Do they know what they’re asking you not to do?

Credit: Pixabay.

I’ve been deleting e-mails. I don’t do it often, but when your e-mail weighs in at 1.5 GB it’s time for a slimming diet. There was an old one from a colleague asking about the passive voice; an editor had issued a New Year diktat saying that henceforth X didn’t want the passive voice to be used in their web copy, all writers should stop using it.

I don’t know what that means, and I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia and the BBC and I’m still none the wiser. I don’t know how to avoid it because I don’t know if I use it.

I avoided a technical explanation because what you need to know in practice is limited and simple and, well, I worried about giving one that would stand up. It’s not as easy as you might think. If you’re interested, here’s a good one.

My colleague is something of a sci-fi/fantasy ‘enthusiast’, so I put it into familiar terms to set him at his ease.

Active and passive are much as they sound. The active voice indicates that someone did something*. ‘Uhura slapped Kirk.’ Passive has something being done to someone. ‘Kirk was slapped by Uhura.’ So, ‘The doctor confounded the Daleks’ is active, while ‘The Daleks were confounded by the doctor’ is passive.

These are the simplest examples, and it’s worth noting that there’s also a political and style element. Consider: politicians and other weasels often use the passive voice to avoid implied responsibility; ‘a mistake was made’ rather than ‘I/we made a mistake’ (see Orwell’s Politics and the English Language). Historically, it has also been used in pompous, windy, laboured prose, or to seem aloof, impersonal**, and various style guides (e.g. Strunk and White in the US) have said that the passive voice is bad, should mostly be avoided. No doubt your friends have got hold of this and thus issued a diktat. (Note also that MS Word records use of the passive voice.)

If you’re a sound writer, introducing this rule is (1) redundant and (2) unwholesome. I doubt you write in the passive voice often, and if you do, it’s probably because that’s what’s best in the circumstances. Making you self-conscious, unnatural, is worse than the danger that you might write ‘a mistake was made’ rather than ‘Spock made a mistake’. Further, outside of set-piece examples, I doubt your friends could spot a subtle use folded into a piece of writing anyhow, and I think it’s probably a gesture of some kind or post-festive indigestion. Perhaps someone got a style/usage book for Christmas.

My colleague tells me that the company/editor quickly forgot about the passive voice, or rather the passive voice was quickly forgotten about by the company/editor.

It’s as well to be aware of these things, but before taking them further and formulating rules … well, to put it into easeful terms for my colleague, and with apologies to Tolkien, do not meddle in the affairs of linguistics professors, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, August 2014)

* You see, there’s me caught out already. Not all verbs imply an action: ‘I know the passive mood’; ‘The passive mood is known by me’. Is knowing really an action?

** Often at least semi-legitimately in scientific writing, etc, though this can easily become habitual and be overdone.

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