Passive aggression

As a guide to good writing, Kellye Crane ranks alongside George Orwell and Stephen King. By which I mean they all make the same mistake.

But before I get onto them, I want to mention William Safire.

In 1979, Safire wrote a list of ‘fumblerules of grammar’ – rules that break themselves. You can get a flavour from the first three:

Remember to never split an infinitive.

A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.

The passive voice should never be used.

And so on.

But the passive-voice fumblerule is real. Stephen King, in his 2001 book On Writing, said: “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

“Have been created”? Passive alert! But does this really make King seem timid? I don’t think so.

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, complained that a lot of political writers used “swindles and perversions” that led to “vagueness” – for example, the fact that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”.

Passive alert! In fact, Orwell used the passive voice eight times in that paragraph, and many, many more times throughout his essay. It’s not his finest work, and certainly some of his sentences could have been improved by using the active voice, among other things. But that doesn’t mean all his uses of it were wrong.

What both authors – both gifted and accomplished writers – have in common is that they don’t realise how useful they both find the passive voice. They believe they’re against it, but really they aren’t.

And this brings us to Kellye Crane, who has published one of those lists of “grammar mistakes” that the internet is full of. Her 11 “mistakes” include the passive voice. And she does the same as King and Orwell:

Active voice is more powerful, concise and is used in more clear and direct sentences.

Or at least she did, as the sentence has been changed since I noticed it:

Active voice is more powerful, concise and clear.

(You can still see the ghost of the original on Google.)

You know what? I think the change makes it better. But that’s mostly because the parallelism was faulty and because there were quite a lot of adjectives piling up. Her use of the passive was fine.

But now it’s changed. Fair enough: a lot of us revise our posts from time to time. What hasn’t changed, though, is her opening line:

I’m a firm believer that rules are meant to be broken…

Double passive alert!! Let me suggest a rewrite using the active voice:

I’m a firm believer that the makers of rules mean for us to break those rules…

Do you hate that as much as I do? Yes, me too. The original, with two passive verbs in five words, is much more powerful, concise and clear.

And elsewhere in the piece, there are plenty more passives to be found:

These days, a more conversational style of writing is often preferred…

Verbiage, often misspelled verbage, is often used as a fancy synonym for “wording”…

I was forced to awkwardly explain…

“Regardless” is defined as having or showing no regard…

I’m not doing this to criticise Kellye Crane’s writing, because I think these uses of the passive voice are A-OK. My point is that a lot of people – even great writers – don’t always know what makes their writing good. And a lot of people – even great writers – somehow get simplistic rules stuck in their heads without realising that their own writing instinctively breaks those rules and is all the stronger for it.

So give the passive voice a break. Yes, sometimes it’s vague and evasive and stiffly impersonal, but other times it can be used to great effect. Let me explain how it works.

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  • Justine  On July 14, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    LOL. I read Mr King’s book On Writing and laughed at his adverb rants. I’ve just read The Stand and see he breaks his own rules time after time. I love the great writers being human after all!

  • The Sloppy Editor  On July 16, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Triple irony alert!

    Do you really think Orwell of all people was, at any time, unaware of what he was doing?

    • Tom Freeman  On July 17, 2014 at 11:46 am


      Some of his stated rules he broke (not necessarily as he stated them but elsewhere in the essay), and some he pretty much stuck to. If he was slyly taking a fumblerule approach like Safire, he was pretty inconsistent about it.

      I had a quick look at some of his other essays. ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ has three passive verbs in the first sentence. ‘In defence of PG Wodehouse’ has two in the second and two in the third. ‘You and the atomic bomb’ has two in the first. In ‘A hanging’, you have to wait as long as the sixth and seventh sentences. All of these are good sentences, by the way.

      He wasn’t a god. He strikes me as being like a brilliant football player who later turns to coaching, but isn’t nearly so good at that. And it doesn’t dim my admiration for him that some of his work was second-rate.

  • Jeremy Butterfield  On July 30, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog. What intrigues me is where the shibboleth first arose. Was it Orwell, or was it in existence before him?

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