the passive voice

I recently came across an article I had saved from the first quarter 1991 issue of Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, or STC. The article by Kent Porter is entitled “Usage of the Passive Voice,” and is a hilarious spoof on the use of the passive in technical communication.

passive voice: "inconvenience caused is regretted"The passive voice, of course, is when the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The sentence “He clobbered me” is in the active voice. “I was clobbered by him” is in the passive voice.

Although most of Porter’s article is funny only if you have either been a technical writer or a user of technical manuals, the author provides a couple of tidbits that any student of language can enjoy. First, he re-writes Shakespeare:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, your ears should be lent to me. … It is intended that Caesar be buried, not praised.

In another example he writes:

Jane was asked to be married by Robert through a romantic proposal.

Both great examples of why to avoid the passive.

I belong to an online kitchen appliances group. One woman wrote about a particular appliance:

My husband and I agreed that the quiche is not going to be made again.

I’m not sure why she didn’t want to admit to who was responsible for making the quiche.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to use the passive. Anne Curzan, in her video course English Grammar Boot Camp, writes about starting a blog entry this way:

I have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by graduate students in the English and Education program.

Curzan points out that the passive is useful here because the focus of the second sentence is the mug and not the graduate students.

In The Elements of Style Strunk and White state:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. … This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The pompous H.W. Fowler states in Modern English Usage that the passive “sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.” Note the “sometimes.”

The bottom line, then: give preference to the active voice, but use the passive when appropriate.

By the way, if you are a technical writer or a user of technical manuals you might enjoy Porter’s original article. It’s here in PDF format. Note that the article starts halfway down the page.

photo credit: Scott Dexter, cropped.  license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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