May 01, 2007

Evil passive voice

From Sherry Roberts's 11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business, in the 7th way, "Be Active":

A sentence written in the active voice is the straight-shooting sheriff who faces the gunslinger proudly and fearlessly. It is honest, straightforward; you know where you stand.

Active: The committee will review all applications in early April.

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Passive: In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee.

Wow.  A new record in creative bad-mouthing of the passive voice, that shifty desperado.

(Hat tip to Jon Lighter on the American Dialect Society mailing list, 4/29/07.)

Before the Wild West metaphors, the booklet tells the reader:

If you were one of those people who yawned when your eighth grade English teacher began her lecture on active and passive voice, wake up. What you don't know about active and passive voice may be putting your readers to sleep or making them suspicious of you and your ideas or product.

And after it concludes:

Passive writing is popular in business because it helps the writer avoid responsibility and remain anonymous. Customers are suspicious of writing that evades responsibility. Employees and managers distrust ideas that appear more vague than strong.

Once again, a critic of the passive just asserts stuff, dogma off the shelf, and doesn't even relate these assertions to the examples.  Where in the passive example is the evasion of responsibility, where the anonymity of the writer, where the weakness, where the vagueness?  The active and the passive versions supply exactly the same information (though with different syntax), and the writer plays no role in either version.

Entertainingly, the advice has two passive VPs (serving as postnominal modifiers) in it: "written in the active voice", "written in the passive voice".  This is a good choice, since active voice versions would be wordy -- they have to be cast as full relative clauses ("a sentence that X write(s) in the active/passive voice") -- and, with an indefinite subject X ("you", "someone", "a writer") supplied, would be no less vague about who does the writing than the passive version.

Other postmodifying passive VPs appear in the very first sentence of the booklet:

11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business is a booklet written for and distributed to participants in Sherry Roberts' business writing seminar.

An active (but wordier) version of this would be something like:

11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business is a booklet that X wrote for and distributes to participants in Sherry Roberts' business writing seminar.

But what do we supply for X?  The booklet is on a site for The Roberts Group ("editorial & design services"), so maybe it was the work of several hands, and X should be "The Roberts Group (staff)".  The "Who We Are" page mentions Sherry and her husband Tony (but no one else), so there's a staff of at least two.  Or if the author is in fact Roberts herself, then that first sentence could go:

11 Ways to Improve Your Writing and Your Business is a booklet that Sherry Roberts wrote for and distributes to participants in her business writing seminar.

This not merely identifies the writer and distributor of the booklet, but also pushes this information into a position of prominence; the sentence is now about Roberts.  (A version with "Sherry and Tony Roberts" as X would have a similar problem.)  Here we have a case where both information structure and modesty would be served better by a passive postmodifier: really, why do we need to know exactly who wrote the booklet?

There's another postmodifier passive on p. 6:

Newspapers learned long ago that they have only seconds to grab the reader's attention and keep it; a story composed of several short paragraphs appears more accessible than one that resembles a scientific paper.

From here on, I'll leave it to the reader to turn the passives into actives and assess whether the results are improvements.

There are, of course, clausal passives, exactly the sort of thing the booklet tells us to avoid.  At least five (or seven, depending on how you count) in the nine pages of text, all of them "agentless", with the active-voice subject SUPPRESSED (and so "avoiding responsibility"); recall that the shifty-desperado example, in contrast, was an "agentive" passive, with the active-voice subject appearing as the object of the preposition by.  Here's the crop:

Clear, effective business writing is more important than ever. Thanks to the facsimile machine, our skill (or lack of skill) with words is beamed around the world in black and white. (p. 1)

In another study, the U.S. Navy determined it could save $27 million to $57 million a year if officers wrote memos in a plain style. Navy personnel spent more time reading poorly written memos than those written in a plain style. Similar savings could be realized in the private sector if corporations stressed good writing in the workplace. (p. 2)

Your one-line synopsis is a grain of sand; it will help you begin. Large projects can be built from it, but the grain of sand itself is neither overwhelming nor intimidating. (p. 3)

Everything you write in business, from sales letters to budget plans, is intended to elicit a response. (p. 8)

Benefit: Buy our widget with its three new attachments and, finally, relax on a vacation. Our widget works while you enjoy yourself. There's no need to worry; our widget will make sure your cat is fed, your plants are watered, and the temperature of your home is maintained at a constant, fuel-saving level. (p. 9, in a rewritten example stressing benefits rather than features)

Do as I say, not as I do.

A repugnance for the passive has been part of the dogma of writing teachers for a long long time, and it seems to have seeped thoroughly into the consciousness of their students.  Dennis Preston observed on ADS-L, not long after Lighter produced the link to the Sherry Roberts site, that Niedzielski and Preston in Folk Linguistics (2000) has an extensive discussion with folk respondents of the passive, which (in Preston's words) they "judged evil or at least shifty".

I go on at such length about this little booklet because it's intended as practical advice for the business writer.  Having developed some interest in the question of what students should be taught as skills for survival and sucess in the business and professional worlds (what Sally Thomason referred to as "a place for prescriptivism in linguists' lives"), I've begun looking at more and more of the literature intended to be on-the-ground advice: do this if you don't want to displease your boss, do this if you want your writing to produce results, and so on.  Well, on the grammar/usage/style front, the advice is almost all about things NOT to do.  And it's pretty dispiriting stuff.

I'll have more to say on the topic in a while.  Until the next installment, here's an exercise for you to do at home.  Don't write me about it; just save your answer until my posting comes around, or check it against the Roberts booklet.

Take-home.  Section 9 of the Roberts booklet begins:

Watch out for these four commonly misused words.

Some words in the English language take a constant beating in business correspondence. Be one of those writers who use them properly and pleasantly surprise your readers. Your conscientiousness may sell your next idea or product.

So, what do you think these four words are, and what's the problem with them?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 1, 2007 04:47 PM