The silly but much-cherished rule of never using the grammatical passive in writing has bred some strange notions of what exactly the passive is. To some, “passive” apparently means “any construction that twists the grammar of a sentence so badly that it sounds instinctively wrong to just about everyone.”
That would certainly seem to be the understanding of Matt Cherette’s friend Frank, who claims to have rewritten a Wikipedia article “entirely in the passive voice.” The newly edited Wiki entry for Kim Richards, star of Bravo’s reality TV show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was made “nearly unreadable and, at the same time, infinitely better,” Cherette said.
Problem is, most of it is not passive at all — it’s just bad grammar. Says linguist Geoff Pullum, of Language Log:
The humorist’s view of what the term “passive clause” means is apparently something like: “badly written or ungrammatical clause with faults such as inept early positioning of things that should have come later, usually with an occurrence of the copula”. Or something along those lines. It’s closer to the notion of Yoda’s syntax than it is to a characterization of the English passive.
This misconception is borne of the vilification of the passive, which means that any number of tortuous grammatical constructions are met with horrified gasps of “Passive!” Pullum (I’m a bit of a fanboy, I admit) has addressed the “no passives” fallacy time and again, such as in the article “50 Years of Stupid Grammar“; in it, he takes to task EB White and William Strunk, whose book The Elements of Style has pushed the “no passives” rule on generation after generation.
The truth is that, while the passive is frequently a poor choice, it is often a fine or even the better choice. As I summarized recently:
A good writer uses her ear rather than relying on grammatical prescriptions often invented with little regard for context. If in doubt, write it both ways — active and passive — and read them aloud. Go with what sounds natural, succinct and clear. The best construction is usually obvious.
- Ian Stuart on Charles Moore on ‘Relatively Less Important’ Areas of the UK
- Bob Ballantyne on Charles Moore on ‘Relatively Less Important’ Areas of the UK
- Dennis Richards on Marriage Is Big Enough for All of Us
- Bedlam: A Journal of Horror & the Macabre | David L Rattigan on Diabolique Magazine
- Jacquie on Christian and Agnostic
TagsAnglicanism archbishop cranmer A Small Orange atheism blogs C4M Canada Charity Christianity copywriting dangling modifiers dangling participles Diabolique editing free speech good writing grammar Hammer Films Health homophobia homosexuality horror John Diefenbaker John Lennox journalism Lent LGBT media parliament Partners In Health philosophy politics quotes religion reviews Richard Dawkins same-sex marriage services Social Justice style theology UK web hosting World writing