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Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them)

Writing tutors, teaching assistants, usage columnists, and even word-processor grammar-checkers flag passives for “correction” because they have been told they should. (The disastrously confused Page 18 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is often implicated—but don’t get me started on them.) These critics are often clearly inexpert at accurate identification of what they deprecate: collecting published critical comments about the passive by soi-disant rhetoric gurus, I have found that the most frequently occurring score for telling passives from actives is zero (I put this extraordinary statistic aside to discuss another day). Naturally, the critics also have no idea how many they use themselves.

Recently a colleague and friend with an American doctoral degree did me the kindness of commenting on a draft of mine. She made many solid suggestions that I accepted. But, en passant, she cast a disapproving eye on a couple of passive clauses (correctly identified, I should note), and stressed that she herself tried to avoid passives. I was very grateful for the latter: an empirical claim by a self-identified passive avoider! My colleague, you see, has an excellent and well-written book to her name—a record that could be checked. More on that later.

The piece I was writing—a sad task—was an obituary. In one sentence I explained how I had met the deceased: “I was introduced to her while she was visiting California.” My helpful colleague asked: “Why the passive? What’s wrong with ‘We met…’?”—and the answer is: Nothing, except that it omits the very thing I was saying, namely that this was an actual old-fashioned introduction, not a random encounter in an airport bar. So I ignored that well-intended advice.

The second passive my colleague fingered was this (which actually has a pair of them): “But all plans were disrupted when she was diagnosed in December 2010 with metastasized and inoperable terminal cancer.” The critical comment was:

Again, this is passive voice. Maybe appropriate here, I guess, but in general, I try to avoid the passive.

I was genuinely amazed. Am I seriously supposed to say “But an unexpected eventuality disrupted all plans”? And “when an oncologist named Price diagnosed her … “?

More generally, do the writing tutors of the world really think we should not report that a politician has been shot until we can specify the gunman? Do they honestly think it’s wrong to say that the lights are left on all night in an office building without supplying a list of the individuals who controlled the switches? We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.

Later I went back to that remark “I try to avoid the passive” and began a little empirical investigation. (If you want an accurate primer on how to identify passives, I provide one here). I took down my colleague’s book and opened it at the Preface. I saw a passive clause in the third sentence, and a couple more in sentence 4. The last sentence on the page has a passive relative clause, and the main clause is also passive. On the second page, the 4th sentence has a passive main clause; the 5th sentence paragraph 2 has two more passive clauses; in sentence 4 of paragraph 3 we find another pair; in sentence 1 of paragraph 4, yet another pair; in sentence 2 of that paragraph, one more.

A research assistant took over and went over the whole thing systematically. His careful counting reveals that 26 percent of the transitive verbs in that five-page preface are in passive rather than active clauses. The maximum advisable percentage for readability according to one standard web writing advice site is 15 percent (nonsense, of course—my colleague’s writing is eminently readable—but I cite the figure merely as typical of the standard blah-blah). Merriam-Webster reports an average of about 13-percent passives in newspapers and magazines (which they note is much lower than the 20-percent rate they find in the classic 1946 essay by Orwell warning against passives). And here we have double that percentage, in the writing of an academic who imagines that she avoids passives!

But this is where modern American writing instruction has brought us. Totally unmotivated warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who (unwittingly) often use such sentences more than the people they criticize. And the warnings are consumed by people who don’t know enough grammar to evaluate them (which is why the percentage of passives in published prose continues basically unchanged over time). It’s the blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger.

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