"My toothbrush is one of four standing upright in a cup on the bathroom sink," wrote Ada Brunstein in ‘The House of No Personal Pronouns’, a 2007 piece in the New York Times Fashion & Style section. "These toothbrushes belong to me, my boyfriend, his wife and her lover."
Brunstein often stays at the house with her married boyfriend, who co-owns it with his estranged wife, who also sometimes lives in the house, together with her boyfriend. This edgy domestic relationship between two couples, one half of each of which had together once formed a different couple, depends on a delicate avoidance of topics such as the evidence of the still-undissolved marriage. There have been negotiations concerning phone calls and visits, and in addition (for this is Language Log, not Open Marriage Lifestyle Log) linguistic negotiations. Brunstein's boyfriend says "the house" now, not "our house"; and:
He has adopted the passive voice to make it easier on me. I once stood in front of a bookcase in the kitchen, three shelves of which hold an impressive collection of salt and pepper shakers from across the country.
"You collect salt and pepper shakers?" I asked.
"There are salt and pepper shakers that have come into the house over the years," he said.
Yes, it's that elusive butterfly of passivity again.
Passive voice is a grammatical term for a particular kind of clause construction involving the past participle of a transitive verb interpreted with its subject understood as object. There is absolutely no instance of it in There are salt and pepper shakers that have come into the house over the years, under any syntactic definition. Ada Brunstein, despite her degrees in science writing and linguistics), does not know active from passive.
Or at least, she did not know in July 2007 when the article appeared (Language Log has written on the topic at least ten times since then; I try to maintain a complete catalog on this page).
I have suggested in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that inaccuracies spread by Professor William Strunk and his erstwhile student E. B. White bear some responsibility for confusions of this sort. But several of my critics, including some of those who wrote angry responses to my Chronicle article (one man wrote "Shame on Pullum"), have claimed that I am wrong. They accuse me of misreading page 18 of (the 4th edition of) The Elements of Style.
The section that begins on that page is headed "Use the active voice", and it begins by explicitly inveighing against the use of the passive voice, illustrating with two versions of a (ridiculously implausible) passive clause and comparing them unfavourably with the active counterpart. It continues with an admission that the passive should not be totally shunned because it is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary", and gives a sensible example of an acceptable passive. It then says this:
The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.
It seemed to me when I first looked at this passage, and mostly it still seems to me, that it brackets there is together with be heard as examples of the passive voice. (Notice, if that were true, then There are salt and pepper shakers that have come into the house would be a passive.) The passage explicitly mentions "substituting a transitive in the active voice" for such locutions; and there is only one class of clauses that are not active already: passive clauses.
Strunk & White proceed to display four paired examples, the left column being putatively incorrect or undesirable writing and the right column containing the corrections. I assumed they thought all of their "incorrect" examples were passives. Many writing teachers across the country have assumed the same; you can read their web materials if you Google for bits and pieces of the four examples Strunk & White supply, namely the following (pink is supposed to be "bad", green is supposed to be "good"):
|There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.||Dead leaves covered the ground.|
|At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.||The cock's crow came with dawn.|
|The reason he left college was that his health became impaired.||Failing health compelled him to leave college.|
|It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.||She soon repented her words.|
But looking through the examples while writing my Chronicle essay, I noticed that only one of the four pairs has a passive as the left-hand member. It is simply impossible to construe these as examples of passives needing to be "corrected" to active transitives. And anyway, only three of the right-hand members, the "correct" versions, have a transitive verb.
I took this to be striking evidence of ineptitude on the part of both authors. Checking back, I found that Strunk's original 1918 version of the book had a very similar block of four examples (see them here), but White made two changes in his revision. One is trivial (in the fourth example Strunk originally had he, but recent editions of the revised book have she — someone has been trying to lighten up on the book's sexism). The other is that White entirely replaced the second example, for unknown reasons.
Where Strunk had The sound of the falls could still be heard as the "bad" one and The sound of the falls still reached our ears as the "correction", which does at least illustrate a passive together with a roughly synonymous active, White's replacements were At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard and The cock's crow came with dawn. This introduced an error: came is not "a transitive in the active voice". More incompetence, I thought.
My critics, however, insist that it is possible to read Strunk & White's text in a different way. I had assumed that the authors were trying to stay on message and illustrate additional "bad" passive clauses. My critics propose that you could see them instead as deliberately broadening the discussion. They start with passive clauses, but then branch out to include certain other expressions that they regard as "perfunctory" (whatever that means) rather than "lively and emphatic". They may begin by condemning the passive voice, but (says this view) they widen their scope to cover expressions like there were, and lying on the ground, and became impaired, and was not long, and was very sorry.
Such expressions are accused not of being passive but of being passive-ish: they are like passives in some diffuse way, such as being insufficiently vigorous or definite or explicit to meet Strunkian standards of bold and forthright prose — fit only for word wimps and syntactic sissies. (This impressionistic evaluation of clause structure doesn't seem particularly plausible to me, but I'm trying to get across the general idea that my critics seem to want me to accept.)
In the response to my critics that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education letters column, I answered this line of argument. You may find it hidden behind a subscription wall, but here is what I said:
"Active" and "passive" are antonyms. Using the active voice means eliminating passives, nothing more or less. So I read pages 18-19 as trying to stay on the announced topic by citing passive examples. And indeed, web materials across the country cite the four "bad" examples as passives.
But I agree that page 18 could be read as going off message, presenting not passive examples but merely other forms of "tame" or "perfunctory" expression — active, but somehow not active enough.
However, the explicit recommendation is to use "a transitive in the active voice." So check their proposed "good" replacements. Only three of the four have a transitive verb!
Personally, I think S&W were confused about passives; but it is absolutely certain that they can't tell transitive from intransitive. Would you buy a used grammar rule from these men?
Well, to drag this digression back to where I started, Ada Brunstein is a professional writer with an American education who has had enough success to publish in The New York Times. I think she has drunk the Strunkian Kool-Aid. At some time during her education she read The Elements of Style. She has been Strunkened and Whitened. She thinks There are salt and pepper shakers that have come into the house over the years is passive because her understanding of passives comes entirely from page 18 of Elements, where (at best) definitions are misleadingly blurred. She learned that existential clauses (those beginning there is or there are) are bad in some ill-defined passive-related way, and she came to suspect that vague remarks about there being things coming into the house over the years were like vague remarks about there being dead leaves lying on the ground: lacking in the short, sharp, choppy, transitive verbs that Strunk and White insist on, and insufficiently punchy to count as full, red-blooded, two-fisted, all-American actives.
I have little to say about this as advice about how you should write: I am not a style doctor or writing adviser, and (unlike Strunk and White) I don't think everyone should write like me. My interest here is solely in the fact that we need an explanation for the fact that educated Americans today have scarcely any clue what "passive clause" means. As Mark Liberman put it (with humorous overstatement), some time between 1397 and 2009 all public understanding of what "passive voice" means in grammar seems to have disappeared. Today people just vaguely imagine that it has something to do with not being fully explicit about personal responsibility and agency, and that's about it.
So why are college-educated Americans so prone to think that simple active-voice intransitives like "bus blows up" or "took on racial overtones" or "were leaving" or "there will be setbacks" or "this happened", or even transitive examples like "has instructed us to", are in the passive voice?
I cannot show you proof, but I have offered you an empirical conjecture. My hypothesis is that a large number of the ten million or more Americans who bought The Elements of Style have been confused by page 18. And I suspect that Ada Brunstein may be one of them.
[Added later, on June 10th: It is now time for a frank admission that my specific hypothesis about Brunstein has turned out to be false. See this post for Ada Brunstein's own report. But of course, that's only about whether her error was spawned by Strunk and White's blunders; she says it wasn't, and claims authorship of her own error. Everything I say above about those blunders by Strunk and White is nonetheless true. —GKP]