The Passivator reborn

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I've been resisting topics like "words for coup" and "the meaning of insurrection" — we'll see how long that resolve lasts — but this morning's distraction is the rebirth of something I wrote about many years ago, namely an online service for identifying instances of passive-voice verbs.

In my review of 'The Passivator" (4/6/2004), I noted that "though The Passivator is billed as a 'passive verb and adverb flagger', it just flags certain strings of characters — final "-ly" for alleged adverbs, forms of 'to be' for alleged passives". Never mind that to be is used for lots of other things, and there are plenty of adverbs that don't end in -ly, and not everything that ends in -ly is an adverb.

The "Passive Voice Detector" at uses a slightly less silly version of the same dumb algorithm — it flags forms of to be immediately followed by words ending in -ed. This leads to absurd false positives, e.g. when a form of to be is followed by a noun ending in -ed:

…and predictable false negatives, e.g. when an adverb intervenes between the auxiliary and the participle:

Update — other false negatives includes contracted forms of to be (e.g. "They're defeated") and irregular participles (e.g. "They were overcome.").

This is puzzling, given that there are good open source parsers, like spacy, that can actually do a decent job of identifying passive-voice verbs. Of course I'm not suggesting that someone should build a passive-detector that actually works, because the whole idea is predicated on the widely-held false belief that use of the passive voice is bad, combined with even more widespread confusion about what the passive voice actually is.

For an explanation of what the passive voice is and is not, see Geoff Pullum's page Confusion over avoiding the passive. For an argument against anti-passive prejudice, see "When men were men, and verbs were passive" (8/4/2006).

And for much more on the topic that anyone would rationally want, browse this list of LLOG passive posts over the years:

"Passive voice and bias in Reuter headlines about Israelis and Palestinians", 17 December 2003
"The passivator", 6 April 2004
"Two out of three on passives", 8 May 2004
"Hey folks, 'passive voice' != 'vague about agency'", 31 May 2004
"Tossing technical terms around", 5 August 2005
"Voice confused with tense at the Economist", 13 March 2006
"Diagnosing soup label syntax", 29 June 2006
"Passive aggression", 18 July 2006
"How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why?", July 22, 2006
"The ancient roots of passive avoidance", 23 July 2006
"When men were men, and verbs were passive", 4 August 2006
"Free verbs", 5 August 2006
"The direct and vigorous hyptic voice", 5 August 2006
"Avoiding passive for dummies", 25 September 2006
"School shootings and passive constructions", 10 October 2006
"The passive in law", 16 October 2006
"If they do it too much, they should be told not to do it at all", 31 October 2006
"How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 1 November 2006
"Two ways to look at the passive", 28 December 2006
"Evil passive voice", 1 May 2007
"Let's put it in the passive tense", 25 May 2007
"More passive tense", 25 May 2007
"A bulletin from the Language Log early warning center", 1 August 2007
"Some egg preceded every chicken", 6 March 2008
"Dumb mag buys grammar goof spin spot fraud", 9 September 2008
"There will be passives", November 7, 2008
"Blurt and babble", November 18, 2008
"The phenomenology of error", 11 January 2009
""Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 12 March 2009
"The aggrieved passive voice", 16 March 2009
"Passive voice: two out of three isn't good enough", 16 March 2009
"Nervous cluelessness", 22 April 2009
"For the "passive voice" files", 1 June 2009
"Puzzling passive", 1 June 2009
"Drinking the Strunkian Kool-Aid: victims of page 18", 6 June 2009
"Trying to avoid the passive?", 10 June 2009
"Krauthammer: another writer who has no idea what the passive is", 12 June 2009
"He doesn't know what the active voice is either", 12 June 2009
"Annals of passivity", 23 June 2009
"'Passive construction' means… nothing at all?", 25 June 2009
"Weapons of denial", 1 August 2009
"Justice Kennedy interprets the passive", 4 November 2009
"Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance", 24 March 2010
"Worthless grammar edicts from Harvard", 29 April 2010
"Rhetorical testosterone and analytical hallucinations", 1 July 2010
"Mark Steyn uses the passive to avoid passivity", 2 July 2010
"More on the stupidity of Kathleen Parker", 4 July 2010
""Unable to understand some basic sentences"?", 9 July 2010
"More on basic sentence interpretation", 12 July 2010
"More passive complaints — misidentifying 5 passives out of 5", 21 July 2010
"Resume depassivization — this time, zero for 4", 23 July 2010
"Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues", 5 August 2009
"CSI psycholinguistics", 6 August 2010
"The finance world tackles the passive: 0 for 2", 12 August 2010
"A peeve for the ages", 13 January 2011
"The passive in English", 24 January 2011
"The BBC enlightens us on passives", 22 February 2011
"The disembodied implied passive", 2 May 2011
"The College Board endorses the passive voice", 16 May 2011
"Boneheaded usage advice about the hand of God", 5 July 2011
"You don't need no stinkin' passive", 18 July 2011
"Annals of "needs washed"", 9 September 2011
"A sad case", 15 September 2011
"Drones and passivity", 8 November 2011
"Penalties for passive misidentification are too weak", 27 December 2011
"Nate Silver knows his passives", 4 January 2012
"Passive-aggressive maybe, but not passive", 24 February 2012
"Passive voice in the comics", 10 March 2012
"Journalism 101: a passive fact-check", 16 March 2012
"Rewriting Wikipedia in the passive?", 30 March 2012
"Passive voice wrongly accused yet again", 13 April 2012
"Kudos to Shaun and #passivevoiceday", 25 April 2012
"One more misidentified passive (can you bear it?)", 6 September 2012
"Gove counter-Gove", 1 July 2013
"Passive blindness in the NYRB", 30 December 2013
"The English passive: an apology", 9 January 2014
"'Concern troll' passives", 24 January 2014
"Officer-involved passives", 15 July 2014
"Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!", 11 August 2014
"Passive problem", 13 May 2015
"Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe", 6 July 2015
"'It eats salty': middle voice on 'Top Chef'", 31 January 2016
"The passives of PricewaterhouseCoopers", 27 February 2017
"Mid-voice crisis: Beyond active and passive", August 5, 2017
"He lapsed into the passive voice", August 17, 2017
"Passive aggressive", 25 October 2018
"'There is no such writing rule'", 12 May 2020



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    At school in Britain (1952–1963, but primarily the period spanning 1958–1963), I and my fellow pupils were taught that the passive voice was de rigeur for all scientific writings — "the retort was heated", never "we heated the retort", and to this day I continue to use it without qualm or compunction whenever the context appears so to require. Would American children of my age-group have been taught similarly, or would they have been taught to avoid the passive, even in scientific writing, as they would the plague ?

    [(myl) Other can speak to this from their own experience — mine was that the topic of scientific writing style never came up in my education during the same period. But several American journals have (or used to have) rules against the use of personal pronouns like "we", prescribing e.g. "it was found that" rather than "we found that" — but I see that JASA's style guide now inveighs against the passive voice as well as such pronouns.]

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 1:51 pm

    "Mistakes were made. Passive voice wasn't found."

    This test case speaks for itself.

    [(myl) Good one!

    Mistakes were definitely made :-)…
    Here's what spacy does with the first sentence:

    Dep tree Token    Dep type  Lemma   Part of Sp
    ──────── ──────── ───────── ─────── ──────────
    ┌──►     Mistakes nsubjpass mistake NOUN      
    │┌─►     were     auxpass   be      AUX       
    └┼──     made     ROOT      make    VERB      
     └─►     .        punct     .       PUNCT     


  3. David Morris said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

    Was that list of previous postings created by you manually, or does an automated method exist?

    [(myl) It was hemi-demi-semi-automated — the list on Geoff's passives page, a couple of google searches, a couple of simple shell scripts, and a bit of hand editing at the end…]

  4. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 3:24 pm

    Philip Taylor-
    Q: Would American children of my age-group have been taught similarly?
    A: Yes. And younger ones, for at least another decade.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 3:43 pm

    Thank you Bloix. I am intrigued by Mark's earlier reply, tho', and in particular "the topic of scientific writing style never came up in my education during the same period". My memories of chemistry lessons in particular are that every experiment performed had to be "written up", and that our lab. reports were then handed in for marking. When returned, comments would have been added concerning style (as well, of course,as experimental practice, procedures, methodology and results), and use of the passive voice would definitely have been included in those comments. Perhaps Marks (or someone else educated under a similar régime) could comment on how the American system differed in this respect.

    [(myl) The phrase "the American system" is ontologically problematic, since there are roughly as many "systems" as there are towns, and few of them are very systematic.]

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 10, 2021 @ 5:28 pm

    Philip Taylor: In high school English in the late '70s, we were taught from Strunk and White to avoid "the passive voice". In physics labs in college, we weren't given (sorry) any style rules, but a friend at the same college who majored in chemical engineering was required (oops) to use "the past passive" for everything that might have been in first person, as you were.

  7. Twill said,

    January 11, 2021 @ 12:38 am

    On the one hand, this does an objectively bad job of identifying passive structures. On the other, this may have allowed the evil passive voice to pass undetected by a lazy copyeditor who slavishly follows the arbitrary diktats of the worse sorts of style guides, so it might not be totally without merit.

  8. Rob said,

    January 11, 2021 @ 3:05 am

    A bizarre occurrence in my final year of Junior school (British colony, early 1960s): the new teacher decreed that we must start each and every written answer to maths problems with "I am required to find …". I never did find out the purpose!

  9. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 11, 2021 @ 3:38 am

    FWIW, I was taught in Swedish 2ndary ed circa AD 2000 not to use "I" or "we" in science class reports.

    But the horror of passive voice is one of those American foibles that hasn't been mindlessly imported to Sweden. There's probably an untapped business opportunity here.

  10. F said,

    January 11, 2021 @ 6:11 am

    It doesn't even exclude proper names:
    "I am Ted" -> (1) Sentences with Passive Voice
    (though, to be fair, "I am Ed" passes).

  11. David L said,

    January 13, 2021 @ 3:16 pm

    The second letter to Nature reproduced here is a fine example of the old school of scientific writing. Using the active voice means that "there is no need to discipline one's thoughts." Worse, use of the active voice may well lead to scientific dishonesty and outright fraud (a big topic in the mid 90s, when this letter was published).

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