A few days ago, Geoff Pullum posted a meditation on the role of The Elements of Style in befuddling Americans about the nature of the passive voice ("Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18", 6/6/2009). His point of departure was a passage illustrating the confusion, taken from a 2007 article by Ada Brunstein ("The House of No Personal Pronouns", NYT, 7/22/2007).
Last night, Ms. Brunstein sent me the letter reproduced below, in which she corrects Geoff's conjecture that Strunk and White were directly responsible for her slip, and graciously offers to enlist (or more exactly, to be hired) as "an active proper-passive promoter".
The Language Log marketing department, bored with refunding the subscription fees of disgruntled readers, is delirious with enthusiasm (or would be, if it existed). But Ms. Brunstein's stated price is a copy of Strunk and White's book, signed and dedicated by Geoff, whose agent is also ontologically challenged. So it may take some time to set up the proposed promotional campaign.
Dear Professor Pullum,
Imagine my surprise when I realized that ghosts of grammar gaffes past were roaming the virtual halls of the language log. Perhaps I can put their souls to rest. When I wrote those ill-fated words (almost two years ago) I made a mental note to check my reference to the passive voice. I suspected I might have misused it. But then the New York Times called and I got weak-kneed and bleary-eyed, as aspiring writers do when the New York Times calls, and I completely forgot to do the checking that needed to be done. (It was a passive choice rather than an active choice, if you’ll forgive the near-pun.) What’s more, a savvy and, I might add, refreshingly kind reader pointed out the error in a private email and after slapping my forehead a few times I moved on with my admittedly complicated life at the time.
I’ve never actually looked through Strunk & White in my life and I’ve had more than enough training in linguistics to know the difference between active and passive (or at least enough training to consult the right sources in moments of confusion). It was simply an honest mistake.
In any case I’m afraid we find ourselves (perhaps to your chagrin) more or less on the same side of this issue. Technically speaking, I misused the term “passive voice” and I’m not fond of the kind of prescriptivism I’m told is found in Strunk & White.
There’s only one thing to do at this point.
In 2003 Jessica Simpson mistakenly thought that the name of a brand of tuna fish, “Chicken of the Sea”, actually meant there was chicken in the can rather than tuna. This incident created such a media frenzy that the company cleverly hired Ms. Simpson to do a promotional event, which received even more coverage.
You must now, Professor Pullum, hire me as an active proper-passive promoter. I can reach a wide audience and, having experienced first-hand the effects of improper usage, can more effectively caution others about the consequences. Together we can make sure there are no more victims. I have just one favor to ask. As I already mentioned, I’ve never read Strunk & White and in order to better carry out my new task I think I should at least take a look so I know exactly what I’m up against. Would you be so kind as to send me a copy (obtained by whatever means you deem fit so as to avoid supporting the publisher of such works)? Signed and dedicated, if it’s not too much trouble.