Monthly Archives: July 2013

The confessions of a recovering pedant

I love the English language, and I love being right. So I became a copy editor. But I grew to realise that my concept of rightness was wrong – and that if I truly loved the language, I’d have to change.

The rise and fall of my mental rulebook

I’ve always been this way. At school, I was the kid who got asked to spell difficult words to save my classmates a trip to the dictionary. In my first job, I was the guy who got given reports to proofread before they went to the client. I played these parts with quiet relish.

But I wanted more.

And when I started getting into editorial work, I knew I needed to be more. My instincts needed to be sharper and my arsenal bigger. So I scoured books and websites for grammatical constructions to avoid, semantic distinctions to maintain. I built an orderly system of rules inside my head – a monument to my love for English and a guide to make sure I treated it right.

Use ‘that’ and not ‘which’ to introduce a restrictive clause. Use ‘affinity’ followed by ‘between’ or ‘with’ but never ‘to’ or ‘for’. Use ‘comprise’, without a preposition, to relate the whole to the parts and not vice versa. Use ‘compare to’ only when likening things. Use ‘disinterested’ for impartiality and not unconcern. Use ‘data’ in the plural. And please, use ‘beg the question’ only after consulting a philosopher.

Rules to make the language strong. Rules to keep it safe. Rules to respect logic and tradition.

For a time, I was happy. But slowly, two shadows fell over me.

The first was all the people – educated, intelligent, articulate people – who didn’t know about many of these rules. And yet they could still speak and write clearly, even powerfully and beautifully. So what exactly were those rules for? Who were they for?

The second came from the opposite direction. I’ve never been able to take seriously some so-called ‘rules’: don’t split infinitives; don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t start a sentence with a conjunction; don’t use ‘since’ or ‘as’ to mean ‘because’; don’t use ‘between’ with more than two things; use ‘jealous’ to denote  protectiveness and not envy. These seemed archaic, arbitrary and irrelevant to how English really works. When someone insisted on one of these ‘rules’, I’d shake my head and wonder how they got themselves into such a state.

I was sorting the real rules from the bogus – using only my own judgement about what made sense and what felt right.

Not good enough.

So all of this led me to the question that unravels everything: what determines the rules of the English language?

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What’s wrong with the passive voice?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has joined the Campaign Against the Passive Voice. He follows in the footsteps of Strunk and White (whose section on the passive voice, while more nuanced than many people recognise, is calamitously misleading) and of George Orwell (who complained about the passive while using it extensively himself, even in the same sentence as his complaint).

The campaign isn’t wholly wrong, but it goes too far and it doesn’t properly understand the problem. The passive voice is often better than the active, and its overuse is usually a symptom of something else.

What’s the difference?

Roughly: in the active voice, the agent performing the action is the grammatical subject of the sentence and the recipient of the action is the grammatical object. The passive voice switches this around, making the recipient of the action the grammatical subject and the agent the object. Passive verbs are formed by adding the appropriate variety of ‘be’ (or ‘get’) to the past participle of the main verb.

Here are a few active/passive examples; in each, the agent is in bold and the grammatical subject is underlined:

Active: The cat sat on the mat.

Passive: The mat was sat on by the cat.

Active: One of you will betray me.

Passive: I will be betrayed by one of you.

Active: Gove is criticising the passive voice.

Passive: The passive voice is getting criticised by Gove.

The “by somebody” identifying the agent is inessential (more on that below), but you can generally tell a passive verb by that fact that “by somebody” would fit after it.

The active voice, making the agent and the subject the same, generally feels more direct and lively. It follows an intuitive ‘who did what to whom’ storytelling sequence. Plus it’s a couple of words shorter.

When you look at examples in isolation like this, it’s easy to think that of course the active voice is better. But the passive has its uses.

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