Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18

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"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]



46 Comments

  1. Benjamin said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    Keep fighting the good fight, Prof. Pullum.

    I personally don't see what everybody finds so damn hard about identifying the passive voice. Maybe I just had good English teachers in middle school that knew the difference and Latin helped solidify it…

  2. Dan T. said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    I'm not sure I, myself, could actually reliably identify passive and active-voice sentences under the strict technical definition used by linguists, even though I did quite well on the verbal SATs way back when.

    As a computer geek, I get peeved when others fail to use technical terms of computing correctly, but I can understand how hard it is to do this when you're a layman in a particular field and the proper definitions involve fine, obscure distinctions that are hard to understand if you're not educated in the field.

    I think some term is needed for sentences that apply indirection to identifying the primary actors involved, such as through the use of dummy subjects like "There" ("There is a…") instead of subjects identifying specific protagonists ("John created a…"). If "passive" isn't that term, then one needs to be created (actively!)

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    I am sure that there have already been comments about how the tame sentence beginning "Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic …" can be made lively and emphatic by eliminating the passive infinitive.
    But, if I may be allowed to speak for those of us with a pre-S&W education, it seems that "active" and "passive" seem to have simply replaced "personal" and "impersonal", respectively, as a way of characterizing style.

  4. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    The critical distinction, says SCOTUS nominee Sonia Sotomayor, is necessity. "…each time I see a split infinitive, an inconsistent tense structure or the unnecessary use of the passive voice, I blister." (Perhaps we'll render the split infinitive argument moot by declaring it unconstitutional.) We need not, of course, define "necessity" explicitly, since we will know it when we see it.

  5. mgh said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    One wonders how many times "passive" must be used to refer to statements vague in agency before non-prescriptivists acknowledge its alternate definition.

    And, yes, I'm afraid that sentence was written in the passive-aggressive.

    [I recognize a remarkably frequent and vaguely delineated usage; but one could hardly say that a definition had been given. The phrase "vague about agency" does not come from the passive-haters; it comes from the non-prescriptivists, specifically from Mark Liberman (see this post, where the "!=" in the title means "is not equivalent to"). We are the ones who have come closest to defining this vulgar usage. The prescriptivists who are responsible for it don't define anything, they just sort of flounder around. —GKP]

  6. John said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    In high school we had an assignment where we had to write a short story entirely in the active voice, and our teacher said that sentences like "He was running" and "He was happy" are passive (because of the "was") whereas sentences like "He ran" and "He happily smiled" are active. I know this is wrong, but almost every example misclassified as passive that I've ever seen seems to have been misclassified because of similar reasoning. It was obvious at the time that something was wrong, because it was impossible to write prose under these restrictions that wasn't hopelessly stilted.

    And Dan T., I'm not sure how correct this is, but the way I've been checking whether a sentence is passive is by adding "by John" (or whomever) to it and seeing if it still makes sense. So, "The cake was made" becomes "The cake was made by John", so I think it's in the passive voice, but "There are salt and pepper shakers that have come into the house over the years" doesn't work. I have no idea if this is correct, but I think it's worked every time I've used it so far.

    [In the vast majority of cases it will work very nicely indeed. There may be a few cases of actives where accidentally an irrelevant by-phrase can be added, and perhaps the occasional passive that doesn't sound right when a by-phrase is explicitly added (if I was born in Oregon is a passive, it is one that does not allow an agent by-phrase); but those will be highly unusual cases. In general, John's test is very useful. And it completely negates the idea that passive clauses are vague about agency, of course, since the whole point of the by-phrase that you can usually add is to lay emphasis on the identity of the agent. —GKP]

  7. Karen said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    Identifying the passive voice is simple. It is formed by auxiliary verb "to be" and the -N form of the verb (the "past participle" if you like that name), which, of course, may actually end in -T or -ED.

    BOTH elements must be present for the sentence to be passive voice, not just the participle (which is used in the perfect) and not just "auxiliary to be" which is used in the progressive, and certainly not just plain "to be" all by itself as the main verb.

    [I'm sorry to say it is much more complicated than this. What Karen has said would not cover the passive clauses (underlined) in sentences like She went out and got herself arrested by the vice squad or I'll have your bags brought up to your room by the porter or This change went unnoticed by most people, where there is no auxiliary be; and it would not cover "concealed passives" like This thing really needs repairing by a professional, where there is no past participle.

    Defining the class of passive clauses in English is not that simple, and I never suggested that it was. I'm only drawing attention to the fact that people keep using the term when they have not idea at all how it is defined or employed in the field of grammar but they throw the term around anyway. —GKP]

  8. carissa said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    I have to agree with mgh insofar as, colloquially (and isn't that what we care about?), to call a clause "passive" is to say something real about it–that it's vague in agency. What annoys me is simply that people confuse this colloquial usage of the word with the technical usage–they're merely expressing a preference or an annoyance about styles, but they think they have "grammar" on their side to make their preferences into objective laws, when this isn't the case.

  9. Tim Silverman said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    @carissa. I'm not convinced that the word "passive" is being used to refer to a coherent category. Among other things, it seems to be used to refer to

    Sentences that are vague about agency
    Sentences about situations where there isn't any agency
    Sentences containing some part of the verb "to be"
    Sentences that are long and rambling
    Sentences containing actual passive voice
    Sentences containing insufficiently forceful verbs for the taste of the reader
    Sentences with a dummy subject
    Sentences whose main action appears in a subordinate clause
    Sentences that fail to issue a sufficiently strong condemnation of some person or group that the commenter finds morally reprehensible
    Sentences that, while issuing a strong moral condemnation, fail to cast a spell that causes the condemned person to die slowly and painfully
    .
    (The latter is the only explanation I can think of for the kerfuffle a few weeks ago about Bernie Madoff, where I found myself asked to believe that a sentence starting "When I started the Ponzi scheme" left it unclear who started the Ponzi scheme.)

    I will grant you that sometimes a sentence in a passage of writing may seem "weak" by comparison with a "stronger" alternative. It might be possible to extract some sort of coherent stylistic (certainly not grammatical) category out of this. That's certainly not completely implausible—which makes it seem as though one might assign a meaningful word, such as "passive", to donote such a phenomenon. However,

    a) This depends on context and is surely partly subjective
    b) It's not always bad
    c) It seems to me that this is not how "passive" is used. Only some instances of weakness evoke the term "passive" (or perhaps this is just because my subjective reactions differ from other people's); while all sorts of other things get jumbled into the "passive" pile for all sorts of unrelated reasons.

    As far as I can see, "passive" isn't just being used wrong as a technical term, it's being used as a lazy excuse to avoid finding a more precise word or phrase. If you didn't have the sample sentence in front of you, there would be no way to tell what characteristic of it "passive" might be referring to. Sometimes it's difficult to tell even with the offending sentence in view.

    There are probably some sub-meanings within the current usage of "passive" that would make sense on their own, but, at the moment, it seems to be used as a rather vague term of condemnation.

  10. mgh said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    Tim Silverman, I doubt your claim that "passive" is used frequently in senses #2-9. I find no google hits for "When I started the Ponzi scheme", let alone anyone saying it's passive voice. Can you give citations for this, or for "passive" used in senses other than "vague about agency"?

    In any case, even if "passive" were being used nine different ways, it would not be the first word to have so many definitions. ("weak" has at least ten!)

  11. Blake Stacey said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    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.

    And Genesis was meant to be read allegorically, Moriarty was Sherlock Holmes's mathematics tutor, and the second pilot episode of Star Trek took place in a parallel universe where James Tiberius Kirk's middle initial really was R.

  12. Greg said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    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.

    Or maybe "Dumbstrunk"? Or shamelessly displaying "Strunkenness"?

  13. Pete Nicely said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    I love the article but take offense to the title. "Drunk the Kool-Aid" is a particularly obnoxious cliche. It seems to imply being so brainwashed as to willing drink poison. However, those poor people at Jonestown were menaced by men in guns and other intense means of intimidation when offered the Kool-Aid. We need another cliche that means to be willingly brainwashed because that old one doesn't work.

    [Sorry about the offense, but the idiom is firmly in place now. To drink the Kool-Aid is to buy the propaganda, to yield to the brainwashing, to get with the program. Lots of our idioms have rather dark origins: think of poisoned chalice, or cut X off at the knees, or scratch X's eyes out, or enter the lions' den, or (do you know this one?) have X's guts for garters. I don't disagree about Jonestown, but I can't take responsibility for every mental image or painful memory that an idiom or metaphor might dredge up when encountered by a person of sensitive disposition. The phrase heads will roll, if you think literally, conjures up a ghastly scene of multiple decapitations. But we use it jocularly around the office on discovering a screw-up for which someone must be blamed. The shocking vividness of these metaphorical expressions is precisely what originally caused them to become idioms in our language. —GKP]

  14. Tim said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    "She has been Strunkened and Whitened."

    Surely, that should be "She Strank and Whit."

  15. Brett said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    I had an English teacher in high school whose treatment of the "passive voice" was very instructive about this phenomenon. She was vehemently opposed to what she referred to as "passives" in her junior- and senior-level students' writing. In fact, she taught a special Advanced Writing class where, in most of the assignments, the use of "passive voice" was absolutely forbidden (or sometimes restricted to one instance in the sentence giving a paper's thesis). Of course, her definition of "passive" was extremely broad; she had a list of verbs which were disallowed, including all forms of "be" and "have," as well as "must," "can," "seem," "become," and others.

    On the other hand, she appeared to know perfectly well what the term "passive voice" actually meant. (At least, she knew at the level given by Karen above, and she might easily have been able to distinguish the trickier cases as well.) She would freely admit, if questioned, that most of the things she was telling us not to use were not really instances of the "passive voice," but she felt they were similar enough in character to be treated similarly and called by the same name. She knew of the distinction, but she intentionally failed to draw it.

    She also knew that, really, passives (and the other constructions she lumped with them) were not that bad, and excellent writers used the all the time. She claimed that she set her ridiculous rules to make her students "learn to manipulate the language," to make us "use strong verbs," and to encourage "showing, not telling" in our writing. These are things that I can understand wanting to instill in young, inexpert writers (although the "showing, not telling" I considered a vile little slogan, with little to no actual meaning behind it). However, those were not the strongest lessons she imparted to her students. Instead, she taught them to "avoid passives" at almost any cost, and that "passive voice" meant anything that included insufficiently evocative verbs.

    I believe there is actually a much more general problem with teaching writing to high school and college students, of which the proscription against "passives" is merely one particular but pervasive form. The lesson of such classes frequently seems to be, "It's less important whether you write well than whether you write the way I like." While a sufficiently bright student, or one who sees several different dogmatic viewpoints about how writing should be done, may not be too hindered by this attitude in their instructors, many people, who may only see one particular version of what is the "right" way to write may never move beyond the particular set of irrelevant rules they had drummed into them.

    [May all of the above travel unimpeded from the Language Log comments area straight to God's ear and to English department common rooms all over America. Thank you, Brett. —GKP]

  16. dr pepper said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    @ Dan T.

    I think some term is needed for sentences that apply indirection to identifying the primary actors involved

    There is: "impersonal"

  17. lemuel pitkin said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    @ MGH:

    Here's Nancy Franklin, in the March 23 New Yorker:

    "Two sentences later, Madoff said, 'When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme.' As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him."

    Took me less than a minute to find this; your google-fu is weak.

  18. Adrian said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    Carissa: "I have to agree with mgh insofar as, colloquially (and isn't that what we care about?), to call a clause "passive" is to say something real about it–that it's vague in agency."

    I had never heard (of) this so-called colloquial use of the word until I first saw it being discussed here on LLog. As far as I can tell, it's an error that has been vectored by bad teachers and bad writers.

    btw, Geoff, I read "_there is_ or _could be heard_" as short for "_there is heard_ or _there could be heard_"

  19. Derek Balsam said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    I think the problem isn't the word "passive", it's the word "voice".

    If laypersons were to talk about "passive sentences", "passive styles", "passive ways of expressing oneself," I think it would be obvious that they are using the term in a non-technical manner.

    As soon as one adds "voice", it then becomes a technical term with a precise definition not understood by the untrained.

  20. Dan T. said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:31 am

    @ Pete Nicely:

    …and it wasn't actually Kool-Aid ™ brand drink that was used, but Flavor Aid.

  21. Timothy Martin said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    This change went unnoticed by most people.
    So adjectival passives count, as well?

    As for Prof. Pullum's question as to why so many Americans mistake active-voice intransitives for "passive" clauses, perhaps what people are paying attention to is the fact that many (all?) of such clauses don't have grammatical agents?

  22. montgomery said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 1:45 am

    I am getting a bit tired of the Language Log "But that's not really passive voice!" rants. You're beginning to sound like the people who like to say, "Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables" or "You can't say 'people and animals' because people are animals."

    I say the term "passive voice" is no longer just a technical term; it has entered the vernacular and taken on a looser meaning. In everyday speech it means something like "a sentence in which the agent is obscured." In linguistics, of course, it is still a technical term with the more precise and limited meaning you are so fond of.

    So chill. It is okay to call tomatoes vegetables. It is okay to say people are not animals. And it is okay to say "salt-and-pepper shakers that have come into the house" and call it passive.

    [If you are tired of Language Log (and I can hardly believe you mean it), your subscription will be refunded in full. But yes, of course you can call tomatoes vegetables, and of course there is no objection to the existence of everyday meanings for words and phrases that have also been given technical senses in grammar or other fields. You don't find linguists in general objecting to everyday uses of words that also have technical senses in linguistics. So what's the difference with this one? I'll tell you. Across the USA, writing instructors and teaching assistants are hard at work circling things in student essays and writing "Don't use passive" in the margin, and they are doing two kinds of harm: (i) they are wasting time and money (often it is public money such as State funds that pays for people to mechanically circle every occurrence of "was"), and (ii) they are damaging students' ability to grasp what is genuinely important about writing well. If it were not for the fact that damage is being done in schools, including the higher education sphere, I wouldn't spend a minute on such a silly thing as the polysemy of the word passive. And of course I never grumble about talk of passive resistance or passive-aggressive personalities or passive acceptance of one's fate. The issue here is not one of terminological imperialism. It is about people talking explicitly about the linguistic property of being in the passive voice in a context where teachers (and Microsoft Word) are explicitly and quite incorrectly warning people that use of the passive voice is a bad thing. It's a bad thing and you have to get rid of it but nobody has any coherent notion of what it is! The result is a disastrous state of what I have called nervous cluelessness about one's writing that is truly damaging. Follow that nervous cluelessness link and read what I said again. Especially the bit about being nibbled to death by ducks. —GKP]

  23. mgh said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    Geoff,

    Across the USA, writing instructors and teaching assistants are hard at work circling things in student essays and writing "Don't use passive" in the margin, and they are doing two kinds of harm: [...]

    In light of my earlier comment on broadening the meaning of "passive", I wanted to say that this is a very compelling argument that I do find convincing — although I'd be careful to distinguish the technical use of "passive" in a composition class from colloquial uses of it like in the "Modern Love" column you cite here.

    Historically the arrow may point from that damnable pamphlet to the colloquial use, but I do think the colloquial use is established (or maybe that's a sampling bias of mine from reading too much LL) and should not necessarily be "corrected" so much as fenced off from the technical use, such as employed when a teacher corrects an essay.

  24. bianca steele said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    If you Google "passive voice," you will find in a page of advice for would-be professional writers a statement to the effect that "Light filtered through the tree and lit the flowers that grew along the path" is "in the passive voice," with "Walking in the woods, she sensed the glory of life" suggested as a suitably active alternative.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    One oddity with the S&W passage is that the advice to substitute a construction with an active-voice transitive verb is fully compatible with (and perhaps only with?) a narrow and "correct" understanding of what the passive voice is. Since the subject of the verb in the passive construction should end up as a direct object in the non-passive alternative, a transitive verb is necessary and its absence is evidence that either one was muddled about the passivity of the original or that something has gone awry in the transformation process. I think this should work even for the less-standard examples GKP gave, i.e. "have your bags brought up" becomes "have the bellman bring up your bags," or "went and got herself arrested" becomes "went and got the police to arrest her."

  26. Craig Russell said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    If anyone needs any more evidence (ha!) that teachers are confused about the idea of passive voice, I just found a paper I wrote in a freshman college history class ten years ago, in which the TA who graded them was obsessed with the idea of eliminating passive voice, but clearly had no idea what it meant. Here's a scan of one page:

    http://photos-g.ak.fbcdn.net/photos-ak-sf2p/v108/250/51/2513045/n2513045_36402606_3689.jpg

    Here are some constructions that he identified as passive voice:

    "Henry was obviously interested in doing so…" (past participle used as an adjective)

    "Innocent was quite brilliantly using the vacancy…" (past progressive [and active!])

    "Innocent was also reluctant to mention…" (the verb 'to be' with an adjective)

    On the one section of one page that I've scanned, he marks ten things as "passive", and only three are actually passive. And ironically, he also marks the following sentence as "awkward":

    "Innocent saw his people taken from him by the Waldensian heresy…"

    This construction IS passive voice, but he doesn't mark it as such.

    At the time, I had no idea what "passive voice" meant (despite high school and college writing training, I never really got any good instruction on it until I became a Classics major and took Greek and Latin). And it's no wonder–who was I going to learn it from when even my teachers had no clue?

  27. Craig Russell said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    I will say this in defense of the teachers, however: now that I have taught students of different levels (middle school through college) for the past four years, I have a new appreciation of how difficult it is to impart information to them, especially at the lower levels. Middle schoolers and high schoolers just aren't listening that carefully! Especially if the thing you're trying to teach is complex and requires a lot of subtle thought, there's a good chance that you'll go right over the heads of most of your audiences.

    What students are fairly good at absorbing are simple "NEVER DO THIS" or "ALWAYS DO THIS" rules, and I have a lot of sympathy for teachers who end up imposing them. Getting your students to learn them is better than having them learn nothing.

    And, after several years of grading college freshman papers, I have noticed a common problem in their writing, which is easy to identify but hard to label and describe precisely. It's a general belief that good, intelligent, sophisticated writing means making everything really wordy (perhaps to mask the fact that they don't really have much to say).

    I would compare this to "police talk", which seems to relish phrases like, "this particular individual" for no reason other than wordiness. Student papers are full of sentences like, "this trend is seen as leading to the occurrence of this disease being increased." When you're faced with sentences like this and you're trying to figure out some way to explain what's wrong with them–keeping in mind that your students are unlikely to listen to anything other than a "NEVER DO THIS" type rule–"avoid passive" kind of fits the bill.

    But even say this, I cringe; I want to believe that education CAN be about teaching students to understand the complex nature of sophisticated ideas, and I DO think that "passive voice" has a specific meaning which is not beyond the understanding of students. I'm just not sure if that belief is an accurate description of the real world.

  28. Craig Russell said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    If anyone needs any more evidence (ha!) that teachers are confused about the idea of passive voice, I just found a paper I wrote in a freshman college history class ten years ago, in which the TA who graded them was obsessed with the idea of eliminating passive voice, but clearly had no idea what it meant.

    Here are some constructions that he identified as passive voice:

    "Henry was obviously interested in doing so…" (past participle used as an adjective)

    "Innocent was quite brilliantly using the vacancy…" (past progressive [and active!])

    "Innocent was also reluctant to mention…" (the verb 'to be' with an adjective)

    On the one section of one page that I've scanned, he marks ten things as "passive", and only three are actually passive. And ironically, he also marks the following sentence as "awkward":

    "Innocent saw his people taken from him by the Waldensian heresy…"

    This construction IS passive voice, but he doesn't mark it as such.

    At the time, I had no idea what "passive voice" meant (despite high school and college writing training, I never really got any good instruction on it until I became a Classics major and took Greek and Latin). And it's no wonder–who was I going to learn it from when even my teachers had no clue?

    Here's the scan:

    http://photos-g.ak.fbcdn.net/photos-ak-sf2p/v108/250/51/2513045/n2513045_36402606_3689.jpg

  29. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    Further to de-Strunkification of the language: Before he became a pacifist, Noam Chomsky was an active passivist. A large part of his Syntactic Structures [Janua Linguarum No. 4, 1957] was devoted by him to the analysis of passive structures in English. Many of the complexities cited by Prof. Pullum were nailed down with elegant precision.

    On another passive, but personal, note, I was once awarded kudos in Chomsky's class when a rare specimen of a present-perfect progressive passive (4P) verb was recorded by me in the wild when I was told by a librarian "Hmm, that book has been being bound for six months now." The last blank cell in a three-dimensional verb matrix then being proposed by Chomsky was thereby filled.

  30. Spectre-7 said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    I understand and can sympathize with the difficulties in teaching inattentive students, but wouldn't it be better to tell them to write simply, or advise them that clear writing is good writing, rather than bringing in matters of active and passive voice, which neither the instructor nor students are likely to even understand?

    It strikes me that grammatical voice is precisely the sort of complex subject requiring subtle thought that you allude to, and as such, is probably best glossed over in middle and high-school composition. Considering how the subject is currently covered, teachers would do just as well to randomly circle sentences in red and admonish the students for using serptaculant phrasing.

    At least then we could get a chuckle out of it.

  31. bianca steele said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    My favorite example, actually, of an editing issue I assume was caused by an overliteral reading of Strunk & White was observed by my husband. A tech writer changed "if the file is not open for writing" to "if the file is closed for writing." No amount of explaining that "closed for writing" is meaningless could persuade the writer, who described his change along the lines of having found a more felicitous way to describe the same thing.

  32. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    Brett's teacher sounds more like an advocate of E-Prime, though it sounds as if she went even further. (Note the reference to the passive voice at the very top of that Wikipedia article. I'm also amused by the complaint about weasel words at the top.) E-Prime came out of the General Semantics community in the 1950s.

  33. Andrew said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    Can anyone make out what Nancy Franklin was getting at? Normally, when someone condemns a sentence as being in the passive voice, it may not actually be in the passive voice, but there is some grammatical or stylistic feature which could be changed, making the sentence less 'passive' in the vague sense they have in mind. In this case, however, I cannot see any possible change to Madoff's statement that could be seen as making it less 'passive'.

  34. Spectre-7 said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    Andrew,

    Maybe she was referring to the phrase, "…I believed it would end shortly…"? I suppose that could be phrased in a such a way to make it clearer that he was planning to end it, rather than simply believing it would end, but I can't imagine why that in particular would bother her. Of the whole statement, that portion seems to have the least to do with his culpability in the scheme.

    Or maybe she was instinctually disgusted at anything Madoff had to say, and just assumed that some portion of it was in the passive voice, because that is (of course) the linguistic sin that the guilty are known to commit.

  35. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

    The idea that the passive voice is "vague about agency" drives me crazy. After all, I can be vague about agency in the active voice: "Someone stole my bike." The difference between passive and active voice has to do with information structure, not with agency per se.

  36. Stewart said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    "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"

    On checking my copy of Strunk & White (sorry – it's a long story) for this implausible clause I found: "My first visit to Boston will always be rememembered by me."

    You're right Geoff. It is implausible. A much more probable construction, particularly from public officials is "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by myself".

  37. Steve said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Much as I tend to agree with any criticism of Strunk and White, I am not sure that page 18 is as responsible for people's confusion about what the passive voice is as G.K.P. suggests. In Britain Strunk and White is practically unknown – we have other prescriptivist guides, such as Fowler and Gowers (though I would suggest that even they are less dogmatic than S & W) – and injunctions against using the passive are far less common (I know Orwell pretended not to like it, but he is an exception.) Certainly, I was never taught at school to 'avoid the passive', and the only advice concerning it I can recall was to the contrary: that the passive had to be used in describing science experiments ('The liquid was heated' not 'I heated the liquid). To the best of my knowledge, British secondary school English teachers (I have been one myself) do not routinely penalise students for using the passive or discourage its use, and I suspect most British users of the language only discover the American prejudice against it when Microsoft Word starts putting wavy lines under perfectly well-written sentences.

    And yet most British people can't recognise the passive voice either. As has been mentioned above the concept of passivity is so broadly understood in other contexts than the grammatical that there is bound to be considerable drift from the general meaning to the linguistic. And it is surely true that the passive is sometimes difficult to spot or differentiate from other constructions: 'He was exhausted by the journey' is clearly in the passive voice; 'He was exhausted', on the other hand, is the verb 'to be' with the adjective 'exhausted' as complement. It's hardly surprising people get confused, and while Strunk and White have certainly not helped, the fact that the confusion stretches throughout the English-speaking world suggests that they cannot be the only cause.

  38. Edward Vitasek said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 4:25 am

    I actually tend to agree with the "broader reading", and I can attempt to be more specific at it. My hypothesis is that Strunk thought linking verbs were neither in the active nor the passive voice; that this category was not applicable at all to cases were the bulk of predication is borne by anything other than a verb.

    I'm unsure about what he might have thought about intransitive verbs. Since prepositional objects can sometimes form the subject of passives (as in "This bed has been slept in; the sheets are all crumpled.") I suspect that he'd have accepted them as active.

    I do think that this interpretation would also be compatible with "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs," (where I suspect he didn't think of nouns as subject complements linked by "to be" or other linking verbs).

    Basically, Strunk might have had a model in mind like this:

    1. Transitive verbs: passive (yes) –> active (yes)
    2. Intransitive verbs: passive (occasionally via prepositional phrases) –> active (?)
    3. Linking verbs: passive (no) —> active (no) [= voice analysis not applicable]

    Personally, I don't find it very useful to look at "am" in "I am here," as in the active voice, though it's certainly not in the passive voice.

    It's really a minor disagreement, since the section [i]is[/i] confusing, however you read it, and it's easy to misread as White's edit shows. (As a side-note: roosters apparently turn into cocks in the active voice. How appropriately phallic.)

    ***

    Btw, thanks for "concealed passives". How can I uncover their passivity? Through semantics only? I'm intrigued by this.

  39. seriously said,

    June 9, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    "She has been Strunkened and Whitened."

    Surely the construction should be "Strunked" rather than "Strunkened." Or perhaps "Enstrunked" (kind of like "Imbiggens") In the form I propose, it's a great word for such useful purposes as trash talking ("Man, Liberman really strunked Stanley Fish and George Will in that post!"), lamenting ("I think I totally strunked my linguistics exam"), and rationalizing ("I was writing really clearly, and then all of a sudden, I just strunked.")

    In fact, I'm not sure how the field of linguistics has gotten along without it.

  40. sweater said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:23 am

    A better speculative etiology for this confusion would just be the fact that the phrases "passive voice" and "past participle" are quite similar in most people's minds. So many of the pseudo-passive constructions evinced in these posts involve the past participle (whose head verb is so often "to be") that this seems WAY more likely than that people are unwittingly memorizing SW's examples. I read Latin and Greek pretty well, but I still find myself having to pause when deliberately parsing something, before I say either "past participle" or "passive [indicative, etc.]" or something like that. In my mind they both sound like "pa…" and then I have to pause to complete the rest. And I've never read SW.

    As far as speculative etiology goes (which I totally approve of, BTW), I'd say more Americans have studied a language (French, Spanish, German) where they had to learn the terms "past participle" and "passive voice," and then confusedly transferred those grammatical terms to English sentences, than have memorized the SW examples.

  41. Chris said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    On checking my copy of Strunk & White (sorry – it's a long story) for this implausible clause I found: "My first visit to Boston will always be rememembered by me."

    On the other hand, if it said "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by the Mayor, the City Council, and the Boston Police Department", it would be much more difficult to rewrite it into the active voice without, at the very least, radically altering the emphasis of the sentence, possibly greatly disserving the narrative which the reader is led to expect from such a beginning.

    Which goes to show that the passive voice (even in the strict grammatical sense) has its uses, and teachers ought to adopt a more nuanced approach to it. Even if a given student is using the passive voice badly, telling them not to use it at all doesn't address the real problem and potentially deprives them of a useful tool for some situations.

  42. David Walker said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    "I don't think everyone should write like me." Me? Is that correct?

  43. David Walker said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    "Hmm, that book has been being bound for six months now." Interesting.

    I like Elton John's song Candle in the Wind (co-written by Bernie Taupin) with the line

    "I would have liked to have known her, but I was just a kid…."

  44. brotzel said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    In my day job as a marketing copywriter I recently attended a corporate tone of voice workshop for a big UK brand, largely aimed at customer service people. One of the tonal tenets was "Avoid passive language" which turned out to mean "Don't say things like 'A mistake has occurred' or 'An error has appeared in your account for which we apologise'". This idea of passive voice as language in which the writer shows no "ownership" or "responsibility" for their actions, mistakes etc (and thereby alienates the customer) is becoming a staple of UK business writing advice.

  45. Phil Harvey said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    This post is still as elucidating as it was in 2009. Don't drink it!

    In the first comment, Benjamin said he doesn't understand why some people find it so hard to identify the passive voice. Benjamin must not be an American. Or if he is, he was never afflicted with "The Elements of Style."

    I found it damn, damn hard to figure out the passive voice for years. Problem: I was trying to wrest understanding from that troublesome little book. If only everything dumb was mute.

    It's taken years for me to undo the damage.

    Americans can be grateful for Bryan Garner. Without him, the Brits might have a monopoly on style.

    Down with Strunk.

  46. Phil Harvey said,

    October 3, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    Correction: "If everything dumb were mute."

    I wish I could blame Strunk for that one. Alas.

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