One more for the "passive voice" files

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There have been many LLOG posts on misuse of the term "passive voice", going back to 2003. As far as I can tell, the most recent post was "'Is it the passive voice you don't like?'", 8/11/2021.

In "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P", I wrote that

the traditional sense of passive voice has died after a long illness. It has ceased to be; it's expired and gone to meet its maker, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It's an ex-grammatical term.

Its ghost walks in the linguistics literature and in the usage of a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals. For everyone else, what passive voice now means is "construction that is vague as to agency".

Today, Ambarish Sridharanarayanan sent me a link to a piece of writing that illustrates the issue perfectly:

The press release makes heroic use of the passive voice to obscure the actors: “an unprecedented sequence of events whereby an inadvertent misconfiguration during provisioning of UniSuper’s Private Cloud services ultimately resulted in the deletion of UniSuper’s Private Cloud subscription.”



  1. Jenny Chu said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:10 am

    I am glad for this example because it was only when you quoted the previous entry that I at last recognized, and was able to laugh at, the reference ("… it's an ex-grammatical term") .

    Or perhaps I should say that the example was able to be laughed at by me? No, strike that – the example referred to the previous post, and was therefore available to create amusement.

  2. Julian said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:25 am

    So, grammarians of the world, please step up to the plate and propose a new term for grammatical thingumny that used to own the semantic territory of 'passive', to avoid confusion.

  3. Cervantes said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 8:07 am

    Well, what's at issue is not grammar, but rather content — specifically the naming of the subject. In the given example, the embedded subject at issue is "an inadvertent misconfiguration," which is presented in active voice. The writer has chosen not to identify the person or persons who produced the misconfiguration. It isn't the job of grammarians to name this. It's just writing so as to avoid assigning responsibility. "Mistakes were made" is indeed in passive voice, but so is "Mistakes were made by Pemberton T. Throckmorton," which is not in the category. The grammar is beside the point.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 8:49 am

    Well, at least there was a time when the general public did understand the technical term? Right? ;)

    @Julian grammarians of the world […] propose a new term for grammatical thingumny — Perhaps… But then if someone uses a technical term originating in, I don't know, physics, would you suggest that physicists of the world should come up with a new term? (Not to mention the fact that 'thingumny" does have a, let's say, somewhat condescending ring to it…)

    I can't think of a really good example at the moment, but let's say if people say "Let's appreciate the gravity of the situation", physicists should come up with a new term for that thingumny they used to call gravity. Right?

  5. James said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:02 am

    Well, no, Jared W., because when physicists talk about gravity to non-physicists, the non-physicists know what the physicists mean. When grammarians talk about the passive voice to non-grammarians, the non-grammarians think they mean the responsibility-avoidance thingumny.

    (Now, if botanists decided to replace their botanic term 'fruit' with another, that would be analogous! I think.)

  6. James said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:02 am

    Oops. My 'Jarkek' was autoincorrected to 'Jared'. Sorry!

  7. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:16 am

    @James OK, thanks, true, that's probably a better analogy. So @Julian, should biologists come up with something new for "fruit"?

  8. Cervantes said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 9:33 am

    I would generally agree. If people want to use the term "passive voice" to mean "avoid assigning agency," it's fine as long as people understand what they mean.

    As for grammarians and teachers of writing, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice as they use the term. It's appropriate when you want to put the focus on the object of the action rather than the agent. If we're talking about Dan Rather, it's appropriate to say that "Dan Rather was assaulted by two guys demanding 'What is the frequency, Kenneth?'" If we find out who the guys were we can name them, but if we're more interested in Dan, we'll still prefer the passive construction.

  9. Mark Liberman said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 10:15 am

    @Julian: "So, grammarians of the world, please step up to the plate and propose a new term for grammatical thingumny that used to own the semantic territory of 'passive', to avoid confusion."

    Already done, sort of — see "When men were men, and verbs were passive" (8/4/2006), and "The direct and vigorous hyptic voice" (8/5/2006).

  10. Coby said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 12:50 pm

    I wonder how grammarians, who have decreed that only those constructions which (as in Latin) are analytic — that is "past" and "non-past" — deserve to be called "tenses", justify the use of "voice" for the synthetic English passive.

  11. Julian said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 7:20 pm

    @Cervantes & Jarek
    Sorry, just trying to make a weak joke. It would be great** if people used technical terms correctly and I encourage that.
    ** in the Bill Lumbergh sense –
    'Voice' is an unfortunate term in connection with the grammatical passive, because people think it has something to do with style/tone/register. I try to talk about 'the passive construction' and avoid using 'voice'
    @Mark Liberman: thanks for the links. I love "Strunk specialised in self-refuting advice.'

  12. David Y. said,

    May 20, 2024 @ 1:19 am

    Count yourselves lucky you're not political scientists! Everybody already thinks they know what we mean by many of our terms, and they have strong views on them, too.

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