Language Log has been on a campaign to redeem the passive voice, investigating the origins of the prejudice against it—”Arnold Zwicky found that the Avoid Passive rule originated in U.S. composition handbooks early in the 20th century (perhaps originally in Strunk’s 1918 Elements of Style), along with a metaphorical association between passive verbs and weakness”—and showing, delightfully, that the very people who have campaigned most vigorously against it, George Orwell and Strunk & White, used it far more frequently than average English prose (“a little over 20 percent” and 21% respectively, versus a maximum of 13% in periodical prose). Now Mark Liberman adds a compilation of Churchill passages (41% passives vs. 38% actives in the paragraphs he quotes from The River War, a book of vigorous accounts of military action) and finishes with a good suggestion:
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.
As a sucker for classical terms, I like hyptic myself, but I recognize it’s caviar to the general. “Focusing” is good, conveying an idea of how the form is used while projecting an attractive forcefulness that should send the stigma straight into the dustbin of history. Further suggestions are welcome, as are attempts by anti-passivists to explain the plethora of uses in authors they presumably admire.