerging in the 20th century among language mavens, writing tutors, and usage advisers. Unneeded warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who actually don’t know how to identify instances of what they are warning against, and the people they aim to educate or intimidate don’t know enough grammar to reject the nonsense they are offered. The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger.
Yes indeed. I could have written the first paragraph of this post as:
On the Language Log Geoff Pullum returns to the subject of the passive voice. He has written a paper that starts with a description of what the passive voice is and follows it by a multitude of examples of sentences that people say are passive, and criticise for being so, when they plainly are not.
but I didn’t because I didn’t think it would be an improvement.