Gove counter-Gove

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In response to James Forsyth, "The Gove guide to composition", The Spectator 6/30/2013, Tom Chivers notes that "Michael Gove doesn't know what the passive voice is", The Telegraph 7/1/2013. If you read the exchange, you'll see that Tom Chivers is right: Michael Gove advises against use of the "passive voice", citing an example that is in fact not passive at all — while using the passive voice frequently, correctly, and appropriately, including in the first sentence of the letter introducing his guide to composing letters.

This example certainly belongs in Geoff Pullum's collection. And someone should recommend Geoff's tutorial on "The passive in English" to Mr. Gove.

But I want to point out a subtler form of self-refutation in the Gove Guide. Consider this paragraph:

Politeness requires getting the name of the correspondent correct and maintaining a sympathetic tone. It does not require a writing style modelled on Leonard Sachs from “The Good Old Days” or Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister”. Using inflated political rhetoric of the “first may I say how much I care about X” is not polite. It is a time-wasting exercise in self-regarding pomposity. So don’t even go there. Instead use direct, clear and vigorous language. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Devote one paragraph to each topic. And one sentence to each idea within that topic. Ideally, every sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph. And the concluding sentence should return to, or summarise, that theme. Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this Government. Cut out unnecessary words. For example, rather than writing “the policy that we are introducing is intended to drive a change in behaviours on the part of teachers with respect to the poorest and most disadvantaged children and young people” say “the policy will change how teachers behave towards poorer students”. And make the most emphatic point at the end of a sentence. For example, instead of saying, “the coalition government, which has been an unprecedented historic success, was formed in May three years ago”, write “the coalition government, formed three years ago this May, has been an unprecedented historic success”. The more care you take over elegant composition, the greater the compliment you pay the correspondent.

Then ask yourself how well this paragraph carries out the advice that's embedded in it:

Devote one paragraph to each topic. And one sentence to each idea within that topic. Ideally, every sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph. And the concluding sentence should return to, or summarise, that theme.

You might also ponder the logical implications of the dictum that "every sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph".

I'll close by adding to the world's accumulated pile of writing advice, paraphrasing Thomas J. Watson, this one-word guide:


(It's the period at the end that's my original contribution.)



  1. Michael P said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 6:15 am

    As additional self-refutation, Gove's rephrasing using "formed three years ago this May" is a nice example of when using the passive voice is clearer and briefer than finding a active voice construction with similar meaning.

  2. Barrie England said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 6:30 am

    He might have added ‘Don’t use clichés, such as “So don’t even go there”.’

  3. Pete said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 6:39 am

    The Telegraph article is very good actually. It could have been written by Pullum himself.

    I think that sentence about sentences introducing topics probably has a typo though – it should read "Ideally, every initial sentence should introduce the topic of the paragraph." Surely?

    Not that that makes a big difference though. Gove's writing advice is as regressive and ill-informed as his policies (which I think actually incorporate some of his writing advice, under the topic of "correct grammar").

  4. David L said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:17 am

    I think you and Tom Chivers have not understood what Gove is saying about the passive voice. He writes:

    Use the active, not the passive voice. Ministers have decided to increase spending on the poorest children. Poorer children are not having a harder time under this Government.

    The second two sentences are intended as examples of how to use active formulations. In other words, don't say "spending has been increased," "poorer children have not been negatively impacted," and suchlike.

    (I agree that "avoid the passive" is useless advice, for the most part, but having some experience of bureaucratese I would say that "think hard before using the passive" is a worthwhile injunction.)

  5. KevinM said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    Not to mention:
    "Using inflated political rhetoric of the “first may I say how much I care about X” is not polite."
    I think that the writer intended the "first may…" phrase to be adjectival, but the noun it modifies is missing. Should, e.g., the word "variety" be inserted before "is not polite"? (Oh my goodness, what have I done? It's so much more vivid to say "Should some hypothetical person invented for this purpose insert the word 'variety'?")

  6. bill. said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    Rewriting to “the policy will change how teachers behave towards poorer students” is wrong. That's the hoped for outcome –the intended drive to change behaviours on the part of teachers–but it isn't written in stone.

    Rewriting the sentence to make it clearer isn't the same as predicting the future.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    That opening sentence in which Michael Gove uses the passive voice is "Thank you for your letter of the 17th asking me, on behalf of your colleagues, how I like letters to be drafted."

    Tom Chivers and MYL (and I) call this a passive, but would GKP? His essay on passive clauses refers only to tensed clauses. Unless I'm misunderstanding, "to be drafted" is something else. So does "passive" apply to it or not? I'm going to e-mail him to ask him—as politely and concisely as I can—to clarify this.

    Also, I agree with David L that Gove intended his two sentences to be examples of the active, not the passive. The writing isn't very clear, but I don't think it's self-refuting.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    I mean I don't think it proves he doesn't know what "passive" means.

  9. Larry K. Andrews said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    Paraphrasing Ray Bradbury: Writing is 99% thinking; the rest is typing.

  10. Ian Preston said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:20 am

    I agree with David L and Jerry Friedman that Gove's second sentence is intended as a second example of an active sentence. "Poorer children are having a harder time under this Government" is a sentence he would discourage his staff from using for political not stylistic reasons. If he were presenting what he believed to be a bad example of a passive voice construction then I think he would have chosen a sentence he otherwise agreed with.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    Note the important lesson here for drafting bureaucratic prose: if you are vague and ambiguous (The whole issue developed in the comment thread here is that the rhetorical structure "Do it this way, not that way. Example1. Example2." turns out not to specify whether the examples are intended to be demonstrations of the right way, the wrong way, or one of each) you reduce the chances that you can be proven to have said something unambiguously false. Clarity is risky, and should accordingly be avoided.

  12. Joseph F Foster said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    Re Jerry Friedman's query above about … like letters to be drafted , yes, that is a passive infinitive. The active would have been "…how I like [people] to draft letters.

    The notions passive, active, middle, ergative, … not to tense but to what has commonly been called voice. We say that a clause or a sentence is in the active, passive, ergative, &c…. voice, not *tense.

  13. Adam Funk said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    I think "Cut out unnecessary words" could be more tersely expressed as the famous "Omit needless words!"

  14. marie-lucie said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    Since when is ergative a voice along with active and passive? I know ergative as a case, along with nominative, accusative, etc.

  15. Rubrick said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

    Cut out unnecessary words. Keep your sentences short. Avoid semicolons. Chances are you don't know how to use them properly anyway. Adopt a consistent, monotonous, and indeed relentless rhythm. And begin some sentences with conjunctions even if they have no strong relationship to the sentences preceeding them. And sometimes dependent clauses.

  16. Rod Johnson said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    marie-lucie: I've heard "ergative voice" used in two contexts, neither especially well. One, in ESL contexts, I guess, to describe clauses like "the house burned" or "the glass broke." (Not sure why that's ergative.) The other is, in ergative languages, by analogy with active and passive, there is sometimes held to be ergative vs. antipassive voice. *shrug*

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    Here's Hilda Koopmans talking about ergative voice in a theoretical context that I don't really understand.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

    Joseph F Foster: Thanks, that helps. The reason I mentioned tense is that Prof. Pullum emphasized it in his tutorial; I didn't confuse it with what's advisedly or inadvisedly called "voice". However, it seems I was confused about why he emphasized it.

  19. Robert Andrews said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    I think his first paragraph, riffing on Polonius, was quite obviously intended as a joke, hence the line "But brevity is always a virtue." but if that is the case then beginning a memo on good writing style with a self-indulgent attempt at appearing erudite and humourous is pretty-damn impolite to begin with. If I received his memo, I would be tempted to write back, "Whatever!"

  20. David Morris said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

    Does 'avoid' mean 'never do it', or does it mean 'don't set out to do it/don't do it unless you really have to'?
    Quite apart from the rightness or wrongness of, or style or lack of style of, or ESL students learning to conceptualise the difference between, active and passive voice is the question of the *mechanics* of passive voice. Passive voice requires two things which are often difficult for ESL students: the verb [be] and passive participles of verbs. The verb [be] is the only verb in English which has three forms in present tense and two in past tense, and they all look so different. Also, in English, many of the most common verbs are irregular, and students must remember and reproduce those (sometimes more rarely used) forms.
    After I teach my students passive voice, I say to them 'If you can possibly say or write a sentence in active voice, then do it. Sometimes you can't. Sometimes you just have to use passive voice. Then, make it correctly.'

  21. marie-lucie said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    Rod Johnson, thank you for your examples and reference. I have some experience with "ergative" languages, and I would never call "the glass broke" an instance of ergativity. As for the Koopman text (the little I was able to access), I found it unreadable.

  22. Pete said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 5:13 am

    @David Morris: But why do you teach your students to prefer the active first?

    Of course it's easy to give an example of an obviously barbarous passive like A chair is being sat on by me and say "isn't it better to say I'm sitting on a chair?" But that doesn't mean anything.

    I could just as easily give an example like A jury found the brothers guilty, the judge sentenced them to life in prison and someone else later found them dead in their cells and say "It's much better to say The brothers were found guilty, sentenced to life in prison, and later found dead in their cells." Does that mean we should be teaching students to avoid the active voice if at all possible?

  23. Barrie England said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    I know 'ergative' as neither a tense nor a voice, but as a type of verb that allows the object in a transitive clause to become the subject in an intransitive clause.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    July 2, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    marie-lucie: yes, the Koopmans article is part of a new turn in Minimalist theory called the "Cartographic" approach. Since Minimalism is where I got off the crazy train, I have not a clue what that article is all about.

    But I think the generative use of "ergative" in non-ergative languages goes back to Luigi Burzio's work in the early 1980s. Keyser and Roeper (1984) cite pairs like:

    1a. The sun melted the ice.
    b. The ice melted.

    2. Someone bribed the bureaucrat.
    b. Bureaucrats bribe easily.

    and, following Burzio, call the verbs in the (b) examples "ergative verbs." Actually, I think this probably goes back earlier to David Perlmutter's late-70s work, in which there are intransitive verbs that take "2" subjects, but he used the term "unaccusative." Who knows why that got changed to "ergative"?

    Any connection with ergativity as a typological feature is pretty tenuous.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    July 3, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    Thanks again, Rod. I think that these uses of "ergative" come from linguists who have never worked with languages with "ergative" morphology and syntax, which concern the marking of nouns, not verbs.

    If "melt" is considered 'ergative' because of
    1. The sun melted the ice.
    1a. The ice melted.

    then is "paint" a 'nominative' verb in
    2. The artist painted the portrait.
    2a. The artist painted.

    and then what kind of verb is "cook" in
    3. The man cooked the chicken.
    3a. The man cooked.
    3b. The chicken cooked.

  26. Rod Johnson said,

    July 4, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    I think the answers would be yes, and both, respectively.

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