They know not what they do

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.

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  • Thurulingas  On July 2, 2015 at 7:55 am

    I think the issue with the passive voice is actually simpler than you describe. Those who deplore its use while using it may simply have attached the label “passive voice” to a specific class of its use, without realising that the label can apply more generally. It’s a classic “assumption of knowledge” on the part of the writers: that we will understand this sleight of hand, sometimes without them even bothering to state it.

    • Jonathon Owen  On July 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm

      The problem with this argument is that there doesn’t appear to be any specific class of its use to which people are objecting. Sometimes they say that the passive is wordier, but that’s really only true if you include the “by” phrase at the end. Sometimes they say that it’s shifty or vague about agency, but that’s only true if you omit the “by” phrase.

      But either way, most people who condemn the passive end up using it in exactly the way they say you shouldn’t. There is no type of passive that people who condemn the passive routinely avoid or single out for condemnation.

      • Thurulingas  On July 3, 2015 at 11:16 am

        For those who don’t fall into that most, my description of their failings might still apply, and I leave it as a hopeful “surely it isn’t as bad as all that” cri de coeur 😉 For the others…well they say never to attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence 😛

    • Tom Freeman  On July 3, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      There definitely is an issue with what people mean by “passive”. For some people, they just (vaguely) mean any verbosely impersonal turn of phrase that doesn’t identify agency up front. Like this guy:
      These people aren’t talking about any particular grammatical form but rather a stylistic effect. In these cases I guess you just have to grit your teeth, accept that they don’t know the jargon, and see what merit their argument has beyond that.
      But I think the people I mentioned in my post clearly do know what the passive voice is, in which case their mistake is overgeneralising about its downside. I don’t think there’s any malice involved, though!

      • Thurulingas  On July 4, 2015 at 9:40 am

        And so for them we deploy the alternative? I getcha! 😉 Though I wonder which accusation would wound or offend them more…acts of malice requiring as they do active effort, while the alternative requires only a passive state of incomprehension as to one’s inadequacy 🙂

  • Luke  On July 7, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Are there many rules that we follow without knowing? I think there’s something about adjective order. “Old little lady” sounds odd, but I have no idea what rule it breaks.

    • Tom Freeman  On July 7, 2015 at 6:03 pm

      Oh, there must be thousands! I think that one’s called the royal order of adjectives – if you grew up speaking English, you follow it effortlessly without realising. But if you learn English as a second language, you have to painstakingly learn it.
      Harry Ritchie’s book ‘English for the Natives: Discover the grammar you didn’t know you knew’ is pretty good on stuff like this.

  • brittraf  On July 9, 2015 at 8:53 pm

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  • Ann Hall  On August 22, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    I once worked for someone who banned the passive voice completely – it was impossible to write good prose! Oh, the tortuous sentences I wrote to ensure I met his dictum. It’s true that many people use the passive when the active is more appropriate, but good lord, the passive voice is part of our language!

  • deceivingus  On August 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

    You misunderstand my concerns about the passive. I have no objection to the passive – as you point out I use it a lot myself. My concern is where bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, PR executives (to name but a few groups) use it to be evasive. For example, it is fine to say “It was agreed by x, y and z.” However, when the wording is “it was agreed that..” or “the decision was taken to..” and there is no mention of who has taken the decision, the passive is possibly being used as an evasion. Where someone uses the passive a lot, you should doubt their integrity – but that means asking, as I make clear in most of my blogs, whether the passive occurs naturally or is a contorted use to evade naming the subject of the sentence. So you see my concern is to highlight the many ways those in power seek to deceive us and evade responsibility – and the misuse of the passive is only one small element of this.

    • Tom Freeman  On August 26, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Thanks for clarifying, Nigel. You’re quite right, and sorry for reading more into that single blog post than you intended. Mistakes were made and lessons must be learned…

      • deceivingus  On August 26, 2015 at 10:32 am

        Thanks. I do share your concern about the misuse of language and grammar but I focus more on those who deliberatly misuse language – particularly those in marketing – look at this link and you will see how dangerous words are in the hands of marketing people – look at some of the links on @ZukowskaAsia on twitter – am planning to blog on this in the next few days

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