LET THE PASSIVE BE RENAMED!

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.

Comments

  1. In my experience the passive does play a part in making scientific writing even more execrable than it would otherwise be. In engineering writing it is a menace: I used to work for a firm which would not allow a phrase such as “xyz is recommended”. Very reasonably, they expected to know who was doing the recommending. Was it the view of young Snooks, of the xxx section, or of yyy group? I remember horror at a report to us from an American engineering firm which said that “…. zzz is indicated”. What that contractor meant, someone finally recognised, was that they recommended that zzz be done. What they’d actually said was that our instruments would show that zzz had happened. We suspected that the usage had leaked in from medicine, but whatever the source of the infection it was rank bad English.

  2. The passive voice is generally less emphatic than the active and should be avoided where emphasis is desired.
    USGS Suggestions to Authors (1958)

  3. Hard-core style partisans of every stripe have a catch-all escape clause — it goes something like, “These are the general rules, but if you know what you’re doing, you can break them when appropriate.” — and in my experience, they feel no compunction using them. (This clause gets a lot of use, by the way, in that it’s also used in shoring up supposed grammatical rules that all writers ignore, and probably other things as well.)

  4. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says:

    In Irish, the equivalent of the passive voice is referred to as an briathar saor, “the free verb”, a far more appealing term I think. The form is used quite a lot, including in circumstances where English might use active voice (with the prounoun being “one” in very formal english or “you” in informal English).

  5. The passive voice is generally less emphatic than the active and should be avoided where emphasis is desired.
    USGS Suggestions to Authors (1958)

    Yes, this is a typical example of the kind of groundless nonsense the Loggers are trying to stamp out.
    the passive does play a part in making scientific writing even more execrable than it would otherwise be
    The badly used passive. The passive, like any other grammatical construction, can be used well or badly. The point is not to “avoid the passive,” the point is to write well. Remember, passives don’t kill sentences, (bad) writers kill sentences!
    “the free verb”, a far more appealing term I think
    I do too! How about it, Language Loggers? Do we have a winner?

  6. The passive voice is generally less emphatic than the active and should be avoided where emphasis is desired.
    Oh, wait, you were quoting that because it actually uses two passives! Sorry, I’m slow today.

  7. The “inflicted voice”?

  8. To be fair to Strunk, he doesn’t condemn the passive, and even explains where it’s necessary, where it’s usable, and where it’s wordy. “Use the active” is a very different piece of advice from “avoid the passive”.
    Much of what’s wrong with Strunk & White is due to White, either because of what he added directly or because of what he failed to remove.

  9. “Thematic voice”, “focusing voice”… ZZZ! That’s my ASLEEP voice! Come on, people, this is the post-Nike age! I say we call it either the TOTALLY BITCHIN’ VOICE (caps mandatory) or the Voice of a Thousand Smiles. Or maybe “intranstivr”, for that viral, Web 2.0 feel. No! “Voice 2.0″! Is someone writing this down? This is gold, people.

  10. If the active voice focuses on the actor (the agent), then maybe the voice that focuses on the receiver of the action (the patient) should be the receptive voice?
    Or maybe the voice that focuses on the fact that it happened (without worrying about who did it) should be the factive voice? That has the bonus of rhyming with active, and who can resist a rhyme? :-)

  11. Factive is already taken.
    I vote for hyptic or hyptious. Hyptious is better because it’s Latinate Greek and therefore doubly obscure.

  12. Why not just keep the word “passive”? Language Log just showed once again that normative grammarians have their heads up their colons.

  13. Time for a re-analysis of the English voice system, anyway. Often forms construed as active are passive in their force; and indeed they are often middle in their force. What is called the passive in English is perhaps better characterised as the periphrastic passive.
    It is mostly tradition and conventional usage that have obscured this fact. So it seems to me. Even those who find a middle voice in English (whose forms are identical to active forms) do not identify this passive of which I speak, because that label is so firmly affixed to our periphrastic passive that it seems applicable to it exclusively.
    So the topic of the present discussion is this periphrastic passive; and yes, it is annoyingly over-used by many. Why can its use be annoying? Because it is periphrastic!

  14. I do agree that people will go to ridiculous lengths to try to avoid the passive voice. I remember for a while our local public radio statiom used to use the awkward formulation “Our listeners support us, along with the Pew Trust and an endowment from the XYZ foundation”. They’ve recently switched back to the less ambiguous “We are supported by our listeners, along with the Pew Trust, etc.” as the listeners apparently got tired of supporting the various trusts and endowments.

  15. Mark Liberman likes free verb too.
    I’m envisioning linguistics students interrupting staid meetings of the MLA by hollering “Free Verb!” (Cultural allusion, if you’re not familiar with it.)

  16. Emerson - but not John says:

    I propose the name, “the anonymous voice” for some, but not all of the so-called “passives” noted in the original Language Log article. I think the other passsives and even the active voice should also be renamed.
    “Lifting up the corner of the rug” on this topic, so to speak, has convinced me that we need to replace the entire carpet! The old active/passive duality hides more than it explains. Time for some new names and new explanations of what the different “voices” in English are actually used for.
    All will be made clear in a longer post to follow!

  17. …we need to replace the entire carpet! The old active/passive duality hides more than it explains. Time for some new names and new explanations of what the different “voices” in English are actually used for.
    A Daniel come to judgement! See my own post above, non-John Emerson. I wonder how similar your reform agenda is to mine. We’ll see.

  18. I suggest the pathic voice. For an explanation see Renaming the Passive Voice.

  19. caffeind says:

    >English pathic means “passive, suffering” as an adjective and “one who plays the passive role in a homosexual encounter” as a noun. Another grammatical term with a double meaning is the verb conjugate, meaning not only “to inflect a verb” but also “to have sexual relations.”
    And don’t forget that “declension” means to bend over…

  20. And don’t forget that “declension” means to bend over…
    ..or alternatively, as SOED has it:
    4 The action of declining or refusing politely. rare. E19.
    And this, given the turn the conversation is taking, is the stance I for one will be resolutely maintaining.

  21. The Irish free verb IS NOT a passive voice. It is an impersonal form of the active voice. When used with personal pronouns, it takes the accusative form of the personal pronoun.
    Every time I teach Irish to newbies, I always shout as loud as I can that the FREE VERB IS NOT A PASSIVE, but unfortunately, somebody has attended Irish classes with a decidedly lower standard than mine.

  22. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says:

    Panu, I brought up the briathar saor because of the light-hearted nomenclature discussion. I knew it wasn’t exactly the same as the passive voice, that’s why I called it the equivalent of the p.v. rather than just saying “the p.v. in Irish”. I suppose this wasn’t an entirely clear way of indicating a distinction.
    As regards standards of classes I’m afraid I first learned Irish from my parents as an infant and they didn’t spend too much time on grammar terminology. Later in school grammar was taught through Irish and without reference to the grammar of other languages. No teachers are to blame for my remarks.

  23. Let me offer support to ‘dearme’.
    Getting rid of passive demands that the writer point out the agent, who remains conveniently invisible in passive locutions.
    See D. David Bourland’s e-prime (“To be or Not”) or Korzybski’s “Science and Sanity” for more anti-passive arguments.
    I find them persuasive. So also does my good friend, the owner of http://www.hilgart.org, Andy Hilgartner.

  24. “I knew it wasn’t exactly the same as the passive voice, that’s why I called it the equivalent of the p.v. rather than just saying “the p.v. in Irish”. I suppose this wasn’t an entirely clear way of indicating a distinction.”
    It is an entirely misleading way. The point of “passive” is entirely different from the point of briathar saor. The fact that people actually think of briathar saor as passive, has led to them using the “ag” agent with briathar saor forms, which is entirely alien to traditional Gaeltacht speech – with the exception of mainly Munster poetry and songs. It is beginning to creep into Gaeltacht literature too (in Domhnall Mac Síthigh’s “Fan Inti” there are several instances) but it is still by far less common there than in Galltacht literature.
    It is, in fact, THE shibboleth of Galltacht non-native written Irish, and precisely that is why it should be avoided, if you are attempting at a native speaker standard.

Speak Your Mind

*