September 25, 2006

Avoiding passive for dummies

Diane Steele, publisher of the Dummies series (over a thousand titles beginning with DOS for Dummies in 1991), explains to Rachel Donadio ("Dumbing Up" in the NYT Book Review, 9/24/06, p. 31) how the books are put together:

The editorial team, based in Indianapolis, gives authors a kind of "Dummies for Dummies" manual and a computer template.  "Copy editors do the line editing and Dummifying," Steele said.  "It's a word we use to talk about how to make text comply with our style guide."  The approach is strict.  "We address the reader as you -- you can, next you do this -- we don't talk about we," she said.  "We try to be funny, or at least lighthearted."  Furthermore, Steele said: "We don't use future tense, we don't use passive voice, we don't have long chapters.  A 26-page chapter is getting pretty long."

Yes, Avoid Passive.  (Also Avoid We and Avoid Future, which we haven't discussed here.)  But sometimes you really want a passive.

According to Steele, Dr. Alan Rubin, author of Diabetes for Dummies

said he had some friendly discussions with his editors about the passive-voice rule.  "Sometimes I'll write something like 'the patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone,' and they'll change that to 'the patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone,' " Rubin said.  "I have to tell them these are extremely sick patients, they can't take care of themselves, they have to be passive whether Wiley likes it or not."

Ok, the patient was passive (comatose, in fact), but does the sentence have to be?  (Yet another demonstration of why the technical term passive is not such a great choice.)  Of course not.  It could be recast as something like "the patient was comatose, so the doctor gave her/him thyroid hormone", though that's longer and also introduces the doctor as an important participant in the story.  There are ways we -- oh, sorry, you -- can avoid passive and keep the sentence short: "the patient was comatose and got thyroid hormone".  The VP "got thyroid hormone" in this version is not passive in form, true, but it also takes subjects denoting a recipient, rather than an agent, so if you dislike the passive because you want agentive subjects, this version won't really make you happy.  But then "was comatose" doesn't take agentive subjects either, and it's hard to see how you could convey the coma information with a VP that takes agentive subjects; you can devise non-copular VPs -- "lapsed/fell into a coma", for instance -- but their subjects denote affected persons rather than agents.  (Deliciously, a fairly standard technical term for an affected participant in an event is patient.  Yes, "lapsed into unconsciousness" and "fell sick" are VPs taking patient subjects.)

This would be a good time to remind readers that the advice literature is inclined to confuse syntactic functions (like subject and direct object) and participant roles (like agent and patient).  Granted, the world would be simpler if you could get right from syntax to meaning -- if, say, subjects always denoted agents in events -- but this is very much not the world we live in, and we just have to get used to working with two different sets of concepts and separate sets of terminology.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 25, 2006 11:01 AM