01 September 2015

Bad passive voice advice from Strunk and White

Although I can be a stickler for grammar (a tendency that I do my best to keep in check in non-teaching/blogging/grammar book-writing) life), there are nevertheless a handful of “rules” that I really and truly could not care less about. Among them are split infinitives (a ridiculous attempt to treat English like a purely Latin-based language that fails to take its Germanic roots into account); the use of “they” to refer to a singular noun when gender is not specified (no, “he” is not actually neutral, and seeing it used that way increasingly feels like an anachronism); and the prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, involves flipping the subject and object of a sentence around to emphasize that an action was performed by someone/something, e.g “The man drank the water,” becomes “The water was drunk by the man.” It is also possible to omit the “by” part and simply say “The water was drunk,” the implication clearly being that it was drunk by someone.

On the SAT and the ACT, answers that contain passive constructions are almost always wrong, if for no reason other than that they tend to be unnecessarily wordy and awkward. And in fact, passive constructions are by definition wordier than active ones. The awkward part… Well, that’s up for debate.

The use of the passive voice is an issue that blurs the line between grammar and style; there are instances in which the passive creates wordy, awkward horrors, but there are also cases in which it is useful to create a particular emphasis. For example, most people would never even be tempted to say “The car keys were lost by my mother.” On the other hand, it sounds perfectly normal to say “The bill was passed by Congress yesterday” — the emphasis is on the fact that the bill went through.

I always assumed that the “no passive” rule was simply something that had been cooked up a couple of centuries ago by linguistic purists (much like the “no split infinitives rule”) and handed down from masters to disciples through the ages. In this case, however, “through the ages” means more like “since the 1950s,” more specifically since the popularization of The Elements of Style.

Now, I confess to having a soft spot for Strunk and White’s chef d’oeuvre. It was the first grammar book I used in high school  English class (we were handed copies in September and instructed to memorize it — progressive education this was not), and it introduced me to all sorts of wonders like non-essential clauses and the requisite semicolon before “however” at the start of a clause.

As I recently discovered, though, Strunk and White got some things wrong. As is, major, big-time, crash and burn wrong. (In my own defense, I haven’t looked at the book in years). I knew that some people had “issues” with the “little book” — to put it diplomatically — but I always wrote that off as a matter of personal taste. Then, a couple of days ago, I stumbled across Geoffrey Pullum’s delightfully titled Chronicle Review article “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” in which the author takes it upon himself to enumerate the ways in which Strunk and White managed to mangle their explanation of the passive voice. Indeed, they barely understood it themselves.

As Pullum points out:

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

I’ve heard horror stories about college students getting marked down on papers because their TAs/professors mistakenly thought they had used the passive voice when that was not the case at all. (And at any rate, no one should get marked down just for using the passive voice.) It’s always a problem when people have knee-jerk reactions to concepts they don’t fully understand.

To be clear, though, I understand the pushback against the passive, especially on standardized tests. Standardized tests are, by nature, crude tools; their goal is to touch on the most common and misuses of various structures. I’ve read enough wordy, repetitive, marginally coherent SAT/ACT essays to  last a lifetime, and given that experience, I don’t have a problem with the tests’ perhaps overzealous approach. In this case, however, know that the rule is a little more flexible in real life. But try not to go crazy, or a hard time will undoubtedly be had by your readers.

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