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Our Friend the Passive Voice

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, May 1, 2009

For its fiftieth anniversary edition, Strunk and White's Elements of Style has been given the full Biblical treatment, in a shiny black hardcover with the title stamped in gold. But there was nothing less like a Bible when the book appeared in 1959. It was more like a tract, a ostentatiously slender little volume that mixed sensible advice with airy maxims and dated fetishes about punctuation and usage. Its prose was genteel and bristled with pith. But by all rights it should have won a loyal coterie and then gone out of print around 1965, so that its devotees could have the pleasure of hunting it down in the bargain bins of second-hand bookstores.

Some critics have been hard on the book: in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, the linguist Geoff Pullum called it "overopinionated and underinformed" and said that it had degraded American students' grasp of English grammar. But you can't fault Strunk and White if their whims and prejudices have been sucked up into a cloud of free-floating linguistic folklore. It's just a sign of how muddled and reflexive our received linguistic wisdom has become.

 Take the way we vilify the passive voice as weak and wussy. Strunk and White disposed of this matter in 200 words, and they actually weren't that doctrinaire about it. But it has been raised into an article of grammatical faith, cherished by editors, implemented in grammar checkers, and reiterated in all those popular usage books with perky titles on the language shelves at the back of the bookstore. The passive is the syntactic tree of whose fruit one may not eat. 

The advocates of the proscription explain it with judiciously chosen examples: "Compare 'I kicked a can' and 'A can was kicked by me.' Can't you hear how the first is more vigorous, more muscular, more butch?" But you can work that both ways: there are plenty of passives that lose their oomph when they're made into actives. Imagine some votary of Strunk and White revising all the titles in the popular music catalogues, leaving us with Rogers and Hammerstein's "They've Got to Carefully Teach You," the Animals' "Please Don't Let Anybody Misunderstand Me," and the Eurythmics' "This is What They Make Sweet Dreams Out Of" -- not to mention Elvis's "Someone or Something has Shaken Me All Up."

Of course the common rap on the passive isn't just that it's limp but that it's deceptive, a way to avoid taking responsibility for your actions. The textbook example is "mistakes were made," which CNN's Bill Schneider described as the "past exonerative" -- a formula that has exerted an irresistible allure on public figures from Reagan to Clinton to Kissinger to Alberto Gonzales.

That charge isn't the work of Strunk and White. It was popularized by the other great exponent of anti-passivism, George Orwell, in "Politics and the English Language" -- hardly his best essay, but the one that has been absorbed into the cultural wallpaper.

By now, the Orwellian overtones of the passive have become so prominent that a lot of people automatically reach for the term to describe any sentence that seems evasive, whatever its grammatical structure happens to be. On CNN.com, a self-styled language expert named Paul Payack chastises Obama for using the passive in the sentence "There will be setbacks." In the New Republic, Jason Zengerle hears the passive voice in a Republican's prediction that "Axelrod will likely become a lightning rod for public concern." Others hear a suspect passive in "The case took on racial overtones" and even "A bus blew up." Not a passive in the lot.

And in a New Yorker piece not long ago, Nancy Franklin ridiculed Bernard Madoff for using the passive voice when he said "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly." Whether or not the statement was disingenuous, it didn’t have any passives in it. But that point was missed not just by Franklin but by the platoon of checkers and editors who famously vet every sentence before it can appear in the magazine. If nobody knows the traditional meaning of "passive voice" at E. B. White's own New Yorker, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel. On the Language Log blog, the linguist Mark Liberman was prompted to announce its end with Pythonesque finality. The term "passive voice," he said, "has ceased to be; it has expired, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain... It is an ex-grammatical term."

There's no question the name "passive voice"itself is responsible for a lot of the confusion. The style guides are always saying things like "As the name implies, the passive makes writing sound weak and ineffectual." But the grammatical term passive doesn't have anything to do with passivity or unassertiveness. The Latin word passivus is related to the verb patior, or "suffer," the same root that shows up in the noun patient and in "the Passion of Christ." The passive is just the construction we use to focus on the one who undergoes or suffers the action of the verb. "Red Sox swept by Yankees" -- that's the way they tell the story in the Boston Globe, not the New York Times.

And if using the passive can sometimes be culpable, there are also times when it’s morally imperative. The writer Julia Kristeva once said that learning the passive is one of the basic steps in forming our humanity."[1] It's the device that enables us to put ourselves in the place of the people who wind up as the direct objects of history, the done to rather than the doers. You think of all the nouns we derive from the passive forms of verbs: the abused, the oppressed, the persecuted, the dispossessed. And the passive voice is particularly useful to have around in a time when the people who are being laid off, tossed out of their homes, dropped from their medical plans, and generally worked over.

There's a familiar cadence in those strings of passives. It's the syntax Orwell turned to when he talked about the victims of history: "Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets…" Nothing limp about that

1.Well, sort of -- what she actually said was "Cette passivation syntaxique qui annonce la faculté pour un sujet de se mettre à la place de l'objet, est une étape radicale dans dans la constitution de la subjectivité." But you can't say "the constitution of subjectivity" on public radio.

Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.