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10/01/2014

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Warsaw Will

This one is from a Sunday Times guide 'Writing Effective E-mail', which I found lying around in the teacher's room some time ago. It's from a section called 'using the active voice'. They say:

'Consider the following passive sentence:

"It is possible for the accountants to conduct and complete an audit in 30 days."

The following rewritten, active sentence eliminates all unnecessary words and focuses on actor, action and object:

"The accountants can complete the audit in 30 days."

Notice that the 9-word active sentence is much shorter than the lumbering 15-word passive sentence. Active constructions are always shorter than the passive.'

Enough said. An example of some North American attitudes can be summed up in this, from a top ten list of ESL errors, Number Seven: Active and Passive Voices:

'Most writers understand that they ought to avoid the passive voice. But ESL writers often hide behind the passive voice as a way of not taking responsibility for ideas and sentences that they aren't sure about.'

This used to be on the website of Dartmouth, a member of the Ivy League, and is still trotted out at a blog at Columbia University and a another blog at Canada College.

Peter Harvey

Thanks Will. I am puzzled by all this. I only found out about this misunderstanding about five years ago when I read Geoff Pullum on the Language Log. Until then I knew that Orwell advised against the passive but the extent to which it was misrepresented came as a complete surprise – after all, it’s quite a simple thing to understand.

I happen to be proofreading and correcting a scientific paper just now. In spite of what I say about the use of the passive in scientific writing I have changed

“Historical information accessible in HERTTA from areas that have been repeatedly sampled and that have been analysed during several years was taken into account.”
to
“The study also took into account historical information accessible in HERTTA from areas that have been repeatedly sampled and that have been analysed during several years.”

The reason is not a choice between active and passive as such but to achieve ease of comprehension by avoiding an extremely long subject – in this case by making a passive sentence active.

Warsaw Will

I've often wondered whether Strunk deliberately used a passive to extol the virtues of the active in Elements of Style -

'Many a tame sentence ... can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice'

It seems hard to imagine that neither he nor his editors had realised what he'd written.

And in the paragraph where he criticises the use of the passive, did Orwell deliberately use more passive constructions than active ones? Here's about half of it (he's talking about the practices of bad writers):

'The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation.'

Two active verbs and an active participle, four passive verbs and a couple of passive reduced relative clauses (or something very similar - 'made up of', 'tacked on to'). Was he just having a laugh? I'm not so sure; the rest of the essay has an above average proportion of passives as well.

Peter Harvey

I think that Orwell possibly failed to spot his own failings in that case, mostly anyway, if indeed failings they are. I am somewhat more sympathetic to him than many people, the Language Log for example. I think there is a culture gap. Academics who are used to reading and writing scientific papers that are to be read and understood literally see the world differently from a journalist and author writing a polemical piece about language use who uses deliberate exaggeration in order to make a valid point.

I disagree with the ‘going to the dogs’ point of view but he does make some valid criticism about woolly language betraying woolly thought. It is not hard nowadays to find examples of misuse of language that are just as egregious as his own examples, both from government and from corporate management. He complains of ‘staleness of imagery [and] lack of precision’. He is quite right to do so and the same complaint can be made equally well now.

As for the passive, when he says ‘the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active’ the words ‘wherever possible’ should not be overlooked. He quotes this (my emphasis):

‘A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens!’

In my view, all three of those passives can be criticised: the first for long-windedness, the second because the omitted agent should be stated, and the third because if an aitch is dropped, honestly or otherwise, it cannot be heard.

As for his six rules, I believe that a writer of Orwell’s stature was using those absolute words ‘never’ and ‘always’ knowingly in order to make a powerful effect on his readers, an effect which he deliberately mollified in his obviously tongue-in-cheek last rule. No competent writer could write such things in that way intending them to be taken literally.

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