The BBC enlightens us on passives

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"The BBC is a remarkable place", says Nigel Paine, the Head of People Development at the BBC, in his prefatory note to The BBC News Styleguide (2003); "Much of the accumulated knowledge and expertise locked in people’s heads stays that way: occasionally we share, and the result is a bit of a revelation." Paine is praising a little book which he says "represents some of John Allen's extraordinary wisdom surrounding the use of English in written and spoken communications." If you know style handbooks, it will not surprise you that Mr. Allen's extraordinary wisdom includes his views on the time-honored topic of the passive construction and why it is evil. And if you read Language Log (see this list of posts about the passive, and my recent attempt to lay out what the facts are in "The passive in English"), it will not surprise you to find that he is just as clueless about it as so many critics and usage pundits have been before him. He repeats tired old nonsense, he makes false claims about prominence and agency, and (as Language Log reader Jeremy Wheeler pointed out to me) he cannot tell actives from passives anyway.

The section about active and passive in The BBC News Styleguide begins thus:

At its heart, news is about people doing things. Activity is interesting. Where you can, write sentences with subjects that are doing things, and not subjects that are simply receiving actions upon them. Compare these two sentences:

  • A meeting will be held by the company's directors next week.
  • The company's directors will meet next week

The first is an example of what grammarians call the passive voice; the second is the active voice. Don't be put off, it's really very simple.
Active voice: A does B.
Passive voice: B is done (usually by A).

The active voice will help give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact.

Where to begin deconstructing this tosh? Well, let me start by pointing first that news is not all about people doing things. The top story on the BBC News website right this minute is headlined New Zealand earthquake kills 65. That is news. But not a trace of anybody doing anything. Other linklines on the front page include:

  • MoD ‘must end contract failures’
  • BAA sees losses narrow to £317m
  • Poor maths no ‘badge of honour’ (the article this clicks through to is headed Pride in poor maths culture ‘must be tackled’)
  • Scott's Antarctic samples offer climate clues
  • Blocking enzyme cut cancer spread (about an enzyme recently found to have prevented breast cancer spreading in mice by blocking a certain chemical)…

And so on. If BBC news is any guide, it is ridiculously inaccurate to say that news is all about people doing things. The thing is that I spent a minute or two looking at what stories occur on a random Tuesday and John Allen didn't; his opinion went straight from his grammatical prejudice module to his typing module without passing through the cerebral cortex.

Among other headlines on Google News for the UK right this minute are:

  • FTSE slips as Libya turmoil dents sentiment (about the decreasing value of a stock price index)
  • 5 Things To Know About the Motorola Xoom (about an Android tablet computing device)
  • NHS still missing safety alerts (about failures in the running of the National Health Service)
  • Migration levels increased because of strength of British economy (about the increase in annual net immigration figures)
  • Public finances strongest in January since 2009 (about the seasonal surplus on the public sector net borrowing measure)…

I don't mind someone telling me that they personally don't like the passive construction and choose not to use it; but don't anyone try to rationalize it with fatuous drivel like "news is all about people doing things".

The second thing to note is that even for the news that does have to do with people doing things, it just doesn't follow that it will get less interesting when described using a construction that puts the agent at the end of the verb phrase in a passive complement PP. Announcing that a president has just been assassinated by a sniper is just as vividly and shockingly "interesting" as announcing that a sniper has just assassinated a president.

Journalists (or journalism students) who believe the drivel about passives being bad are just imbibing tired old nonsense repeated by generations of usage-pontificating idiots plagiarizing from each other. There is no thought going into this. Take a look at some real writing about a real story of great tragedy, like yesterday's Christchurch earthquake. There are dozens of stories on the rapidly updated BBC website, but let's just look at this one. It says "the toll was expected to rise further" beyond 65 dead. Expected by whom? the relevant experts and first responders, I guess, but it doesn't matter who, does it?

It says "at least 200 people are feared trapped under rubble" (a double passive there; and again, it doesn't matter who fears this, lots of experts do, and so does everybody who hears about it ).

It reports that the damage "is said to be far worse than after the 7.1-magnitude quake on 4 September", a quake that "left two people seriously injured but no fatalities", and among the dead in this newest quake were "people on two buses which had been crushed by falling buildings", and "Helicopters have been used to put out fires"… The story is loaded with passive clauses (I have underlined them all in the foregoing examples), and loses none of its vividness or newsworthiness because of them.

The shocking image of people on a bus crushed by a falling building is vivid enough for me; I don't need to have it laid before me in the form "people on a bus which a falling building crushed". The fact of helicopters being used to put out fires impresses me without anyone telling me that a man named Bob is using a helicopter to put out fires. This don't-use-the-passive garbage is just stupid advice that nobody actually follows.

And now let me come to the sad fact that Allen doesn't even know what a passive construction is. Read this bit:

Compare these examples.The first is in the passive, the second active:

  • There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.
  • Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

There is no passive clause anywhere in the first example. There were riots is an existential construction, which has nothing in common with passives (passives are mostly formed with transitive verbs, while existentials are limited to intransitive verbs; passives sometimes have agentive by-phrases but existentials never do).

Allen has made the same seamless and illogical transition that Strunk and White make on the infamous page 18 of their vile little compendium of stupid grammar and usage advice: he has drifted from casting aspersions on passive clauses to casting aspersions on existential clauses, without signalling any change of subject matter. The only link between passives and existentials apart from the fact that both of them sometimes contain the copular verb be seems to be that usage pontificators hate them both and call them "weak".

Allen goes on about the existential clause about the riots:

The there is, there are construction is overused. Why waste time stating that something exists when you could get on and describe the action? The imagery in the second version is so much more vivid and powerful and helps the audience to imagine what went on.

So now we've abandoned any attempt at talking about the active and the passive, and we're talking about vivid and powerful imagery instead. But as I've already said, I'm not buying it. Why would it be less vivid to say there was a riot involving stone-throwing youths, and more vivid to say that youths threw stones during one? I get the vivid picture just fine either way. The people who denigrate existential clauses are just the same sort of idiots as those who decry passives.

And as for the claim that the existential construction is "over-used": Compared to what? Who says? How many are used? How many should be used?

You see what I'm getting at? Nobody offers any figures. They just tell you some construction that they can't even name correctly is "over-used", and you're supposed to cower in fear and stop using it altogether. Allen is counting on the fact that you can get away with any amount of bullshit when talking about language because people will never check. (He doesn't know about Language Log.)

Mercifully, the people who write for the BBC do not follow Allen's usage advice. Their writing would not get any better if they did. And they can't, since if they tried to follow his advice they'd have to understand what he means by "passive clause", and he doesn't seem to have a clear enough view to follow.

Over the page, on (coincidentally) page 18, Allen goes on (as passive denigrators generally do, and Strunk and White do on their page 18) to make a grudging admission that undercuts all the previous claims: "Sometimes, though, the passive is better." He recommends Prince Edward was trampled on by a rhinoceros at a safari park today over A rhinoceros trampled on Prince Edward at a safari park today because "the focus of the story is Prince Edward, not the rhinoceros, and it is the royal name you probably want at the beginning of the sentence because that is where it will have most impact." But he's hopelessly wrong. It just isn't true that the beginning is the impactful place. Nobody who has studied the information-packaging aspects of English syntax (chapter 16 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) could think that. It is extremely common for a sentence to start with a subject noun phrase carrying old information, non-impactful stuff that has already been established.

It is the end of a sentence that has the impact; that's why people say "So let me introduce to you, the act you've known for all these years, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!" instead of some utterly inept formula that would put the name of the band first and then explain that they were now going to perform. It is why we are probably going to hear on Sunday night the words "And the award for Best Actor goes to… Colin Firth!", rather than any sentence that begins with the actor's name. (Should I really have to point this out? No. But I will anyway. Not because John Allen will read or understand, but just because Someone Is Wrong On The Internet.)

Finally Allen turns to the last cliché about passives, the only one he hasn't yet touched on: borrowing liberally from George Orwell ("Politics and the English language") without acknowledgment, he tells us that "Governments, politicians, and officials of all kinds love the passive because individual actions are buried beneath a cloak of collective responsibility." And again, it just isn't true that the passive buries or hides responsibility: if you put the by-phrase in, it lays it on the line prominently. If you leave out the by-phrase then the agent doesn't get specified, but that's often exactly the right way to phrase things, and doesn't imply any deviousness or evasiveness. The building is going to have to be torn down details in full the fate of the building, avoiding irrelevant mention of who the demolition company is going to be.

I'm not saying, of course, that we don't encounter devious or evasive writing from politicians; certainly we do. I'm saying it doesn't correlate with use of passive constructions.

Or if it does, to any extent at all, I am not aware of anyone showing this. Allen says, citing no warrant or source:

When things go well, the minister or company chairman or football manager says: "I decided on this course of action." When the response is less positive, this becomes: "It was thought to be the right thing to do at the time."

Is that true? Do government ministers use more passives in statements after policies fail? Do company chairmen use more passives when profits fall? Do team managers use more passives after games they lost? It sits there as an empirical hypothesis on which somebody (you, maybe?) could write a Master's thesis. But as far as I am aware, that thesis remains to be written. The people who pontificate on the topic — Orwell, and Strunk and White, and late imitators like Allen and every bad writing instructor in every college in the English-speaking world — have not got any such study to cite. They offer you their prejudiced and plagiarized opinions without any basis or backing. They issue their hot air and expect you to gratefully breathe it in.

[Update: "R.L.G." at The Economist's "Johnson" blog (I think it might be Robert Lane Greene, but they're terribly pseudonymous over at The Economist) says "GEOFF PULLUM really doesn't like people who abjure the passive voice." Where do people get these ideas about who I do or don't like? I bet John Allen is a lovely man who is kind to his wife and children and three cats, cherished by his colleagues at work, worshipped by the grandchildren who gather at his knee. I'd probably love the man. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I'm only saying I wish people who don't even know what a passive is would stop delivering themselves of edicts about how if you would just stop using the passive your writing would get better. My thesis is that abjuring the passive is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve any improvement in your writing. Your writing may be dire; changing all its passives into actives would probably make things worse. Or it may be brilliant; and that brilliance will still shine despite whatever percentage of passives you decided to use. One of R.L.G.'s motives is probably to defend the rectitude of The Economist's style guide, which he cites. On syntax, it is very, very bad, and it does indeed deprecate the passive. Stay away from it. I will put aside some time for a proper fisking of it later on. I hate it. But hate the well-meaning doofuses who put it together? There's no need to assume that.]

[Thanks to Jeremy Wheeler for the tip, and thanks to Karen Davis, Ron Irving, Eric P. Smith, Neal Goldfarb, David Margolies, Douglas Himes, and all the other people who pointed out that I had mistakenly switched the order of the rhino sentences (the error is fixed now; stop writing). Comments are not open, because certain devious unnamed agents who wish to conceal their identity have ordained that they should not be. (And I said all that without using a passive.) You can always email me at the mail2languagelog account on Gmail.com if you see any other corrections that need to be made. (The email account is already getting spam, though, because I incautiously put a mailto link on this site and spiders immediately found it. Today alone I have been notified of $2,150,000 of lottery winnings as a result of being picked at random out of millions of email addresses. Soon there will be emails beseeching Language Log for help moving fortunes of money out of dormant Nigerian bank accounts.)]

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