Friday, November 11, 2011

On (mis)identifying the passive and passive wars

Autumn Leaves
Autumn Leaves by geraldbrazell, on Flickr - some rights reserved
Here in Warsaw we are well into what is known here as the Polish Golden Autumn; everywhere you look 'there are a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground'.
That sentence about dead leaves is taken from a section on 'Use the active voice' in The Elements of Style, a book on English style by William Strunk, Jr first published in 1918, and revised by EB White in 1959, and universally known in the US as Strunk and White.
It is one of the key elements in what could be called the 'Passive wars'. For as we shall see, the passive has had somewhat of a 'bad press', especially in American writing schools.

1. Recognising the passive.

First let's just agree what we mean by the passive.

Exercise 1. Look carefully at these sentences and mark them Active or Passive. The last four are in headline format, so you will have to work out the full sentence.

1.There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
2.Fortunately, the riots were quickly brought under control.
3.But only after several hundred people had been arrested.
4.Henry was totally amazed by all the interest shown in his project.
5.Henry was obviously very interested in completing his project.
6.The interest that has been shown in Henry's project is amazing.
7.MI (Military Intelligence) has told them not to talk to the press.
8.MI (Military Intelligence) have been told to not to talk to the press.
9.New Shooting Spoils Hopes of Truce
10.Peace Treaty Threatened By New Shooting.
11.Bomb in City Centre Detonated in Controlled Explosion.
12.Bus Blows Up in City Centre Causing Considerable Damage.
I put in that exercise for a serious reason, which we will see later. But what should be clear is that when I talk of 'the passive', I am talking about the passive voice, a specific grammatical construction.

2. Constructing the passive.

George Parr is an investment analyst with the city firm of Parr, Boyle and Fry. His wife Catherine is a historian, a specialist in the later years of the reign of Henry VIII. Both of them give interviews quite frequently, but this week, what with the new allegations of companies 'cooking the books' and the forthcoming TV costume drama series "The wife that survived", they are having a particularly busy week.

Exercise 2 - Fill in all the passive tenses of the verb 'interview'

SimpleOn average Mr. Parr about once a week.
ContinuousIn fact both Parrs right now.
PerfectCatherine Parr twice already this week.
SimpleShe once yesterday in Bristol.
ContinuousAt the same time her husband in London.
PerfectHe twice already that morning.
Simple (will)And it's probable he again next week.
'going to'Both of them tomorrow.
PerfectBy Saturday he five times.
InfinitiveThey are together tomorrow.
Perfect infinitiveThey were separately, but the producer changed his mind.
Gerund comes quite naturally to both of them.
Perfect gerundThis comes from so often over the years.
Participles used passively
Past participle on the BBC, Mr Parr predicted a new recession.
Perfect participle so often, they are quite used to it now.

3. Denigrating the passive

So who or what are Strunk and White?

Although it is not well known in Britain, Strunk and White has been the standard style guide for generations of Americans. The author of Grammar for Dummies calls it 'The best book ever written on writing'.
On the occasion of the book's fiftieth anniversary, Scottish-American linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum was in no mood to celebrate, criticising the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education for giving '50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice'.
One of Pullum's pet subjects is the way the passive is vilified in many circles, especially in American writing schools, and he blames Stunk and White for much of this.

A general prejudice

Look, for example, at this advice from the writing school of Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League university in New Hampshire, in the US.
Most writers understand that they ought to avoid the passive voice. But ESL writers often hide behind the passive voice as a way of not taking responsibility for ideas and sentences that they aren't sure about. (Dartmouth)
That's probably because ESL and EFL students haven't been brainwashed into thinking that the use of the passive is some sort of cardinal sin.
This denigration of the passive was greatly aided by George Orwell with his 1946 essay, 'Politics and the English Language'. While most people haven't read the essay itself (which is ironically full of the passive), the six rules with which it ends are widely quoted, including in EFL books, one of them being: 'Never use the passive where you can use the active'.
And this seems to be the standard line in many US writing schools. But linguists like Pullum and Stephen Pinker have shown that the passive can be a very useful construction in English. They are not saying we should use it all the time, only that it should be treated like any other construction.

Why this prejudice?

It is apparently thought that the passive:
  • is wimpy (weak)
  • avoids taking responsibilty for an action - 'Mistakes were made'
  • is too wordy (critics lay great store by word counts)
  • is too formal
But compare these pairs of sentences:
  • A road accident yesterday has led to the deaths of three people.
  • Three people were killed in a road accident yesterday.
  • I am afraid that we are going to have to let you go.
  • You're fired!
  • The referee's decision robbed us of victory.
  • Bloody ref! We were robbed!
Which sound stronger and more direct, the active ones or the passive? OK, I've been a bit unfair, by making the active versions wordier and more formal. But that is exactly what the critics of the passive do with their examples. For more on that see Pullum's article about BBC style advice, linked to below.

Misidentifying the passive

And Pullum has also shown that many of these critics misidentify the passive, seeing the passive in sentences like - He is interested in stamp collecting, simply because there is the verb to be and a past participle. But the past participle is being used as an adjective here, it has nothing to do with the passive.
For one truly awful example of an English teacher misidentifying the passive, see the LeL link below. Out of ten constructions the teacher marks as passive, only three actually are. This is apparently from 'a top private university on the East Coast of the USA'. I wonder if it could it be Dartmouth by any chance?
Back to that first exercise: all the active sentences in that exercise, or sentences very like them, have been (wrongly) identified as passive by educated writers, one of them by the style boss of the BBC.

A case of mistaken identity

This one is from the Sunday Times guide, Writing Effective E-mail, from a section called 'using the active voice'. After recommending using the active voice rather than the passive in business documents, they say:
Consider the following passive sentence:

It is possible for the accountants to conduct and complete an audit in 30 days.

The following rewritten, active sentence eliminates all unnecessary words and focuses on actor, action and object:

The accountants can complete the audit in 30 days.

Notice that the 9-word active sentence is much shorter than the lumbering 15-word passive sentence. Active constructions are always shorter than the passive.
I agree that the second sentence is better than the first one. There's only one small problem: the first sentence is not in the passive. So all the author has proved is that you shouldn't be too wordy; in this case this has nothing to do with active or passive, as both sentences are in the active.

4. Passive or adjective?

One way in which passive is often misidentified is when a past participle being used as an adjective is mistaken for the passive.

Exercise 3 - identify whether the past participles (3rd form / -ed form) are being used here as passives or adjectives.

1.He has been very depressed lately.
2.Why is he interested in the partition of Poland?
3.I was very much interested by your irritable neighbour.
4.She was embarrassed by his behaviour.
5.She was so embarrassed, she left the room.
6.I can't make head nor tail of this; I'm totally confused.
7.He was totally confused by all the noise.
8.He has been relieved of his duties.
9.He was very relieved at the news.
10.The sheep had obviously been frightened by something.
11.I had been a bit frightened of him before I actually met him.
12.We left the restaurant completely satisfied.
13.Our appetites had been completely satisfied.
14.I'm being considered for promotion.
15.I'm bored with this exercise now.

5. Why is the passive useful?

There are about eight or nine reasons why the passive is a useful construction, and avoiding allocating responsibility for an action is only one of them. Here I'll look at just three or four.

1. Emphasis is usually on the subject.

In English, the main idea usually comes at or near the beginning of the sentence, as the subject; this is where the emphasis is. So if we want to emphasise the thing that was done, or who it was done to, rather than the doer, the passive is a good way to do it.
  • The Chinese invented or discovered gunpowder, the compass, papermaking and printing (active) - we are interested in the achievements of the Chinese

  • Paper was invented by the Chinese (passive) - we are interested in the history of paper.

2. Leading from one sentence to the next.

New ideas are often introduced at the end of a sentence, so if we want to follow on from that sentence, the passive is one useful way to do it.
  • In Britain, the 5th November is a night for firework displays. Fireworks are made from gunpowder, which was discovered by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century.

  • The Chinese invented or discovered gunpowder, the compass, papermaking and printing. These are known as the Four Great Inventions.

3. When we are not interested in the agent

Sometimes the agent (the doer) is unknown, obvious or not important.
  • My house was broken into last week. (I don't know who by)

  • A man has just been arrested for burglary. (presumably by the police)

  • Some important government documents have been found in a rubbish bin. (does it really matter who by?)

4. It provides some structural variety

In a language where the sentence order of SVO (Subject - Verb - Object) is so important, occasional use of the passive can add variety to a piece of text, as I hope the next exercise shows.

6. The Taj Mahal - a case study

By Yann; edited by King of Hearts, via Wikimedia Commons

Exercise 4 - Look at this text loosely based on the entry at Wikipedia. Tick the boxes where you think the line would be better in the passive, check your answers then click on 'Show my version'.

Change to passive
If you are ever in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, you must visit the Taj Mahal.
Shah Jahan built this architectural masterpiece in the 17th century.
Jahan was the Mughal Emperor at a time of great prosperity in the empire.
But sadly his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died in childbirth,
and grief overcame Shah Jahan.
So he decided to build a mausoleum in her memory.
People widely recognize the Taj Mahal as the 'jewel in the crown' of Muslim art in India.
It is the finest example of Mughal architecture,
which combines elements from Persian, Turkish and Indian architectural styles.
Construction began in 1632.
They completed the principal mausoleum in 1648,
and finished the surrounding buildings and gardens five years later.
While people constructed early Mughal buildings mainly in red sandstone,
Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.
and buildings under his patronage reached new levels of refinement.

7. Back to Strunk and White - a discussion

Strunk starts a section called 'Use the active voice' by comparing these two sentences, saying that the first (active) sentence is much better than the second (passive) one:
  • I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.
  • My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
Well, as Pullum points out: no contest, as nobody in their right mind would utter such a sentence as the second one. We simply don't say that something was done 'by me'. It's strange how often prescriptivists see fit to bolster their arguments with ridiculous examples.
More controversially perhaps, Pullum then criticises Strunk for using four examples of the passive, of which only one is actually passive. Strunk's defenders say that he didn't actually say they were passive, but as these are the central 'bad' examples in a section called 'Use the active voice', what on earth was he talking about then, if not the passive? There are only two voices in English, active and passive. At the very least he is being confusing, exactly what he says writers shouldn't be.
He introduces these examples by saying:
Many a tame sentence ... can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice.
Do you notice anything surprising in that sentence? Yes, it itself contains a passive (can be made), just what he says is so 'tame'. This is perhaps not so strange; it has been shown that many of those who denigrate the passive, for example George Orwell, often use it more themselves than other writers.
And whether or not Strunk and White meant these be taken as examples of the passive, they have been repeated as being so by generations of English teachers in North America. See for instance the US National Parks Service link below.

Exercise 5

Here are the four examples of 'tame sentences' given in Strunk and White. Identify the one and only example of a passive construction.
1.There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
2.At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
3.It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.
4.The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.
Let's have a look at those first two sentences.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

One thing to notice in passing is the construction a great number of. When used with a plural noun (leaves) it takes a plural verb (were) just like a lot of. I've discussed this in an earlier post.
Part of what was bothering Struck was that introductory There were. This construction is seen almost as negatively in some circles as the passive. So why didn't he just get rid of it?
A great number of dead leaves lay on the ground.
Well he seems to have thought that a great number was simply extraneous material, and that the use of the intransitive verb lie was just too namby-pamby and should be replaced by the much more manly and transitive cover, in the active of course. So his preferred alternative is:
Dead leaves covered the ground.
Well, he might be right, my literary crtical faculties being along the lines of 'I know what I like', but I have to say that for me that sentence is as lifeless as the leaves. And what if we really had had a passive construction, like:
Dead leaves lay in heaps where they had been blown by the wind.
So what! This is what happens to dead leaves. They fall off trees and get blown around by the wind, and then maybe they get swept up by somebody. Maybe I'm missing something, but they are dead! How can they be active (I'm not talking grammatically here). They can't 'do' anything.

At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.

Their solution for the second example is:
The cock's crow came with dawn.
But this has changed the meaning: in the original we had 'the crowing of a rooster', that's to say an unidentified rooster (cock), probably in the distance somewhere, and in the amended version 'the cock's crow', as though it was an identifiable cock, whose crow was expected - Oh, there's the cock's crow, must be time to get up. What for me was quite an evocative sentence has been turned into a simple matter of fact.
And ironically, something Pullum points out and I would have otherwise missed, this new version doesn't even fit their favoured solution of being an active transitive verb, as come is intransitive.
But these strictures are taken as gospel by the contributors and commenters on some websites. On one blog (which I can't for the life of me find again), a commenter said about the original leaves sentences, something like:
Well, if that isn't passive, I don't know what is.
I think he unintentionally answered his own question, because of course it isn't passive, at least not in the grammatical sense. But some people bandy the word passive about rather loosely these days.

Links and references



Eugene Costa said...

Having had more years of Latin than one cares to remember, one (pardon what Fowler calls the "false first person") despised Strunk and White, which was handed out as biblical in a freshman writing course at Harvard no less, where they really should have known better. Now the same asinine bible is enshrined in Windows' style checker. Surely a topic worthy of Stanislas Lem. Fowler, though authoritarian, is majestic by comparison, as another fellow has noted. Alas, he too had his Latin. Excellent article by the way.

E. A. Costa

Warsaw Will said...

Thanks, Eugene. Glad you liked the post.

I think one reason that a lot of us Brits try and avoid 'one' is its use as a 1st person pronoun by the monarchy and the aristocracy - 'Describe your typical morning for us, your Grace' 'Well, one gets up at eight, one's butler brings one's breakfast to one's breakfast room, then one walks round one's garden' etc.

Then there's the embracing-the-reader 1st person plural 'one' used by Lynne Truss:

'One almost dare not get up in the mornings', 'Everwhere one looks', 'Part of one's despair' - all from the first couple of pages.

Academics use 'one' as a more formal 'you', and I can live with that, although I still avoid it where possible.

Eugene Costa said...

It is essentially French in origin, fine if correctly used. But many use it incorrectly.

"A body" is an independent analogue of many of its proper usages, as "A body almost dare not get up in the mornings".

The Yanks have almost lost the subjunctive by the way--most of them cannot even identify it, let alone use it. Another casualty partly produced by lack of Latin, or even a little French.

Again first class article--thanks.

Warsaw Will said...

Americans actually use subjunctive more than the British, where present subjunctive has all but disappeared, except in very formal language. Where an American will say 'It is important that he be at the meeting', Brits prefer 'that he should be at the meeting', or simply 'that he is at the meeting'. And we don't like past subjunctive much either: it's now common to hear 'If I was' rather than 'If I were', which is increasingly seen as rather formal. Like Somerset Maugham, I won't mourn its loss.