Hi. This is an old, unmaintained blog. You may find these sites more to your liking:

Carson Brackney: This is my primary site.

Ad Astra Traffic: Content production/article writing service.

Ad Astra Traffic Team: For those who'd like to get writing gigs with Ad Astra.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Getting aggressive about the passive...

I have two grammar issues that annoy me every once in awhile. The split infinitive is one. The passive voice is the other. I should fill this blog with reasons why I am the perfect freelance content writer to meet everyone's needs. Today, though, I am going to get all writery (not a word) and talk about the passive voice.

I am writing a blog post.
A blog post is being written by me.

Obviously, the active voice (the first one for those of you who were busy doing something else in English class) is the better option.

That's why so many people will tell you to use the active voice all of the time. Avoid the passive voice like you'd avoid deadly bird flu. Here's what someone at Georgia State says:

"Whenever and as often as possible, without straining the limits or respectability of the English language, write in the active voice. Using the active voice in one sentence seems like such a small improvement, but converting an entire research memo, client letter, judicial brief, or other document from weak, passive sentences to the active voice causes the reader to experience the warmth and passion of your message and, as an extra bonus, tends to be less wordy."

The robotic grammarian embedded in the source code of your Microsoft products tends to agree. Anything that looks slightly passive in voice will get the dreaded green squiggly. Bill Gates' highly fallible automatic proofreader will encourage you to stay active.

So, if Georgia State and Bill Gates agree, it must be true, right?

Not necessarily.

Although I hate to admit it, I went to law school for awhile. I didn't really care for my legal writing course that much, but I do remember a few discussions about the use of active and passive voice in legal writing. I did a wee bit of Googling and found that the people at Kent University Law School tend to line up the same way we did at my law school on the subject.

"While any single use of the passive voice is not technically incorrect, the repeated use of passive voice produces a sluggish, ponderous text. However, there are a limited number of situations--explained below--where using passive voice is preferable."

Admittedly, the people at Kent definitely favor active voice when possible, but at least they recognize that certain situations call for it. They mention situations in which use of the passive voice will increase emphasis on one's main point as an example. Another is using the passive voice to get a verb toward the front of a sentence when one has a multi-part subject.

The University of Calgary repeats a lesson many of us learned in college and graduate school. When you are writing academically, it is aok to be passive. (They also stick up for PV when one wants to emphasize the person receiving an action, rather than the actor).

"You can use a passive construction to avoid writing 'I.' For example, when you are writing a paper that reports on the results of a study, you may use, 'the study was based on...' instead of 'I based the study on...'"

H.J. Tichy, author of Effective Writing for Engineers, Managers, Scientists (2nd Ed.), probably wouldn't be too keen on joining the English faculty at the University of Calgary based on his attitude toward passive voice.

"'Always use the passive voice' is a prescription so frequently pressed on writers of informational prose that is has proved to be one of the most harmful fallacies, if not the most harmful... The passive voice weakens style when it is used, consciously and unconsciously, to evade responsibility."

I found Tichy's arguments about responsibility in language interesting. It's less a rules-based attack on the grammar of the passive than it is a critique of the grammar's potential impacts.

Anyway...we have people telling us to avoid the passive at all costs. We have others telling us to use it whenever we'd like when writing from a purely informational angle. We have others telling us to use it under specific circumstances.

I prefer the active voice. I think everyone does in a vacuum. However, when you write as much as I do, you realize that blindly embracing the active over the passive at every turn can, at times, have a negative impact on readability.

So, I write active but keep the passive card in my back pocket and whip it out, as necessary, to create effective prose. I don't hold it until one of three particular exceptions to the rule of active voice, but I don't play it over and over again until the reader falls asleep or becomes confused.

There are some materials that demand active voice. Sales copy, for instance, must rely on active language to have maximum effectiveness. Otherwise, I think of those green squigglies tagged "passive voice" as less of an error than a "factor to consider."

This puts me an uncomfortable position, because I am something of a believer in rules-based grammar for written materials. I believe the standardization of grammar increases the quality of communication overall because it walls off the unreadable--and worse.

I remember an old Atlantic Monthly article that warned "sloppy language makes for sloppy thinking and totalitarianism." I don't know that I would go that far, but there is some truth to that. Whether we risk utter demise from poor grammar or not, I think that a rules-based approach creates a common communicative expectation, and that is important.

Rules, however, are made to be broken. ee cummings didn't punctuate correctly. Faulkner's work could light up Word with a worm-trail of green squigglies from his run-on sentences. They broke rules and communicated successfully. That ability stemmed from their understanding of the rules and why they needed to be twisted.

I won't put myself on par with cummings or Faulkner, but I do believe that my occasional intentional uses of the passive for the sake of communicative impact are just as legitimate as their rule-breaking. Sloppy language might lead to sloppy thinking, but not all transgressions are indicative of slop.

So, I will leave you all to decide for yourselves whether my use of the passive voice is a sign of intellectual laziness and an unwillingness to compromise efficiency by editing with more care, or if I am onto something.

Oh, and if you just read a long post like this about the use of the passive voice, you are one in a million.