For the "passive voice" files

« previous post | next post »

A letter to the public editor of the NYT, in the "Week in Review" section yesterday, from Dave Bruce of Hoboken, began:

Crediting two bloggers doesn't justify copying and pasting the words of a third. The words were clearly not Maureen Dowd's, and even the punctuation was the same as Josh Marshall's. [Language Log discussion of the affair here.] Mr. Marshall isn't pressing the issue and considers the matter closed, but that doesn't justify letting Ms. Dowd off the hook with just a correction. The passive-voice note that she "failed to attribute a paragraph" seems to play down what actually occurred.

The correction in question, published in the NYT on 18 May:

Maureen Dowd's column on Sunday, about torture, failed to attribute a paragraph about the timeline for prisoner abuse to Josh Marshall's blog at Talking Points Memo.

But passive voice? Both failed and attribute are active-voice verbs (the first in the past tense, the second in the base form; the first with an infinitival complement, the second with a direct object; but both active voice). Once again (as observed many times here on Language Log), someone has criticized a clause by identifying it as "in the passive voice", meaning by that that it is low in the expression of (human) agency or low in the expression of activity. I'm guessing that it's activity that's at the root of Bruce's complaint: failing to attribute is not an activity. Maybe Bruce would have preferred a correction that said, flat out, that Dowd plagiarized a paragraph from Marshall; plagiarizing is an activity.

I've been working for a while on a posting about Bonnie Trenga's The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier (2006), which deprecates various features of "weak writing", also called "passive writing". Some characteristics of the "passive writing style" involve what she calls "passive sentence structures" (while others involve other species of "vagueness" and "wordiness"): passive voice itself; nominalizations; and "vague –ing words" (by which she seems to mean subjectless nominal gerunds). She's reasonably clear on what passive voice is, and why it's weak: in my terms above, it's low on both agency and activity. Specifically, 

Passive voice allows you to omit the subject (who is doing the action). (p. 13) [low on agency]

Passive voice forces you to use lots of weak to be verbs. (p. 14) [low on activity]

Passive voice is wordy. (p. 14) [bonus: low on brevity]

She does use the term passive metaphorically, but not passive voice. There are things to criticize about her advice and her backings for it, but abuse of the grammatical term passive voice isn't one of  them.



Comments are closed.