Saturday, August 05, 2006

Passive Voice Should Be Avoided, Especially in Blog Post Titles

Languagehat and Language Log are seeking to redeem the passive voice, primarily through two (kind of silly) ways: first, by showing that famous anti-passive voice stylists often used passive voice, and second by renaming it something like the "hyptic voice."

My response to Languagehat and Language Log is, and I mean this in all due respect, that when you go to Hell ( an inevitability for those who publicly encourage the use of passive voice), I hope you are tortured for all eternity by being forced to read freshman essays like the one Strongbad produced.

In the future, those who do not teach freshman composition are forbidden to say anything about style, ever.


  1. Indeed. The passive is to be discouraged.

  2. I am reminded (!) of an article a former English teacher of mine had posted in a prominent place in his classroom.

    The headline read, "To fully inflame purists, aim to regularly split infinitives."

  3. Is there an irregular way to split 'em?

  4. As I have said elsewhere, the problem is not use of the passive, it's bad use of the passive, a subset of bad writing in general, something I'm sure freshman essays are full of. But carry on Viewing with Alarm.

  5. Anonymous2:14 AM

    Wrongfully accused!

    What is it with passives that dont suit your taste? Passive or Active its the main thought that counts. Don't you think?

  6. It isn't really a matter of taste, so much as a matter of communicating some clear ideas. As Languagehat correctly noted, "the problem is not use of the passive, it's bad use of the passive." I've yet to see the bad use of *active* in a freshman paper. Usually in active voice the problem is something else. Usually in passive voice the problem is ... passive voice.

    And, no, it's never the thought that counts in writing, it is always the words that count. Every semester, I have this conversation with a student:

    Me: This sentence doesn't make any sense. You appear to be saying here that if A=B, and B=C, then A does no equal C.

    Student: But that's not what I *meant* to say!

    Me: But that's what you wrote.

    I once had a student who wrote a paper about Attention Defecate Disorder (sic). Why are you laughing? Because it's not the thought that counts; it's the words actually used.

  7. Anonymous5:22 PM

    I realize that I'm a day late and a dollar short on this post, but I have to defend passive voice.

    As a legal writer, I use active voice when I want to emphasize, usually in a positive sense, a particular point. However, if I have to concede a point I don't particuarly like, I will use passive voice, in order to de-emphasize the point and make it seem weaker.

    Which is stronger: John Doe then hired a hitman to kill his wife.
    Then John Doe had his wife killed.

    Perhaps not the best example, but the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment. I think it still illustrates the point.

  8. I don't think we should be ruled (in stylistic matters) by teachers of Freshman Comp. Don't they have a distorted perspective, simply by massive exposure to bad writing?

    There, I used the passive, just like the original post did ("should be tortured in hell.. by being forced to") In fact, it is impossible to attack the pasive voice in blogposts of more than 30 words without using the passive voice several times.