The finance world tackles the passive: 0 for 2

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An anonymous informant deep within corporate America ("I work at a large financial institution", he says guardedly) has seen the corporation's style guide for communications with customers, and its advice includes (guess what) this gem of cluelessness:

Use active voice rather than passive voice. Active voice is easier to read. Instead of "we have decided," write "we decided." Instead of "we will be implementing a program," write "we are implementing."

They think these are passives! And people disagree with me when I point out such things (over and over again, like a CD that has gotten stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuck), and ask rhetorically where on God's green earth knowledge of elementary English grammar terminology disappeared to in the late 20th century. People — writing advisers, in fact — are scoring zero on identifying a grammatical construction they feel a need to warn other people not to use. I know I have already pointed this out a time or two, but really, this is an utterly insane situation.

To remind you (do you really need a reminder? are these things not engraved upon your brain?) we had zero for 5 here, and zero for 4 here, and zero for 7 here… And people keep shifting from thing to thing as regards what people might possibly mean instead of passive when they say "passive". Vagueness about agency? Copular be? Nominalization? Lack of pizazz? Wimpiness? In this latest case, it isn't any of these! It definitely isn't that they dislike the copular verb be; they're happy with the progressive use of it (second example, are implementing). And agency is fully explicit in both examples. What they are ruling out is (i) the perfect construction with auxiliary have, and (ii) the use of the modal auxiliary will for future time reference. We haven't seen those before.

My anonymous correspondent notes (his name is James Nye not to be revealed in the finance world or he will be toast in the customer communications department): "Oh well, at least they're only calling the 'passive voice' difficult to read, and not feminine, or indicative of deep-seated psychological problems, or something." Quite so. Well spoken, James Mystery Mole from the World of Finance!

Comments are closed, and do you know why? Because although you wanted to say something perfectly sensible, the others who would have commented would all have said oh, you're wrong to go on about this, you're being prescriptive about the meaning of the word "passive", it's just that it's changed its meaning in current everyday usage, etc. And if I read one more person saying that to me I'm going to throw up.

Seriously, have you ever tried to clean vomit out of the keyboard of a MacBook Pro?

(Even more seriously, a few people — not the kind who tell me I've failed to notice a shift in meaning in everyday usage — have been writing to ask me what the correct technical definition of "passive voice" or "passive construction" is, and I fear that soon I am going to have to sit down and write a proper account of it. But it will take a little time, because it will have to be written seriously and with care but with only the minimum of technical terms. It can't be just my usual flippant or whimsical nonsense, can it?)

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