July 18, 2006

Passive aggression

We had a great after-lunch discussion about the passive the other day in the Senior Writers' Lounge at Language Log Plaza. It started with Poser mentioning that a reader had written to him about his having mentioned the injunction against the use of the passive, and how the Declaration of Independence violates that injunction. The reader asked where the injunction might have originated.

Nunberg immediately expressed the opinion that it is a thoroughly modern fixation. More than modern, in fact: post-WWII. He credited Orwell, citing "Politics and the English language" (1946). In the course of a tirade about the alleged evil and dishonesty of political writing, Orwell wrote (apparently without irony, Nunberg noted) that in the evasive kind of writing he disapproves of, "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active". Orwell formulated an edict (which he had just violated): "Never use the passive where you can use the active."

(By the way, I should tell you that I despise that essay of Orwell's; so I was delighted to see Stanley Fish describing it in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday as "what is surely the most overrated essay in the modern canon, George Orwell's turgid, self-righteous and philosophically hopeless ‘Politics and the English language’." Fish was a bit unpleasant about the Nunberg book he is reviewing, but as far as Orwell is concerned, I say, from Fish's mouth to God's ear.)

Nunberg also made this remark about Orwell's attitude to the passive:

Orwell didn't directly connect this to the idea that the passive was "weak" or "evasive" (he seemed to object to it chiefly because it was wordy), but later usage writers depicted the passive as a way of avoiding responsibility for saying who was responsible for the action, which seemed to them typical of government or bureaucratic prose. It's also connected to the idea that good prose should be "muscular," which somebody should track down some time. Actually a lot of this rests on a kind of pun on the word 'passive', doesn't it?

Zwicky demurred. "We can't hang this one on Orwell," he said:

It's a commonplace in college handbooks in the 30s and 40s (in the U.S., anyway), and probably goes back before that. The topic comes with images of strength, muscularity, and action (that is, symbolic masculinity), and sometimes the passive voice is seen as part of a larger "passive style" (copular constructions, abstract nouns, etc.).

Zwicky also reminded us of a delicious passage in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage about Orwell. They reports the bias against the passive as a long-standing prejudice, and take Orwell as the jumping-off place for the discussion; but they note (p. 720):

Bryant 1962 reports three statistical studies of passive versus active sentences in various periodicals; the highest incidence of passive constructions was 13 percent. Orwell runs to a little over 20 percent in "Politics and the English Language."

Isn't that gorgeous? More passives in Orwell's pompous essay with the warning about how you mustn't use them than in any periodical you can lay your hands on! The man was either utterly without shame, or blithely unaware of the characteristics of his own usage, or cynically certain that we wouldn't check.

Liberman chipped in at this point with the observation that the instructions for the preparation of abstracts for the Acoustical Society of America (see them at http://asa.aip.org/honolulu/honolulu.html#34) are explicit about requiring the passive voice, at least in certain cases:

7. Use passives instead of pronouns "I" and "we," e.g., "It was noted" instead of "We noted."

He thought it might also be a requirement of the American Institute of Physics (nobody has checked that yet). Poor general scientific public, though: some sources insisting they mustn't use the passive and others insisting that they must!

This all reminded Poser of something in his (extremely nerdy) past. He said:

This seems to be an instance of over-extension of a prescription that in limited circumstances, e.g. dramatic writing, might make sense. In other circumstances, it really doesn't. Years ago I translated into English the manual describing the implementation of the mathematics library of a Hitachi computer. It said things like: "The square root function is computed using the Newton-Raphson algorithm. Three extra bits of precision are used for intermediate calculations." In Japanese these sentences were generally active, but Japanese is a language that does not require an overt subject. The natural translation into English uses the passive. Hitachi was at the time trying to improve the quality of its English publications and had created translation guidelines that included the admonition not to use the passive. Figuring out how to translate this kind of material without using the passive was quite difficult since it is hard to decide what subject to use. Is it the computer? The mathematics library? The particular function? Omitting the subject has the great virtue of avoiding this rather sticky question.

A good point, I thought. The passive construction certainly has its uses in cases of that sort.

I then reminded everyone that Strunk and White's vile little compendium of tripe about style (4th edition, 2000, p. 18) says "Use the active voice", and adds some editorializing about how the passive is "less bold, and less concise", and if you leave out the agent it becomes "indefinite". They go on with some mealy-mouthed stuff admitting that they cannot say one must never use it; but their firm prejudice against it is clear.

Now, those who know me will be able to predict that I couldn't resist grabbing a copy of the just-mentioned pathetic booklet (it was hard to find one; Poser says he threw his away) and checking on whether Strunk and White managed to get to the end of the page without accidentally using a passive themselves. And of course they didn't, the bald-faced hypocritical morons. Within just a few lines, still talking about how bad the passive is, they write:

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.

This, in addition to containing a passive clause (the one with be made as verb), reveals the interesting fact that they seem to think existential clauses like "There is a spider in the bathtub" are in the passive voice.

You know, I do try to stress the ignorance and inadequacy of Strunk and White as strongly as I can here on Language Log; but it never seems strong enough.

At this point Liberman came up with an idea for a further investigation. He grabbed a laptop (we keep stacks of them lying around in the Senior Writers' Lounge, like paper napkins) and did a quick count of the first 100 tensed verbs in E.B. White's introduction to Letters of E.B. White (1976). He found that 28 of them were copulas associated with adjectives or predicate nominals; 51 of them were active verbs (including quite a few not especially muscular specimens such as "felt lonely" and "came of landed gentry", where no passive counterpart exists); and 21 were passive verbs (in fairness, it should be noted that he counted "was born in Brooklyn" as a passive, which could perhaps be argued against).

This is either 21% passives (21/100) or 29% passives (21/72), depending on what you want to do about the actives that don't have a passive counterpart and the "be born" case.

In most cases, Liberman observed, the passive clauses could easily have been re-phrased to make the passives into actives, but White had chosen not to do it. For example:

"This company had a factory in Harlem, where the cases for uprights, squares, and baby grands were manufactured by a crew of beer-drinking Germans, skilled artisans. The actions (keyboard, hammers, dampers, etc.) were bought from a company that specialized in that and were installed at the Horace Waters factory."

Why not say, where a crew manufactured the pianos? Why not say, the Horace Waters company bought the actions from a company that specialized in that, and installed them at the Harlem factory? I'll tell you why. Because Strunk and White aim to tell you that you mustn't use passives; it doesn't apply to them. What a shameless, pontificating, ignorant, hypocritical, incompetent, authoritarian pair of old weasels they were.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 18, 2006 08:55 PM