August 04, 2006

When men were men, and verbs were passive

Over the past few weeks, we've been discussing America's growing anxiety about passivity. That's the verbal voice, not the attitude towards life, though the composition mavens sometimes get the two mixed up. Arnold Zwicky found that the Avoid Passive rule originated in U.S. composition handbooks early in the 20th century (perhaps first in Strunk's 1918 Elements of Style), along with a metaphorical association between passive verbs and weakness. Today, after three generations of anti-passive propaganda, most American students are taught to "strengthen your verbs" to stimulate "active thinking and writing", and to avoid the "excessively wordy, weak" prose (and hairy palms?) caused by "the first deadly sin: passive voice".

Because George Orwell recommended Passive Avoidance in his essay "Politics and the English Language", Geoff Pullum quoted an ironic observation from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: "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.'" Since Strunk & White provide another of the streams feeding the massive river of contemporary anti-passivity, I checked a couple of pages of E.B. White's prose, and found 21% passives. Yesterday, as I read Winston Churchill's The River War in search of collective nouns, I was struck by the frequency of passive verbs. And as you'll see below, the numbers back me up -- in the passages I checked, Churchill uses passive verbs about as often as active ones. But Churchill, even more than Orwell, Strunk and White, is a model of forceful eloquence. Should 21st-century composition teachers reverse course, and advise their students to bulk up on passives so as to develop powerful, muscular prose?

The opening paragraph of The River War has about nine tensed verbs, depending on how you count (does "is drained and watered" count for one or two?). Of these, four (or perhaps five) are passive (in red below), three are active (in blue below), and two involve forms of "to be" that perhaps should not count one way or the other:

The north-eastern quarter of the continent of Africa is drained and watered by the Nile. Among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river lie the wide and fertile provinces of the Egyptian Soudan. Situated in the very centre of the land, these remote regions are on every side divided from the seas by five hundred miles of mountain, swamp, or desert. The great river is their only means of growth, their only channel of progress. It is by the Nile alone that their commerce can reach the outer markets, or European civilisation can penetrate the inner darkness. The Soudan is joined to Egypt by the Nile, as a diver is connected with the surface by his air-pipe. Without it there is only suffocation. Aut Nilus, aut nihil!

One of the three active verbs (lie) is intransitive and has no passive counterpart. So depending on how we count things, this is something between 4/9 (44%) and 5/7 (71%) passive verbs. Let's be conservative and say that 44% of the tensed clauses are headed by a passive verb, while 3/9 (33%) have an active verb as head.

But wait, you say -- Churchill is just laying out the geography. Once he starts describing the actions of men at war, those active verbs will surely spring up on every side. But not so. Consider this vigorous and forceful passage:

The known strength of the Khalifa made it evident that a powerful force would be required for the destruction of his army and the capture of his capital. The use of railway transport to some point on the Nile whence there was a clear waterway was therefore imperative. [...] The route via Abu Hamed was selected by the exclusion of the alternatives. [...] The plan was perfect, and the argument in its favour conclusive. It turned, however, on one point: Was the Desert Railway a possibility? With this question the General was now confronted. He appealed to expert opinion. Eminent railway engineers in England were consulted. They replied with unanimity that, having due regard to the circumstances, and remembering the conditions of war under which the work must be executed, it was impossible to construct such a line. Distinguished soldiers were approached on the subject. They replied that the scheme was not only impossible, but absurd. Many other persons who were not consulted volunteered the opinion that the whole idea was that of a lunatic, and predicted ruin and disaster to the expedition. Having received this advice, and reflected on it duly, the Sirdar ordered the railway to be constructed without more delay.


Lieutenant Girouard, to whom everything was entrusted, was told to make the necessary estimates. Sitting in his hut at Wady Halfa, he drew up a comprehensive list. Nothing was forgotten. Every want was provided for; every difficulty was foreseen; every requisite was noted. The questions to be decided were numerous and involved. How much carrying capacity was required? How much rolling stock? How many engines? What spare parts? How much oil? How many lathes? How many cutters? How many punching and shearing machines? What arrangements of signals would be necessary? How many lamps? How many points? How many trolleys? What amount of coal should be ordered? How much water would be wanted? How should it be carried? To what extent would its carriage affect the hauling power and influence all previous calculations? How much railway plant was needed? How many miles of rail? How many thousand sleepers? Where could they be procured at such short notice? How many fishplates were necessary? What tools would be required? What appliances? What machinery? How much skilled labour was wanted? How much of the class of labour available? How were the workmen to be fed and watered? How much food would they want? How many trains a day must be run to feed them and their escort? How many must be run to carry plant? How did these requirements affect the estimate for rolling stock? The answers to all these questions, and to many others with which I will not inflict the reader, were set forth by Lieutenant Girouard in a ponderous volume several inches thick; and such was the comprehensive accuracy of the estimate that the working parties were never delayed by the want even of a piece of brass wire.

25 passives, 12 actives, 11 copulas: we have 25/48 = 52% passives, 12/48 = 25% actives.

OK, you'll say, people are making decisions and plans in that passage; but what about the fighting? Won't we get more active verbs then? Maybe. Here's the start of the battle of the Atbara:

During the halt the moon had risen, and when at one o'clock the advance was resumed, the white beams revealed a wider prospect and, glinting on the fixed bayonets, crowned the squares with a sinister glitter. For three hours the army toiled onwards at the same slow and interrupted crawl. Strict silence was now enforced, and all smoking was forbidden. The cavalry, the Camel Corps, and the five batteries had overtaken the infantry, so that the whole attacking force was concentrated. Meanwhile the Dervishes slept.

At three o'clock the glare of fires became visible to the south, and, thus arrived before the Dervish position, the squares, with the exception of the reserve brigade, were unlocked, and the whole force, assuming formation of attack, now advanced in one long line through the scattered bush and scrub, presently to emerge upon a large plateau which overlooked Mahmud's zeriba from a distance of about 900 yards.

It was still dark, and the haze that shrouded the Dervish camp was broken only by the glare of the watch-fires. The silence was profound. It seemed impossible to believe that more than 25,000 men were ready to join battle at scarcely the distance of half a mile. Yet the advance had not been unperceived, and the Arabs knew that their terrible antagonists crouched on the ridge waiting for the morning; For a while the suspense was prolonged. At last, after what seemed to many an interminable period, the uniform blackness of the horizon was broken by the first glimmer of the dawn. Gradually the light grew stronger until, as a theatre curtain is pulled up, the darkness rolled away, the vague outlines in the haze became definite, and the whole scene was revealed.

10 passives, 15 actives, and 3 copulas: we're down to 10/28 = 36% passives versus 15/28 = 54% actives.

For another sample, here's Churchill's description of the action at Om Debreikat that finishes the Khalifa:

After about an hour the sky to the eastward began to grow paler with the promise of the morning and in the indistinct light the picquets could be seen creeping gradually in; while behind them along the line of the trees faint white figures, barely distinguishable, began to accumulate. Sir Reginald Wingate, fearing lest a sudden rush should be made upon him, now ordered the whole force to stand up and open fire; and forthwith, in sudden contrast to the silence and obscurity, a loud crackling fusillade began. It was immediately answered. The enemy's fire flickered along a wide half-circle and developed continually with greater vigour opposite the Egyptian left, which was consequently reinforced. As the light improved, large bodies of shouting Dervishes were seen advancing; but the fire was too hot, and their Emirs were unable to lead them far beyond the edge of the wood. So soon as this was perceived Wingate ordered a general advance; and the whole force, moving at a rapid pace down the gentle slope, drove the enemy through the trees into the camp about a mile and a half away. Here, huddled together under their straw shelters, 6,000 women and children were collected, all of whom, with many unwounded combatants, made signals of surrender and appeals for mercy. The 'cease fire' was sounded at half-past six. Then, and not till then, was it discovered how severe the loss of the Dervishes had been. It seemed to the officers that, short as was the range, the effect of rifle fire under such unsatisfactory conditions of light could not have been very great. But the bodies thickly scattered in the scrub were convincing evidences. In one space not much more than a score of yards square lay all the most famous Emirs of the once far-reaching Dervish domination. The Khalifa Abdullah, pierced by several balls, was stretched dead on his sheepskin; on his right lay Ali-Wad-Helu, on his left Ahmed Fedil.

10 passives, 11 actives, 5 copulas and similar things. 10/26 =38% of the tensed clauses are headed by passives; 11/26 = 42% by actives. Grand total for the samples of Churchill in this post: 45 passives (42%), 41 actives (38%), 21 copulas (20%).

I'm not seriously advising composition students to increase their use of passive verbs. They should write clearly, and let the verbs fall where they may. But the passive voice definitely needs some better PR, if only among writing teachers.

Perhaps we should start with a lexical make-over. We could try replacing the word passive with a competely new borrowing from a classical language, like the "hyptic voice". (Greek ὕπτιος meant "laid on one's back; turned upside down; backwards", and was also sometimes used to refer to the passive voice of verbs.) This might work -- hyptic is a little weird, but there are useful resonances with hip and hypnotic. Or we could try a positive-sounding name based on the value of the passive in focusing different thematic roles --"thematic verbs" or "the focusing voice". We could say, "use thematic verbs to maintain the velocity of your narrative". Or, "seize and hold your readers' attention with the focusing voice".

I'm not very good at this naming business, so let's have a Rename the Passive contest. If you've got a great idea, let me know. The winner gets a year's subscription to Language Log, a lifetime supply of by-phrases, and other exciting prizes.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 4, 2006 07:33 AM