Two ways to look at the passive
Since we last looked at the injunction Avoid Passive in any detail (in
by Mark Liberman
that has links back to a pile of earlier
postings), I've looked at some more treatments of the passive in books
of advice. Here I'm going to report on two extremes: at the low
end, Toni Boyle and K.D. Sullivan, The
Gremlins of Grammar: A Guide to Conquering the Mischievous Myths That
Plague American English
(2006), and at the very high end,
Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences:
Syntax as Style
(also 2006). The two books share a
semantic characterization of the passive, but otherwise they could
scarcely be more different.
I'm going to follow both of the books in talking about the "passive
voice", though older writers on English grammar (especially in the 19th
century) regularly object to this term, on the grounds that voice
and the like are names of
grammatical categories realized in inflectional morphology. Latin
has a passive voice, these writers explain, because it has a system of
inflected verb forms that are primarily devoted to use in constructions
of a certain sort. English, on the other hand, has constructions
of this sort, but no verb form primarily devoted to use in them; the
English passive (as in This book was
written by a friend of mine
) uses the "past participle" (to give
it its traditional, and very opaque, name), which is also used in
perfect-aspect clauses (like Kim has
written many books
) and adjectivals (like Written instructions are better than oral
and When we arrived, at
5, the door was closed and locked
). To put things another
way, the work that's done by inflectional morphology in Latin is done
in English "analytically", or "periphrastically", that is, by syntactic
What is this work? Simplifying a lot, the passive provides a way
to treat what is normally the direct object of a verb (or, occasionally,
the object of a preposition) as a subject. Note that my
characterization is framed entirely in syntactic terms: the syntactic
syntactic functions subject
, direct object
, and prepositional object
is no talk of actions, actors, agents, performers of actions, or
recipients of actions. (These semantic notions are not
irrelevant, because they're tied, in very complex ways, to the
syntactic notions of subject, direct object, etc. They're just
not identical to them.)
English has a number of constructions that do this work. Among
them are several that use the past participle form of the verb
and optionally allow the expression of the normal subject in a
prepositional phrase with by
(in actual writing and speech, the by
is much more often omitted than not). I will refer to all of
these as "passive constructions". Among them are the "BE
in (1) and the "GET
-passive" in (2):
(1) Kim was attacked by wolves.
(2) Kim got attacked by wolves.
There's now a problem in using the technical term "active
(voice)". It contrasts with "passive (voice)", but how? Is
it narrowly contrasted, so that active VPs are only the ones that can
have passive counterparts? If so, then enormous numbers of verbs
are neither active nor passive: in particular, intransitives of
several types, as in (3), and unpassivizable transitives of several
types, as in (4).
(3a) Kim slept.
(3b) Sandy disappeared.
(3c) Terry seemed unhappy.
(3d) Chris became a detective.
(3e) Three hours elapsed.
(3f) Terry screamed.
(4a) Kim resembles Sandy. (*Sandy is resembled by Terry.)
(4b) The play concerns poverty. (*Poverty is concerned by the play.)
(4c) I realized the answer. (*The answer was realized by me.)
(4d) These movies star Freddy the Pig. (*Freddy the Pig is starred by
(4e) I have two houses. (*Two houses are had by me.)
Or is "active" broadly contrasted to "passive", so that anything that's
not passive is active? If so, then intransitives and
unpassivizable transitives are all active. In this case, we might
as well abandon the misleading technical term "active" completely: VPs
are either passive or not; the non-passive VPs don't necessarily have
anything in common with one another, beyond not being passive.
This is all background. Now a word about the attitude we take at
Language Log to the passive, which is that passive constructions have
their uses and that a blanket injunction to avoid them, or even to
avoid them as much as possible, is silly. Good writers, including
Strunk and White themselves, use them with some frequency, as we have
pointed out many times here on Language Log. In fact, most of
Tufte's discussion of the passive (pp. 78-89) is devoted to its
virtues, with many well-chosen examples.
(Quite often, people have written me to say that in their experience
active clauses are usually, or even almost always, clearer than their
passive counterparts. These are, of course, impressions, not the
results of systematic studies of passive use; they are subject to the
effects of selective attention and confirmation bias. When people
have looked at polished writing to count passive clauses -- not an easy
task, and subject to some judgment calls -- they find that 10-20% of
the clauses are passive. And when you look at specific examples,
very few of them would be improved by conversion to actives, and many
would be changed for the worse.)
It is true that some writers seem to be overfond of the passive, and
can use some encouragement to re-word. My impression, from
working with students, is that the problem is rarely a simple fondness
for passives, but usually involves a more complex set of difficulties
in organizing discourses for an audience. The ineffective
passives are just a symptom of a larger problem.
Now to the two books. Gremlins
has a very brief treatment, less than a page (pp. 77-8). The
section, titled "Verbs Have Voices", starts with an explanation of the
voices of English:
Verbs have two voices to choose from, active and passive. If a verb is in the
active voice, the subject is doing the action.
The matador confronted the bull, stared him in the eye, flicked his cape, then ran back to the side of the arena.
(The usual confusion between expressions and the things they denote,
between words and the world. Subjects of sentences are linguistic
expressions, and expressions don't do actions; denotations of subjects
might sometimes do actions, however. This usage is so widespread
that it might seen churlish to complain about it. But I think
it's useful for students to keep the distinction between form and
meaning in mind; remember that this is a book for ordinary people, not
professional linguists or philosophers. Once that's well
established, there's no problem in using the looser locution, since
things will be clear in context.)
"verbs", period, suggesting that they hold to the view that all verbs
are either passive or not, and they use "active" to refer to the
non-passive ones. That's just a terminological choice. Then
they give a version of the standard semantic characterization, in which
verbs denote actions and subjects of active verbs denote the agents in
those actions, and one example. The example has four active VPs
in coordination, sharing the subject the
. The first two of these can be seen as denoting
actions only by stretching the notion of "action" considerably;
confronting something and staring something in the eye are not caused
changes of state. It is, of course, easy to find much more
extreme examples, of active VPs that transparently do not denote caused
changes of state: many of those in (3) and (4) above, plus things like:
(5a) Kuwait lies to the south of Iraq.
(5b) The tank holds 14 gallons.
(5c) Everyone appreciates fine wines.
(5d) Fine wines please everyone.
(5e) Picnics attract ants.
When you look at polished writing and ask how many clauses have verbs
denoting actions and subjects denoting the agent of those actions --
again, not an easy task and subject to judgment calls -- the figures
are once more in the 10-20% range. Action verbs with agentive
subjects are certainly not in the majority.
I'm dwelling on these very familiar points because the characterization
and the example appear in a book of advice; they're SUPPOSED TO
to writers. I can't imagine how they could
be. The semantic characterization is no more than recitation of a
piece of a catechism, reproduced without understanding; a reader who
takes it to be a claim about English (or languages in general) and
tries to test it will quickly come upon examples like those above and
conclude that the claim is false, while everyone else will just
memorize it as a definition and pass on, no wiser. But why do
semantic characterizations persist, in the face of such abundant
I suspect that the answer is in fact that they are treated as
dogma. They are seen as being so fundamentally true that action
and doer of the action
have come to be
understood as 'meaning of a verb' and 'meaning of a subject in an
active clause', respectively. Plenty of people have responded to
examples like those in (4) and (5) by patiently explaining to me
that they do indeed describe actions, in some extended or
metaphorical interpretation of the word action
. For them, the
semantic characterizations couldn't possibly be false. If so,
then including them in an advice book is nothing more than instruction
in the catechism.
In any case, Gremlins
immediately to the passive, leading with:
The passive verb always uses some tense
of to be.
The book that was written in four weeks was made into a movie in four years.
A quibble: "some tense" should be "some form". Is written
and was written
have tensed forms of BE
(present and past, respectively), but be
(base form), being
(present participle), and been
(past participle) do not, yet all of them are
passive. A small point, true, but also another instance of the
often shocking laxness in the use of standard grammatical terminology
in popular writing ABOUT GRAMMAR
More important, we've already seen that passive verbs don't always use
some form of BE
; there's also the GET
as in (2). In fact, there's a whole lot more -- in
-less passives in various verb-complement
constructions, as in (6), and in various free adjunct constructions, as
(6a) The fiends had Kim attacked by wolves.
(6b) We saw Kim attacked by wolves.
Attacked by wolves, Kim fled.
(7b) With Kim attacked by wolves,
everyone was terrified.
(7c) Once attacked by wolves,
you'll never feel the same about the forest.
And there are many constructions with the verb BE
them that are also not passives -- the progressive, in (8), and an
assortment of copular constructions, sampled in (9).
(8) Wolves are attacking Kim.
(9a) Terry is unhappy.
(9b) Superman is Clark Kent in disguise.
(9c) There are penguins on the porch.
I mention all this because Gremlins
has, for some reason, taken the occurrence of a form of BE
as criterial for passives, when in fact it is neither necessary nor
Meanwhile, there are several constructions involving subjects that are
understood as objects of verbs, but are in fact NOT
passive constructions, for example the four illustrated in (10), in
which the subjects are understood as object of the verbs read
, and wash
(10a) This book reads easily.
(10b) This book is easy to skim.
(10c) This box is too heavy to lift.
(10d) My shirt needs washing.
Two of these -- in (10b) and (10c) -- do have a form of BE
in them, and they all have non-agentive subjects, so at least two of
them are problematic for the way Gremlins
But all of these details are as nothing in the face of the fact that
this section of the book is the first place in it where passives are
mentioned, and the fact that the two short passages above (three
sentences of text in all) are the whole of the book's treatment of the
nature of active and passive voice. Obviously, no one could make
any sense of this if they didn't already know how to recognize actives
and passives, at least in the easy cases, so what is this section for?
The point is to trumpet Avoid Passive (which is what comes next); the
stuff about be
is there, I
think, just as a demonstration that serious grammatical issues are
somehow involved. The tactic here is one I've seen in a number of
popular advice books (I hope to post on some other examples
eventually): the goal of a section of the book is to proscribe some
usage, but first there are some ornamental technicalities, which serve
to suggest that the proscription is somehow grounded in Real Grammar
and therefore should be taken seriously. The ornamental
technicalities are, typically, one or more of the following: truncated (Gremlins
on the passive might be a
new record here); therefore desperately incomplete; inaccurate on
factual details; illustrated by flawed examples; discussed with
technical terms used inappropriately; and not entirely relevant to the
proscription. Oh yes, and the examples are almost always invented
and almost always given without context.
In any case, the punch line is:
The subject of a passive verb never
acts--which gets pretty boring. It's like listening to music
that's always in a minor key. Dreary. So writing or talking
in the active voice is best.
The truly remarkable part of this is its framing as an objection to ALWAYS
using the passive (where it's available), something no one has ever
even come close to suggesting. (Even in advice to use the passive
in describing the design of experiments and tests in the scientific
literature, the manuals don't tell you to use the passive
everywhere. But, anyway, Gremlins
isn't addressed to people writing scientific journal articles.)
Then there's the bad-mouthing of music in minor keys. Undeniably,
minor scales and chords are popularly associated with melancholy, but
there's plenty of minor music with other emotional tones (Beethoven's
Fifth Symphony is in C minor, a key that many have seen as
characteristically "stormy" and "heroic" for Beethoven), and most music
of any length modulates between minor and major (sometimes shorter
compositions do too; as Daniel Levitin notes in This Is Your Brain on Music
"Light My Fire" by the Doors has the verses in minor chords, but the
chorus in major chords).
And then the analogy between passive syntax and minor music, which
seems to turn on perceived associations between passivity, in the real
world, and, on the one hand, passive syntax, and, on the other, minor
keys -- in combination with a celebration of activity, energy, control,
etc. in the real world, which are associated with active syntax and
major keys. There's a lot to be said on the topic -- why, for
example, is the contrast not between restiveness (bad) and placidity
(good)? -- but, as far as I'm concerned, none of it belongs in a book
might indeed be some metaphorical associations, between grammatical
voice and extralinguistic matters, that have some psychological reality
for at least some speakers, but they're likely to be subtle in their
effects, much more subtle than other factors that I'll take up below.
Finally, a comment on "the subject of a passive voice never
acts". For passivizable verbs with non-agentive subjects, the
passives are just as (metaphorically) "active" as the corresponding
actives, as is the case for (5c) and (5d) and their passives:
(5c - active) Everyone appreciates fine
(5c - passive) Fine wines are appreciated by everyone.
(5d - active) Fine wines please everyone.
(5d - passive) Everyone is pleased by fine wines.
As far as I know, there are no verbs with agentive direct objects --
there is, after all, SOME
between the syntactic functions in sentences and the participant roles
in situations -- but you can concoct passives in which the subject
denotes an agent, just not the agent of the verb that is
passivized. What I have in mind are things like:
(11) I was moved/impelled/inspired to
sing the national anthem.
Here the impulse or inspiration is internal to the speaker of
(11). The effect of the sentence is to assert that the speaker
sang the national anthem -- performed an action -- and did so as a
result of this internal impulse or inspiration.
Back to the Gremlins
text. The activity connection is pursued further in its final part
[So writing or talking in the active
voice is best.] To see why, let's take the last example [(I)
] and turn it
wrote the book in four weeks, but it took four years to make the
You want others to remember what you say and write, so keep it
active. The exercise will do you good.
Taking it from the end: the activity connection is there in the
pun on exercise
; and the
preceding sentence introduces a new (and unsubstantiated) claim, that
active sentences are easier to remember than passive sentences.
Now consider the passive example, (I). It is indeed awkward, but
that's at least in part because the
book that was written in four weeks
is hard to
contextualize. (It's only too easy to invent awkward examples,
especially out of context.) If the referent of the book
is given in the context
(as it must be in (II)), then the following (which also makes the
contrast explicit) is something of an improvement:
(III) The book was written in four
weeks but was made into a movie in four years.
In (III), the restrictive relative clause (modifying the book
) that makes the original
hard to contextualize has been turned into the first conjunct of a
coordination; the Gremlins
rewriting, (II), does the same. That is, (II)
is not a simple "turning around"
of passives into actives; that would produce something like
(IV) The person who wrote the book in
four weeks made it into a movie in four years.
in which, as in (I), the contrast between four weeks and four years is
poorly expressed, because four weeks
is inside a relative clause and four
is in the main clause. A minimal fix would put the
two NPs in parallel positions:
(V) X wrote the book in four weeks and
made it into a movie in four years.
(where X is some subject NP). Converting a passive with no by
-phrase into an active requires
supplying material not in the original; in this case, Gremlins
supplies, without comment,
a subject she.
But (V) implies (almost surely incorrectly) that the person who wrote
the book also made the movie of it. Version (IV) shares this
defect, but there's no such problem with (III), since (III) contains no
NPs denoting the writer of the book or the maker of the movie.
That's one of the virtues of the passive: it allows you to omit any
expression of the subject of its active counterpart. In any case,
fixing the problem with (V) requires you to supply different subjects
(VI) X wrote the book in four weeks and
Y made it into a movie in four years.
The first lesson here is that rewriting to avoid some proscribed usage
often requires rewording other parts of the sentence, sometimes
substantially. Advice manuals almost always do this subsidiary
rewriting without comment, though if readers need advice on using
actives and passives they almost surely need help in the rewriting
Now look at the first conjuncts in (III) and (VI): the book was written in four weeks
(passive) vs. X wrote the book in
(active). These clauses are not interchangeable
in discourse, because the passive version is about the book, while the
active version is likely to be understood as being about X; in general,
a subject is likely to be understood as denoting something that is both
topical in the sentence (what the sentence is about) and topical in the
discourse (what the discourse is about at this point). That's
another of the virtues of the passive: it allows you convey that a
certain discourse referent (denoted by the subject of the passive) is
most advice on the choice between active and passive, fails to even
hint at the enormous importance of topicality in this choice.
Next, look at the second conjunct in (VI) -- and Y made it into a movie in four years
-- and compare it to the active Gremlins
version, (II), and the improved passive version, (III). As I've
already pointed out, (II) and (III) bring out the contrast between four
weeks and four years by using but
instead of and
. This is
another way in which rewriting can introduce material not explicit in
the original. That's the second lesson here: advice manuals very
often make alterations in the original that are not required by a
straightforward undoing of the proscribed usage; they "improve" the
original in other ways as well and so heighten the contrast between the
"bad" original and its rewriting (almost always without comment or
explanation, of course).
In fact, the second conjunct of the Gremlins
version, (II) -- but it took four
years to make the movie
-- goes way beyond the minimal rewriting
in (VI). Strikingly, (VI) has an action verb and an agentive
subject in this conjunct, but (II) does not! The verb in (II), took
, is indeed active voice, but
in the sense here TAKE
belongs with the verbs in (5)
above, which don't even come close to denoting actions. In fact,
in this sense, TAKE
is unpassivizable (with either of
the two available verbs):
(12a) It took four years to make the
(12b) *Four years were taken (by it) to make the movie.
(12c) *The movie was taken (by it) four years to make.
As for the subject, it's a "dummy" it
a place-holder with no denotation of its own (certainly not as an agent
in an action); instead, in this construction to make the movie
movie' is interpreted as the subject of took four years
. The verb TAKE
in related constructions,
as in (13) and (14), is equally unpassivizable:
(13a) Making the movie took four years.
(13b) *Four years were taken (by making the movie).
(13c) Making the movie took Allen four years.
(13d) *Allen was taken (by making the movie) four years.
(14a) The movie took four years to make.
(14b) *Four years were taken (by the movie) to make.
(14c) The movie took Allen four years to make.
(14d) *Allen was taken (by the movie) four years to make.
((14a) and (14c) illustrate further constructions, like those in (10),
which have a subject understood as the object of a verb but which are
nevertheless not passive.)
What's happened here is that the Gremlins
version of the second conjunct introduced an entirely new construction,
not in the original (again, without comment or
explanation). On top of that, the construction totally fails to
fit the Gremlins
characterization of active clauses, and indeed suppresses any mention
of the maker(s) of the movie, just the way an agentless passive
does. Goodness knows what readers are supposed to make of all
this for practical purposes.
Now I'm not claiming that
there's something wrong with the second conjunct of (II). In
fact, I think it's pretty good. There are several variants or
expansions of it that might also do:
(15a) ... it took four years to make
the movie. [in (II)]
(15b) ... it took four years for Y to make the movie. [with
mention of the maker(s)]
(15c) ... it took four years to make the movie of it. [with explicit
reference to the book]
(15d) ... it took four years for Y to make the movie of it. [combo of
(b) and (c)]
(16a) ... making the movie took four years.
(16b) ... making the movie took Y four years.
(16c) ... making the movie of it took four years.
(16d) ... making the movie of it took Y four years.
No doubt you can imagine still other possibilities. What's good
about all of these is that they bring out the two relevant contrasts,
between the movie and the book and between four years and four months.
The problem with (II) is its first conjunct, specifically the subject
of this clause. Version (II) treats the writer of the book as
topical, and that's possible (if so, then (II) conveys a topic shift,
away from the writer of the book to the book itself, in contrast to the
movie), but it's likely, especially when the sentence is viewed out of
context, that the book is topical, in which case we want the book
to be the subject of this
clause -- that is, we want a passive. The book's writer can then
be downgraded in its discourse status (by being mentioned in a by
-phrase), or you can suppress
mention of the writer entirely, depending on your wider aims in the
(VII) The book was written (by X) in
four weeks, but it took four years to make the movie.
(or with any of the other variants for the second clause, or with one
of the constructions in (14) in the first clause). And if you
want to treat X as topical, then there are further possibilities, with
active verbs in both clauses, for instance:
(VIII) X wrote the book in four weeks,
but Y took four years to make the movie.
To sum up: the Gremlins
treatment of the passive is appalling, but in detailing just what is
appalling about it I've tried to bring out some important points.
What's especially disheartening, though, is that The Elements of Style
to the Strunk 1918 original) -- cited approvingly in the Gremlins
reading list, by the way
-- gets some of this right. In particular, Strunk appreciates the
significance of topicality in choosing between active and
passive. Here's his summary:
The need of making a particular word
the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples [given
just before this], determine which voice is to be used.
(Note the nominal of making a
instead of the verbal to make a particular word...
the passive is to be used
instead of the shorter and active to
. Strunk wasn't very good at following his own advice.)
Now we get to Virginia Tufte. Tufte just assumes her readers are
acquainted with the concepts and terminology of traditional grammar;
her aim is to show you what you can do with the resources of
English. The section on "the passive verb" begins with the usual
eat clams. The verb is in the active voice: the subject
performs the action. Clams are
eaten by otters. The verb is in the passive voice: the
subject receives the action.
Oh dear. But then she jumps right into a discussion of discourse
Which form you use depends on whether
you have previously been writing about otters or clams. One of
the uses of the passive is to shift the topic or the emphasis.
Another is to move the noun phrase that was the subject of discussion
to a new location in the sentence, usually toward the end...
She also notes that "for good or ill" the passive allows you to omit
this noun phrase entirely.
There are, as with other inversions,
many reasons for turning to the passive, including the need for special
emphasis or rhythm, for strategic rearrangements of different kinds to
aid modfication or to increase cohesion, for adjustments in a parallel
series, and for certain more thematic effects, often providing a
contrast with the active verbs.
These points are illustrated with pages of examples, extensively and
sensitively discussed. Real examples, with contexts. On
occasion, passives are rewritten into less effective actives. In
the middle of the section she turns to the sorts of passives that
critics most often complain about, especially in chilly officialese and
impersonal reporting, though she notes that the coldness and
impersonality of her examples might well have been intended by those
who wrote them; it's not at all clear that the syntax is the problem.
There is no hymn to the energetic activity of the active, no
castigation of the boring submissiveness of the passive. It's all
about what you can do with the two voices.
If you don't know how to recognize a passive (at least in the easy
cases), then you'll need some background before you can tackle
Tufte. Don't, however, try to get it from Gremlins
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 28, 2006 10:42 PM