One of my more exciting hobbies is checking whether prescriptivists follow their own advice. Often, they don’t. For instance, a stunningly high proportion of people who criticise the passive voice use the passive voice themselves, even as they’re criticising it.
I’ve seen four of these in the last week or so (most if not all via Oliver Kamm).
First, in an article on LinkedIn, Bernard Marr writes:
While there’s nothing absolutely wrong about passive voice, it’s considered weak writing.
I’ve underlined Marr’s use of the passive voice. And I don’t think it’s weak – and nor are the other nine uses of the passive in that article.
Second, in a blog post, Nigel Dudley writes:
Organisations use the passive in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.
True, the passive voice can be used to avoid mentioning who was responsible for something. But here, there’s nothing evasive about Dudley’s use of it. He’s talking in general, not about any particular instance of criticism. It’s a perfectly good turn of phrase.
He says that we should “doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot” – but I disagree, because he’s clearly sincere even though he uses the passive another six times in the post.
Third, and more shockingly, the Economist Style Guide’s entry on “passive” says:
Be direct. Use the active tense. A hit B describes the event more concisely than B was hit by A
Talking about the “active tense” or the “passive tense” is a howler: they’re voices, not tenses. Either can be used in any tense:
- A is hitting B; B is being hit by A
- A will hit B; B will be hit by A
- A had hit B; B had been hit by A
And while this entry doesn’t use the passive itself, the two immediately below it do:
Peer (as a noun) is one of those words beloved of sociologists and eagerly co-opted by journalists who want to make their prose seem more authoritative.
Per capita is the Latin for by heads; it is a term used by lawyers when distributing an inheritance among individuals…
The “per capita” example could have been written in the active with a tiny gain in concision (“…it is a term lawyers use when…”). But the “peer” one would have been awkward and in fact longer (“words beloved of sociologists and which journalists eagerly co-opt when they want…”).
Many other entries on the P page of the Economist guide use the passive – and use it well.
Fourth, and most spectacularly, Toby Young writes in the Spectator:
On the contrary, nearly all of Gove’s rules can be traced to George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’, an essay that’s generally regarded as the best guide to writing good English that has ever been produced. To give just one example, Orwell’s fourth rule is ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’. Kamm singles this out for condemnation in his Times article, apparently unaware that it was first set out by the finest prose stylist of the 20th century.
There’s one final reason why it was sensible of Gove to set out these rudimentary principles. I’m absolutely certain that for every Oliver Kamm who bridles whenever these old–fashioned rules are observed, there are 10,000 Toby Youngs who feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored.
Part of the beauty of this self-blindness is that Orwell’s essay also used the passive voice extensively, including in his complaint that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”. So Young is truly a disciple of his hero.
(Other professional writers who condemn the passive while using it include Stephen King and Simon Heffer.)
So, what’s the moral of all this?
I am shallow and I can’t deny a certain cheap ‘Gotcha!’ satisfaction in spotting examples like these. But I’m not faulting these writers’ uses of the passive: this rule-breaking prose is mostly well-written, and there’s something to learn from that fact.
Young, in particular, knows how to put sentences and paragraphs together. But he apparently doesn’t know how he does it. He thinks certain grammatical rules make him “feel almost physically assaulted when they’re ignored”. But that passive construction, and the others, didn’t make him feel assaulted. He wrote them, probably read them over once or twice, and thought they were fine. And on that point, at least, he was right.
The passive voice is an essential tool in every good writer’s repertoire. Oliver Kamm, in the Times, gives a superb example of Orwell using it in his essay:
Orwell describes the reality of the anodyne term pacification: “Defenceless 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…” – passive clauses, every one. It’s powerful writing because Orwell ignores his own advice.
I’ve written plenty about the passive voice before. In summary, it can indeed be stuffy, verbose and evasive – but it can also be useful for shifting focus and improving flow.
But today I’m making a point about the psychology of prescriptivism (or what Joseph Williams called “the phenomenology of error”).
When people insist that a certain use of language is bad or wrong but use it themselves, even while doing the insisting, something is amiss. Their beliefs about language have become unmoored from their use of language.
They have heard that the passive voice (or adverbs, or split infinitives, or fused participles, or singular “they”, or “who” as object, or whatever) is bad. They have seen a few examples of it being used to bad effect. This has convinced them that it is bad, and so they’ve started to preach the rule against it themselves.
But they haven’t thought enough about possible good uses of the passive (or whatever). And because they don’t realise that the human mind is far from transparent to itself, it doesn’t occur to them that their proud, firm belief isn’t reflected in their own fluent, natural behaviour. They don’t notice how useful they find the thing that they condemn.
They understand how to use language. That understanding runs deep – deeper than the conscious belief they’ve adopted – and it is what keeps them good writers even as they become bad writing advisers.
There is no surer sign of a bogus rule than that it cannot take root in its own evangelists’ minds.