Resume depassivization — this time, zero for 4

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Doostang is a job-search platform and advice service that, for a fee, will try to help you get a job. It provides on a blog such helpful things as tips on spicing up your resume. And one of the things it suggests is that you should avoid (are you ready for this, Language Log readers?) the passive voice! So here we go with another piece of expert advice on passivity from someone who is a real authority on language because he went to college and therefore doesn't need to know anything about actual grammatical structure, he can just make stuff up. I quote:

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught to write "formally" in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying "Responsible for management of three direct reports" change it up to "Managed 3 direct reports." It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

Now, you are a Language Log reader, and you know my methods. Do some counting. How many of the examples given in the quotation are indicators of the passive voice?

That's right. None of them are, under any reasonable interpretation of what the truncated subjectless phrases would mean in context.

  • Responsible for management of three direct reports is an adjective phrase. There is no verb here (responsible is an adjective, management is a noun), hence no passive clause. And notice, nothing could be more direct and active and open about agency than I was responsible for management… — it makes no secret of where the buck stopped.
  • Duties included management of three direct reports is an active transitive clause with duties as the subject; included is not a past participle in a passive construction, it is a preterite in an active construction.
  • Served as manager for three direct reports begins with an preterite verb form in an active construction. Again, it's hard to see how anything could be more direct and active and open about agency than I served as manager.
  • My actions encompassed management of three direct reports is another active transitive clause: it has actions as the subject, and encompassed is not a past participle in a passive construction, it is a preterite in an active construction. (I'm not defending the style: I don't especially care for the rather pompous verb encompassed, but that's not what we're talking about; this simply isn't a passive construction in any sense whatever.)

What the hell is going on in American education, people? (Apart from the toxic influence of Orwell's pompous and mendacious essay and Strunk and White's vile little book of grammatical ignorance, of course.) Things are getting worse and worse. In fact on the badness scale they've reached the top and had to stop, because we've now hit the maximum possible in badness: we're seeing zero as the number of correct identifications of the passive voice in our writing critiques — zero for five here, and now zero for four on a blog published by a fee-charging business that tries to give serious advice on the vital matter of choosing the language on the resume that may be your only chance to make enough of an impression to get you a job.

This is serious business for America's economy. It does nothing for getting Americans to get into employment, realize their talents, and contribute to tax revenues, if we simply extend into resume-writing the promotion of nervous cluelessness that seems to be the main strand in English language instruction in the USA. It is so easy to get sensible and intelligent native speakers terrified that their language isn't good enough. And the business of getting people into that state is being managed by teachers and tutors and advisers and columnists whose lofty opinion of their own expertise is matched only by their utter failure to grasp even the rudiments of sentence structure.

You may object that what they're trying to get at is a certain abstractness and failure to be lively, and I say yes, that's all well and good, but look at what they actually say, because that's what their readers are going to be looking at. You may object that what they're really talking about is style, and my answer is yes, it's like having people in automobile design dealing with style when they don't know the basic parts of a car (wheels, chassis, trunk, hood, top, doors) or what to call them.

[Spelling footnote: After investigating, I changed the spelling of the word resume in this piece and throughout the comments by taking off the acute accent or accents. The French original is résumé, and the English spelling I had been using was resumé, but despite the quasi-French pronunciation of the final e, the word seems to have been thoroughly nativized, and hardly anyone writes it with an accent now).]


  1. Bruce said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    Recently on Reddit, shell scripts for following such (questionable, to be polite) advice:

    [Many people have mailed me about this idiotic attempt at prose improvement by passive-hunting shell script. The script for identifying passives is no use, by the way: a glance at the code tells me I could write a page of passives and non-passives that it would fail to classify correctly (I may do that if I get the time). Notice one useful thing it does, though: it shows us that at least some of the misguided grammar correctors really seriously do mean to pick on the passive construction. They are not going after indefinably non-punchy, non-sparkly, or non-aggressive style (see Mark Liberman's comment below); they really think that the thing to do is to root out (after all those centuries of honest service that it has given) the passive construction itself. —GKP]

  2. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    To be fair to the hapless employment agency, they probably meant things like the following, which commonly appear in weaker CVs:
    Duties included (i.e. some duties were included)
    Served as a side dish at a staff dinner once (by my manager)
    Actions encompassed by the sound of laughter (not sure why)
    Surely awarding 0 out of 4 for passive recognition depended on a grossly unfair contextualisation of the truncated phrases.

    [Hey, this is irony, isn't it? He's intending to be taken as saying the opposite of what he says, provided you are smart enough to discern his sophisticated intent! Beware of irony on the web, Sandy. About 40 percent of your readers think you meant it literally. Trust me. I speak as one who knows… —GKP]

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    There now seem to be two senses of passive (voice), as applied to choices in writing or speaking. These are logically unrelated to each other, and also to the original grammatical meaning:

    1. Vague about agency. (This often comes up in discussions of allegedly evasive writing.)

    2. Lacking in punch, sparkle, and aggressiveness.

    [Quite right, Mark. And when you add the fact that both of them get snarled up with another sense, paraphrasable as "lying down and taking it like a woman rather than being erect on top giving it", what we have here is a total semantic train wreck. People are being told they are being vague, evasive, and lacking in sparkle and punch, and the implication is of writing like a sissy and being probably a queer! How about that for a self-confidence boost.

    But I hope nobody thinks, in light of your lexicographical comment, that I'm objecting to passive having more than one meaning. (Webster's gives it at least ten: "acted on", "containing a passive verb form", "lethargic", "externally induced", "inert", "latent", "corrosion-resistant", "patient", "submissive", and "indirect".) That's just the lexical facts of life. What I'm pointing to is gross abuse by ignorant grammar pontificators of a syntactic technical term, in the cause of inducing nervous cluelessness in powerless people whose writing is mostly OK as it stands. (And I don't mean any of that boldfaced passage ironically.) By the "passive voice" allegation these writing tutors and resumé critics tell people that their writing is being insulted without giving them any chance of fixing it. There is really nothing they can do to fix it: since there is no passive voice construction, they can't remove it or recast it as an active transitive. So it's not grousing about proper use of terms, or worrying about ambiguity, that's going on here. I'm objecting to know-nothing grammar bullies frightening honest people into thinking their writing has got some indefinably sissyish thing wrong with it when it simply hasn't. —GKP]

  4. Sandy Nicholson said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    “Beware of irony on the web … About 40 percent of your readers think you meant it literally.”

    Oh, I’m well aware of that – and nearly added a smiley or equivalent indicator to make sure I wouldn’t be misunderstood. But then I thought: this is Language Log; these aren’t your average kind of readers.

    [Heck no. No average readers at this site. No sissies either. —GKP]

  5. Nina said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    Annoying. The advice to say "Managed …" is good because it starts with a nice verb and take up less space than to begin with "Responsibilities included management of …" But there is no excuse for the voice ignorance!

  6. mgh said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    Is the working hypothesis that (A) people use "passive voice" to mean any writing they find aesthetically weak, or (B) there really is some common property in all these examples which is being mislabeled "passive voice"? The second is more interesting.

    In previous posts, you have considered the common property is "vague about agency" but you have shown that is not the case.

    Could it be a measure of how far the agent is removed from its transitive verb? For example, "I was responsible for managing projects" vs "I managed projects"; "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe" vs "the misfortune that Allies visited on Germany" (I guess); "the loss of Daniel Pearl" vs "Pearl was decapitated on video by jihadist Muslims in Karachi on Feb. 1, 2002".

    Beyond nitpicking style, it would be interesting if it reflected the effort it takes to keep the agent in mind until you get to the action (or vice versa).

    I'd also mention that, despite the calamity that is befalling our youth by the misguided demonization of passive voice, the first google hit for "avoid passive" is actually pretty good.

  7. 4ndyman said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    I was stopped short when I read this:

    Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught to write "formally" in high school composition and then in freshman college English.

    This can't be right, can it? In writing classes that use Strunk & White, at least, avoiding — not embracing — the passive should be (or should have been) the norm. Is anyone really teaching that passive voice is the way to go, perhaps in an overzealous fit of anti-Strunkianism? I doubt it.

    My guess is that whoever this Doostang character is, his background is in communications, or Web design, or marketing. Not English or composition. So what research he did about the linguistic aspects of this post came from the great mass of misinformation available to all online.

    But that's just a guess. And it's certainly not a defense.

  8. Trond Engen said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 9:55 am


    I thought you were about to point out this:
    Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught to write "formally" in high school composition and then in freshman college English.

  9. Rob Miller said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    In previous posts, you have considered the common property is "vague about agency" but you have shown that is not the case.

    It seems like that's at the root of it, though. In all the recent examples, there seems to be a confusion between the passive in general and the agentless passive (e.g. "Brian killed Steven" versus "Steven was killed"). This seems especially true in journalistic writing, where people inevitably view such agentless descriptions as being biased for, I assume, neglecting to apportion blame.

  10. MJ said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    @4ndyman Doostang's claim may be an artifact of his/her lack of understanding of what the passive voice is. We can hope that not many teachers are telling students to avoid, e.g. "duties include . . ." on the grounds that it is a passive voice construction, but since Doostang here thinks it is, he/she comes to the conclusion that kids are being taught to use the passive voice in formal writing.

  11. ryan said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    My favorite is the "Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught" in the opening line.

  12. Simon Tatham said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    I remember back in the '90s, a 16-bit computer magazine I read ran a competition in which the first prize was a copy of some grammar checking software. To entice you to enter the competition, they showed a screenshot of the checker in action. In the screenshot, it was displaying the text "What the system does is cut out the middleman", and it had highlighted the words "is cut" and was suggesting that this was an example of the passive voice and would be better reworded.

    This seemed like an obvious display of software inadequacy to me (if not obvious to the people who picked the screenshot as an advert for the software!) – it had clearly matched the pattern "is cut" without understanding enough of the context around the words to notice that the pattern wasn't being used in the same sense as in (e.g.) "the material is cut by scissors". But when I've repeated this story to people since, expecting that they would draw the same conclusion, someone did argue vociferously that the example was in the passive voice.

    That might make more sense to me now in the light of these examples of other things that people tag as "passive" in some sense other than the grammatical concept.

  13. jimbino said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    Poll Americans on active/passive, transitive/intransitive and indicative/subjunctive distinctions and you'll get the same blank stare you get when you ask a Roman Catholic to explain the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

    Total ignorance.

  14. ryan said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    It's even simpler than that: you don't need to know what these terms represent to know that you're mistaken when you're using them incorrectly.

  15. Rodger C said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    Even when people know what a passive construction is, absolute avoidance of it, which seems e.g. to be drilled into CNN's headline writers, can lead to the opposite of clarity. "Brother kills toddler" makes me picture a murderous monk.

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    And while we're at it, "written in passive voice" is nonsense from the outset.

  17. Nick Lamb said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    @Jimbino: I don't think that's the same phenomenon.

    Members of a club often don't know much about the club, because they're members largely out of association with other members, not because they've spent lots of time researching its history and exactly how it's different from other groups they could join. That's the same whether it is a student society, a religion or a political party.

    People don't understand the grammar of their language because acquiring a skill is different from understanding it.

    One of the really obvious ways this difference matters is that it's possible that NOBODY knows how we do something even though doing it is routine. For the Catholic church to have a doctrine of Immaculate Conception it's necessary for at least one person to have formulated that doctrine. Whereas there can be a rule about when you say "in" and when "on" a vehicle without any individual being conscious of that rule. It exists, and is merely discovered, like mass energy equivalence, not invented.

  18. Ken Brown said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    4ndyman said: "Is anyone really teaching that passive voice is the way to go…?"

    Yes. It used to be common for science students to be advised to to write-up experimental results and scientific papers using the passive wherever possible. At least it was in Britain in the 1970s when I first went to university. Nowadays things are much less rigid and most journals say they prefer a more colloquial style.

    Of course this was in early-specialising England where such things as "freshman composition classes" are, or were, unknown. I took nothing but science classes from A-level onwards, and if I ever heard of Strunk and White, or was ever given any formal teaching about writing style, I have forgotten it.

  19. chris said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    It used to be common for science students to be advised to to write-up experimental results and scientific papers using the passive wherever possible.

    And there's a good reason for this: to remove agency. Scientific norms value replicability, which includes (ideally) making the identity of the person performing the experiment, observing, etc. irrelevant. "We gradually heated the mixture to 40 C" puts more focus on the people than the subject matter, compared to "The mixture was gradually heated to 40 C", in which ideally it doesn't really matter who heated it.

    Of course this is the opposite of what you want on a resume; to someone making a hiring decision it ought to matter very much that you, and not someone else, accomplished your accomplishments.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    We were taught to use the Passive for writing up science experiments in Grades 6 or 7 when I was at school in the UK in the sixties.

  21. Dougal Stanton said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Of course this is the opposite of what you want on a resume; to someone making a hiring decision it ought to matter very much that you, and not someone else, accomplished your accomplishments.

    But by that argument it would be very important to the writer to use the passive since they can pass of others' accomplishments as their own! :-)

  22. Ed said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Fortunately, I haven't had to look for a job in over ten years and I'm praying this situation continues for a while.

    It seems to me that resumes are written for two audiences. They have to get past human resources personnel, who receive fifty or more resumes for each position and have to use some arbritrary measure to cut the number down to a manageable level, without subjecting the company to a civil rights lawsuit (why don't they throw half the applications, selected randomly, into the garbage without looking at them?). If they get past this stage, they will be read by actual managers, who read far too many documents and demand that the most important information be conveyed briefly and up front. They may be the sort of managers who mainly use Powerpoint presentations to convey and receive information.

    I'm sure there are rules to write effectively under these conditions, and though I have no idea what they are, I doubt they have much relation to the normal rules of good writing or even good grammar.

  23. linda seebach said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    If the people doing the hiring share the widespread public misunderstanding of what constitutes passive voice, which seems the most likely hypothesis, applicants will be well advised to avoid whatever-it-is.

  24. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    On the topic of resume style, I find the conventions bizarre. I work in a field where being able to produce at least workmanlike prose is a genuine job requirement. I used to have a resume written in complete sentences, with subjects and predicates and everything. My thinking was that if the ability to write coherent prose was a job requirement, a resume written in coherent prose would give a prospective employer an idea of my qualifications. I was assured by multiple people that I had no hope of being considered with such a resume. Some of these were people in a position to know and whose judgment I respected, so a knuckled under and revised the resume. To this day I don't doubt that these people were right, but this seems deeply weird.

  25. Moragn said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    In this case, I think the actual unifying feature behind Doostang's examples is nominalization. Notice how, when you expand the truncated clauses into full sentences, almost all of them wind up using the noun "management" (or in one case "manager"), rather than the verb "managed" in the phrasing they suggest. Actually not such bad advice, when you put it that way — though, of course, it'd be a lot easier for Doostang's readers to make use of if it was described accurately.

  26. digory said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    I happened to just come across Tom Vilsack's apology to Shirley Sherrod, in which he offered, "….my personal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and to her family."

    I am no linguist and could be misunderstand the passive as much as Doostang up there, but to me that looks like a perfect instance of using a passive construction to avoid agency — in this case, while he is in fact apologizing for being the agent of the pain and discomfort. To my ears it seriously weakens the honesty of his apology.

  27. John Lawler said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    @Richard — the hylomorphic theory is alive and well in syntax, at least. As for resume style, I sympathize, but well-organized lists do require less parsing and paper; anybody needing to know how well you write can look at the appended writing samples, if they get that far. In my opinion, all writing, even resume writing, is a matter of giving one's readers what they want without making them notice how they're getting it.

  28. Josh said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    My English teacher freshman year of HS was the first and only teacher I've had who had a vendetta against the passive voice. Her definition of "passive voice" was any verb phrase that contained a variant of "to be". For her, "I was running" should be "I ran".

    To get a good grade on my papers, I had to faithfully go through everything I wrote and remove pretty much every instance of "to be", regardless of how awkward and ridiculous the resulting sentence ended up being. I also heavily relied on the green squiggly line in Word 95, and generally accepted its recommendations blindly.

  29. John Walden said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I know next to nothing abour transubstantiation but I don't go bandying the term around as if I did. These abusers of the meaning of the term 'passive' use it in conjunction with words like 'voice' and 'grammar' so can't pretend they are using it in a looser sense. They are laying claim to an understanding of the word used in a non-layman way.

    'A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.'

  30. jimbino said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    Resumes, at least in my high-tech field, are nowadays read by machines looking for keywords. I once put in my resume "Don't know much about history; don't know much geography" and got referrals for history and geography jobs.

    Some under-valued truisms from my experience are:

    1. It's hard to for a native speaker to appreciate the nuances of his own language without struggling to learn a foreign language.
    2. It's hard to master English grammar without teaching it (seems to hold for math as well).
    3. Those who haven't mastered English grammar and spelling will soon be ruled by machines that have.
    4. Those who can't write Standard English will lose 80% of their audience in these days of machine-aided translation.

  31. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    @digory: Apologies are notoriously hard to get right. Perhaps most would-be apologizers resent the humility that comes with a decent apology, so they contrive to regret something other than the pain or damage they caused. There are many words used to weasel out of a clear-cut admission of sorrow and ownership of the transgression: may, might, if, any, and so forth. Likewise, you have identified a use of the passive the deflects responsibility at just the very moment when it is needed most. Could be a form of cowardice, or shame that precludes acknowledgement. LL has many posts on apologies, and I thing the most comprehensive, short version is this: by Prof. Pullum.

  32. Shoe said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    I teach my ESL students that the passive is often used to maintain the Given-New sequence through a piece of writing (and can also serve to locate pronouns closer to their referents). Insisting on the active voice often puts the New information first and can produce some weird-sounding text. A small example:

    We couldn't use the road because of fallen trees. They were blown down by a heavy storm during the night. The storm was more severe than had been predicted by meteorologists.

    We couldn't use the road because of fallen trees. A heavy storm blew them down during the night. Meteorologists had predicted a less severe storm.

  33. eye5600 said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    Is someone wrong on the internet?

  34. Rubrick said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    There was really no need to read beyond "The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive!" This displays a level of ignorance comparable to "The problem with a foul ball, however, is that it's just that — foul!"

    I'll also point out that "It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes." is a really shitty sentence of just the sort he seems to think we should avoid, ignorance of passives notwithstanding. I suggest "Those who write their own resumes overuse the passive voice out of habit."

    I also suggest not paying money to self-anointed advice-givers.

  35. Debbie said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    I'm one of the uneducated lurkers keeping up with the posts and I'm having fun trying. As for the help being offered – isn't that corporate America – convincing people that they have a need and filling it?

  36. Sharl said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    I realize Orwell had a silly grudge against passives. It gets brief treatment in the essay in question. But to call not just this single part of the essay but the whole thing "pompous and mendacious," and to leave it at that, is cheap and wrong.

    [I definitely do think Orwell's essay is intellectually dishonest, all the way through, as well as stuck-up and preachy. I could defend that view in great detail, and have done so in public lectures; but I can't lay out the whole case every time I make a side reference to the horrible essay in question. You could follow some of the links in the comment that Mark has added just below in red. —GKP]

    [(myl) Some additional non-passive background: "Clichés, stereotypes and other obsolete metaphors", 3/15/2004; "Dong!", 8/9/2006; "A load of old Orwellian cobblers from Fisk", 8/31/2008; "Orwell's Liar", 1/10/2009. Or check out the discussion of Orwell in Geoff Nunberg's Talking Right.

    The problem with Orwell's essay is that he consistently violates all of his "rules" (except maybe the last one), and he does so because, ironically enough, they sound nice but mean nothing. Or rather, their literal meaning is so foolish that no one, Orwell included, would want to put them into practice; and their figurative interpretations are so vague as to be useless.]

    As indicated in the link (which, again, provides no other criticism of the essay), at least the prejudice wasn't practiced in the preaching.

    An irony prescription goes unfilled.

  37. judy said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    When I taught Freshman Composition in college, I felt good if I could get my students to write a plain, standard English sentence. Period. No nonsense about active versus passive — they would not have understood what I was talking about. They were not ALL ESL students but many were native speakers who presumably already had internalized their English grammar.

  38. Sharl said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    Orwell's consistent rule violations would be a problem if he were setting rules for, say, how to defuse a bomb. Writing is inherently artistic. It requires, constantly, the exercise of taste. Taste will inevitably lead to contradiction. And contradiction, by the way, was something Orwell was very interested in, in political terms. Rules aren't just "rules," they're guides. You're saying his aren't at all good or helpful, but in order to say that, you have to take him literally to a ridiculous degree.

    Consider your own consideration of Orwell's last rule in the link you kindly provided. The point that was missed or downplayed is the old idea that good writing is unteachable. LL's reminder that "the thing to avoid is writing without thinking" is worth remembering. It's a suggestion as necessarily vague as Orwell's alleged stone-cut rules.

    Grammar guides are useful as training wheels, to be disowned and made fun of once you've achieved a little mastery. But surely a teenager zipping around on a ten-speed could find a worthier target than a tricycling toddler.

    [As the content drops away here — writing is artistic, can't be taught, you need taste, rules are merely guides, don't take him literally, writing is unteachable, you get rid of the training wheels — I see absolutely nothing left of the case for Orwell. We always get comments from angry Orwellists if we ever mention that his essay is a wildly overrated piece of literary junk (he really does have a big fan club); but the defenses of him seem extraordinarily mealy-mouthed and unconvincing. —GKP]

  39. Vicki Baker said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    I think this is an example of passive voice confused with wordiness.

    Instead of:

    Duties included reducing readers to a state of nervous cluelessness
    Responsible for reducing readers to a state of nervous cluelessness
    Actions encompassed reducing readers to a state of nervous cluelessness

    just say:

    Reduced readers to a state of nervous cluelessness

    [Hey! But that's got a totally different meaning! My day-job duties include coordinating all activities of a department of about 30 paid staff and making sure everything runs smoothly, but if I described it later by saying "Coordinated all activities of a department of about 30 paid staff and made sure everything ran smoothly" I'd be a lying scoundrel! Perhaps truth is not such an important thing in a resume? —GKP]

    Excessive wordiness is of course a feminine failing. Real men write like Hemingway.

    [We sure do, we sure do. I've noticed this about myself many times. —GKP]

  40. Sharl said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 10:07 pm


    Is there nothing else you can briefly refer to, without going into the "whole case," when you call the essay "dishonest" and "mendacious," besides the point that the parts of his essay about style are weak on content?

    If you're going to mention a criticism at all, as you did in this particular "side reference," you might as well mention something with some connection to the overblown label.

    I did enjoy the Orwell's Liar link & Nunberg's ch.2.

    [Yes, of course. One statement I've published about the dishonest silliness of pretending one could write without ever using high-frequency word sequences or familiar idioms was in fact directed at Robert Fisk, though he was channeling Orwell at the time: Mark refers to it above (this one). Somewhere I have written down something about my disgust at Orwell's fake argument against the not unhappy construction, but finding it will take a bit of rummaging around with the Spotlight search tool… on the right Mac. At some point, if an idle moment comes along over the summer, perhaps I will pull out some more of my anti-Orwelliana and put it here on Language Log. Though of course I will then have Orwell enthusiasts jumping up and down on my head for three days. (Why do people continue blogging when there are so few rewards and so much punishment? It is one of the mysteries of human motivation. I guess if someone pointed to a post of mine over which I had labored for hours only to be nibbled to death by ducks in the comments, and asked my "Why did you write it?", I would adapt the familiar slogan about climbing Mount Everest, and simply say, "Because it wasn't there.") —GKP]

  41. DW said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 7:46 am

    I don't think the average person is nearly as upset about the use of the passive voice as you folks are about this misunderstanding of the meaning of the term in the first place.

    Why exactly is this such a big deal? It seems to me – not a linguist, just a member of the great linguistically unwashed masses – that the meaning of the term is simply changing in the vernacular. Isn't this sort of shift in meaning, or accretion of meanings, supposed to be copasetic with linguists? I had gotten the idea that antiprescriptivism was a very high virtue among linguists, yet there is sure a lot of hand wringing here about how the rest of us are misusing this term in the most shameful fashion. I mean it's a steady drum beat. Why is this so important?

    [A steady drum beat that no one is listening to, apparently. (Sigh.) So listen ve-ry carefully, I vill say zis only vonce: I have nothing whatever to say about the meaning of any term changing in the vernacular, and I didn't come remotely close to talking about how the unwashed masses use "passive" or any other adjective. The point of my post above has nothing to do with the meaning of the term "passive". It has to do with an economic point. Pompous know-nothings are making money by using clueless usage advice to intimidate honest people into thinking their writing has grammar errors when it doesn't. I have shown that the person writing the Doostang resume advice I quoted has no grasp whatever of the concept of a passive clause (roughly, it's a clause in which the semantic roles have been switched around from the normal one so that what would have been expressed as the object is instead the subject). The advice handed out is that you shouldn't "write in passive voice", but the examples have no sign of what grammarians call passive voice, and no sign of avoidance of attributing agency semantically (often confused with passive voice), and no sign of making any other sensible point. The advice is clueless, but Doostang, a fee-taking service, wants people to worry that their resume has stuff wrong with it that is somehow connected with passiveness in an obscure sense they don't understand, and it will lose them the job of their dreams. So I warn ordinary people against purchasing this grammatical snake oil. And then boneheads come along and ask, "Why is this so important?"! It's important because all over America morons are getting paid for wasting people's time telling them their writing is "passive" or their "infinitives" are split or their howevers are in the wrong place or their whiches should be thats or whatever cockamamie nonsense these dopes half-understood out of their dog-eared copies of Strunk & White; and this is a scandal educationally, and a huge waste of money educationally. What, in all of this, is so hard for you to understand? —GKP]

  42. HP said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    Two unrelated observations:

    1) In my work as a technical writer, I often run into situations where actual passive voice causes confusion with regard to agency that must be cleared up. In all cases, these are issues with the functional specifications for planned products, not with the final "customer-facing" documents that I produce. For example, in a situation where a user is responsible for entering certain values, and the software is responsible for calculating other values, a line in the specs that says, "An appropriate coefficient is calculated and used to determine the stress/strain relationship at each time step in the solution," it's an open question whether it is the user's responsibility to calculate and enter that coefficient, or if the software calculates the coefficient based on other values entered. In my experience, the person who wrote up the specification is extremely reluctant to clarify the meaning of the statement. This, of course, is pure psychology, and nothing to do with linguistics, although it may have something to do with what computer scientists are taught as regards documenting their work.

    2) There is an anecdote common in academic settings, IIRC, about a professor who, having graded the first bunch of freshman essays, writes on the board, "'Man fucks woman.' Subject verb object." As I recall from my brief flirtation with academia, this hoary anecdote is trotted out to introduce a number of rhetorical and sociological tropes, but it seems in line with some of GKP's metacomments in this thread, wherein grammatical passivity is conflated with sexual receivership. Am I on the right track? Is this anecdote as common as I remember?

  43. Sharl said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    So I get mispegged as a duck or hothead. I hope you keep laboring.

    Day 3:
    Scrolling up, I was a little startled to be reminded that this post is about passives!

    The 'not unhappy' construction gets a good quick wallop in Fowler-loving Amis's King's English. Sometimes I get the urge to write a grammar pamphlet consisting of the most idiotic rules I can think of, as a way of bloodletting my own disgust. (Science types have the show "Look Around You.") Something less depressing and funnier than the Queen's English Society.

    But "mendacious"? All right. I'll keep an eye out for what you got. You can always turn the bread chunks off. It wouldn't diminish my appreciation.

  44. DW said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    Good grief – it just seems like a lot of anger, a protesting too much thing. Are resume writing coaches getting rich off this or something?

  45. DW said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    Put another way, I know you *said* nothing about the meaning of the term changing, or the popular understanding of the term not being the same as the scholarly/linguistic one,but are you unwilling to consider that this could be what is happening? [I have considered it. And it is not what is happening. Ordinary folks use "passive" to mean all sorts of sensible things. The charlatan grammar pontificators don't know what they mean by it. —GKP] Perhaps the terminology that all these evil writing coaches, high school English teachers, and resume advice givers are using is not the same terminology that professional linguists prefer, but maybe the former are expressing a cultural preference (i.e., people really actually don't like this thing they view as "passive," and maybe this preference is legitimate even if linguists don't think so? [They never state anything as a cultural preference. They say there are rules for how to write well, and one is that you should avoid "writing in passive voice"; and they do not know what they mean, but they don't care. —GKP]

  46. Sharl said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    DW, you really think this service is more interested in "expressing a cultural preference" than making money off people whose pockets already lack the replenishing benefit of a job?

    (By the way, the Amis reference above should've read: The rule against the not unhappy…)

    One of these days I'm gonna leave this post.

  47. J said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 1:56 am


    It seems clear to me the "anger" comes not from a perceived "mis-using" of the word to mean something else, but the fact that "passive voice" has come to mean everything/nothing/anything. LLers have pointed out, in fact, that they are for prescriptivism in that some constructions, approaches, etc. indeed *are* more clear or more effective at communicating than others, and so it's reasonable to prefer (though perhaps not require) their use.

    Given (my understanding of) their narrow preference for prescriptivism in such cases, the complaints over passives seems to me to be exactly consonant with advocacy for practices that actually do seem to relate to clarity. That is, using a phrase/word in such ways that render it effectively *meaningless* can reasonably be dispreferred over any of a number of coherent usages.

    Hence the search for, and relative lack of angst towards, the use of passives to refer to being "vague regarding agency". It seems to me that many LLers would be relatively happy if there was a settling on passive voice actually meaning that–but the problem seems to be that as expressed, it sometimes encompasses denigration of phrases unambiguous regarding agency, and lets escape many phrases, active or passive, that actually *are* ambiguous regarding agency. In short, I think their complaint is that not only can't linguists tell what many "passive critics" mean when they are referring to passive voice, their suspicion/hypothesis is that such critics themselves cannot express a clear or coherent object of criticism. It seems quite fair to me to constantly criticize people who are setting themselves up as arbiters of clarity when they are not only wrong in technical terms, but wrong in that there's absolutely no consistent principle underlying their criticisms whatsoever.

  48. DW said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    "They never state anything as a cultural preference."

    Well no of course not, but most people who give writing advice for a living, high school English teachers or resume coaches or editors or whoever, do not go around stating "I am telling you about cultural preferences now" when they counsel their clients or students, yet presumably they are all in fact enforcing cultural preferences.

    I guess it's just interesting because most of the posts here (from which I have learned quite a lot and greatly enjoy) have such a different tone than this "misuse of the passive" subject. Most of the posts are descriptive and written in a measured, objective tone. They just report how language is used. The posts about the bad advice about the passive voice are simply apoplectic. I'm trying to understand why. It seems like linguists feel warmly and fondly toward ordinary, un-self-conscious language-users. But they feel very hostile toward the givers of language advice (teachers, resume coaches etc.). Why is this? Is it competitive? Why is the average Joe or Josephine's language use always above reproach, but the language of language advice giving is fair game for linguistic bashing? Can't you see the advisors' and coaches' and teachers' use of language with the same objectivity? Why are ordinary language users seemingly never right or wrong, yet language teachers are continually pounced on for "doing it wrong"?

  49. DW said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    Sharl wrote,

    "DW, you really think this service is more interested in "expressing a cultural preference" than making money off people whose pockets already lack the replenishing benefit of a job? "

    Of course not. Do you think that means they're *not* expressing cultural preferences?

    And as long as we are worrying about the people who don't have jobs and are shelling out their money for advice to help them get a job, have we not a smidgen of sympathy for the advice givers? It's a job, too, you know, and not usually a high-paying one. Why are these people assumed to be snakes in the grass rather than ordinary working stiffs like the people they coach?

  50. DW said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 11:22 am


    "It seems clear to me the "anger" comes not from a perceived "mis-using" of the word to mean something else, but the fact that "passive voice" has come to mean everything/nothing/anything."

    It looks to me more like, it's not so much that the term is meaningless as that the meaning has expanded to cover a variety of perceived (sometimes imaginary) writing errors. These much-maligned writing coaches may not be able to explain clearly exactly what the errors they correct consist of (a failure that the LL folks seem very willing to forgive everyone else, but not language coaches) – but they are often pretty clear about identifying these "errors" and correcting them. Maybe they can't explain it to linguists' satisfaction but they are quite confident in making these "corrections."

    My theory as to why this advice is so prevalent is simply that it's usually a fairly easy "fix." It's very easy to go through a document and turn most of the sentence constructions around; it's an easy thing to explain to a client, it's fairly concrete and easy to remember to do it, and they feel like they've earned their money, and the client feels like they've gotten a piece of simple and solid advice that they will remember in the future.

    None of that makes the advice right or wrong … but again, that's an aspect of language use that linguists seem quite willing to forgive everyone else – just not resume coaches and writing teachers.

  51. Fiona Hanington said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    I went to the Doonstang page you linked to, expecting to see loads of comments from LL readers. I found none, so I left one urging them to read your post. Their comments are moderated….. so I don't know how many others have given them the same nudge. I hope, however, that they'll take down their misguided advice soon.

  52. John Lawler said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    This just in, from the Wall Street Journal
      Doostang Jeered For Writing Tips By Language Pros

    [And hey, the WSJ blogger in question, Christopher Zinsli, says "Language Log and its remarks might be dismissed by some readers as just a sounding board for a bunch of nitpicking professors"! (Oh yeah? Step outside and say that, Zinsli!) It's funny how the morons who kibitz about other people's alleged passives are not considered nitpickers, just ordinary common-sense guys wanting to see decent aggressive manly prose, and it's the honest Language Log writers pointing out that the morons are laying down bullshit who get slammed as "nitpicking professors". We're not the ones saying there is something linguistically wrong with having "Responsible for . . . on your resume. We're saying that's just fine as it is. But go ahead, listen to the morons if you want to. —GKP]

  53. DW said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    It's pretty funny.

    (I assume everyone gets the joke, or rather, it's assumed by me that the joke is gotten by everyone.)

  54. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    DW is in fact a very clever medical editor, and she is alluding to something syntactic that might have eluded you (it definitely eluded me) about the WSJ blog post. Sorry for the spoiler, but… Zinsli wrote the piece entirely in genuine passive-voice sentences.

    And of course it's absolutely fine, grammatically and stylistically.

  55. Trond Engen said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    I didn't read it. But now that you made me, this one is for the eternity:

    The supreme wimpiness of the passive voice won’t be disputed by us

    I had to read the piece several times without detecting intended irony before I ruled it out. And, yes, it's well-written and not wimpy at all.

  56. Jason L. said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    With regard to résumé vs. resumé vs. resume, initially I read the subject of the post as an imperative, asking someone to resume the process of depassivization. In context, "An advisor is asking you to depassivize your resume" would be perfectly clear, but since no context came with the subject, omitting the accents indeed led to confusion.

  57. Laura said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    It's not just people giving resume (CV) advice: in a respectable AS/A2 (that's the English/Welsh qualification you get prior to entering university) English Language revision guide, this is given as an example of the passive:
    "The visits were enjoyable"
    It's otherwise pretty good, and didn't advise against using it, just said to be aware of the effect of using it or the active, but just shows, they can slip through the net even in educational publications.

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