We've noted, more than once, that the grammatical meaning of "passive voice" is pretty much dead in popular usage, while the ordinary-language meaning, struggling to be born, remains inchoate, a sludgy mixture of dessicated grammatical residues and vaguely sexualized associative goo. Sometimes passive voice is used to mean "vague about who's at fault", which seems to be the grammatical sense gone adrift; sometimes it means "listless, energyless, lacking in vigor", which is one of the more general, non-grammatical senses of passive; sometimes it seems to mean "on the fence, not taking sides", which is a sort of transmuted combination of the two.
Recently, I've come across several additional pieces for the collection.
When writing about nature it makes sense to use the passive voice. Things happen. It's hard to attribute agency, unless you do it on a grand scale (deity) or a chaotic physical scale (the "butterfly effect" of nonlinear dynamics, which posits that the flapping of tiny wings can trigger a tornado). But it's tempting to personify, to impute intent. Poets, novelists and playwrights have long used weather to create a mood. Dark and stormy nights do not auger well. Happy endings are often in lambent light.
Here the phrase "passive voice" is clearly intended as a grammatical term, or at least as a characterization of how sentences are put together; but equally clearly, it means "vague about agency".
Rachel Toor, "Writing Like a Doctor", Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/9/2009:
Whenever I ask Godfrey to explain his medical and scientific work to me — something I do frequently — I am captivated. He has the ability to get at the most interesting issues, to draw out the implications of what he's studying, and to explain them in ways that are fascinating. He knows how to tell a story in conversation. He knows which details will enhance suspense, which will come as a surprise.
But when it comes to putting it on the page, those skills desert him. He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences. He endlessly repeats words and phrases. His language is complicated not only by terms of medical and scientific art, but by using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job. He has no idea how commas and paragraph breaks can be your friends, doesn't understand that adverbs are the refuge of the weak and lazy, and that semicolons, like loaded guns, should only be handled by those trained to use them.
Given its local context, passive here again seems to be a description of how sentences are put together; but it seems to contrast with the just-mentioned "ways that are fascinating" and "details [that] will enhance suspense", and thus to mean something like "dull, lacking in vigor".
What is the essence of the problem with our financial system – what brought us into deep crisis, what scared us most in September/October of last year, and what was the toughest problem in the early days of the Obama administration?
[…] The problem was: a relatively small number of troubled banks were so large that their failure could imperil both our financial system and the world economy. […]
But instead of defining this core problem, explaining its origins, emphasizing the dangers, and addressing it directly, what do we get in yesterday’s 101 pages of regulatory reform proposals?
1. A passive voice throughout the explanation of what happened (e.g., this preamble). No one did anything wrong and banks, in particular, are absolved from all responsibility for what has transpired.
This is clearly the "vague about who's at fault" meaning. Just to verify that Prof. Johnson is not using the term in its technical grammatical sense, let's take a look at the allegedly passive-voice preamble passage:
In the years leading up to the current financial crisis, risks built up dangerously in our financial system. Rising asset prices, particularly in housing, concealed a sharp deterioration of underwriting standards for loans. The nation's largest financial firms, already highly leveraged, became increasingly dependent on unstable sources of short- term funding. In many cases, weaknesses in firms' risk-management systems left them unaware of the aggregate risk exposures on and off their balance sheets. A credit boom accompanied a housing bubble. Taking access to short-term credit for granted, firms did not plan for the potential demands on their liquidity during a crisis. When asset prices started to fall and market liquidity froze, firms were forced to pull back from lending, limiting credit for households and businesses.
Our supervisory framework was not equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude. To be sure, most of the largest, most interconnected, and most highly leveraged financial firms in the country were subject to some form of supervision and regulation by a federal government agency. But those forms of supervision and regulation proved inadequate and inconsistent.
First, capital and liquidity requirements were simply too low. Regulators did not require firms to hold sufficient capital to cover trading assets, high-risk loans, and off-balance sheet commitments, or to hold increased capital during good times to prepare for bad times. Regulators did not require firms to plan for a scenario in which the availability of liquidity was sharply curtailed.
Second, on a systemic basis, regulators did not take into account the harm that large, interconnected, and highly leveraged institutions could inflict on the financial system and on the economy if they failed.
Third, the responsibility for supervising the consolidated operations of large financial firms was split among various federal agencies. Fragmentation of supervisory responsibility and loopholes in the legal definition of a "bank" allowed owners of banks and other insured depository institutions to shop for the regulator of their choice.
Fourth, investment banks operated with insufficient government oversight. Money market mutual funds were vulnerable to runs. Hedge funds and other private pools of capital operated completely outside of the supervisory framework.
Its 23 tensed verbs include 16 actives, 3 copulas, 1 adjectival passive, and 3 true passives. (Or maybe 2+2, I'm not sure about "split"). 13-17% passive is roughly typical of such writing (though far below the 35-70% passive voice found in exponents of old-fashioned authorial vigor like Winston Churchill), and certainly doesn't deserve the description "(grammatical) passive voice throughout". (We could also count the distribution of grammatical valency among infinitives and participles, but the results would not be very different.)
Peter Seibel, who sent me the link to Johnson's article, noted Johnson's use of the indefinite article — "in a passive voice", like "in a hoarse voice" or "in an authoritative voice" — and speculates that "Maybe […] people will start talking about 'a passive voice' when they mean lacking in agency and 'the passive voice' can be reclaimed as a grammatical term". But I doubt that the definite/indefinite distinction can bear that much additional weight.
Semantic evolution is normal and inevitable, and the result is often a panoply of senses diverging so broadly that their relationship becomes obscure. Thus panoply originally came from a Greek word meaning "full armor", and has taken on meanings that include (quoting the OED) "A spiritual or psychological protection or defence" (from Ephesians 6:11); "A complete suit of armour, with connotations of brightness and splendour"; "Any complete covering or protective layer"; "A group of pieces of armour arranged as a trophy or ornament"; "A splendid or impressive array; fine or magnificent display"; and "fig. A full or extensive array of resources; a wide range or array (of)".
Things are more complicated when one of a word's senses is a term of art in some well-established field whose scope overlaps in everyday life with the word's ordinary-language uses. This applies to many legal terms and to some physical, chemical, and biomedical ones. But in the case of grammatical terms, something additional and unusual has happened: a large class of professionals, who act like maintainers of a body of technical knowledge, have actually lost the thread.
It's as if nurses, as a class, had never learned that fever is a technical term for abnormally high measurements of body temperature, and instead used it variously to mean "A state of intense nervous excitement" or "Contagious but transient social enthusiasm", while still acting as if these were well-defined medical conditions, subject to exact measurement and treatment.
Of course, this scenario is doubly impossible, because most people know the technical meaning of fever, or at least how to quantify body temperature with a thermometer, and nurses are required to have a sound medical education. But writing teachers and analysts of style are not required or even encouraged to learn any grammar (or any other body of knowledge, alas), though most of them still use terms like "passive voice" and "adverb" as if they had a well-defined technical meaning. And few members of the general public know enough to notice the problem.
Instead, most people fall into a state that Geoff Pullum has described as "nervous cluelessness", brought on "by confusing and confused instructions about writing that give them vague unease instead of a sense of mastery".