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Kim Richards Wikipedia entryThe 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.


Sabio Lantz, May 29, 2012 Reply

Fascinating stuff!

I was trained to avoid ending sentences in prepositions and much more which I later learned was due to Latin Nazis writing our grammar text books. I was relieved because sometimes, ending with a preposition just sounded better. Our German heritage comes out!

However, until reading this article, I had never doubted my indoctrination concerning the sin of passive sentences. Thank you. I will try to keep my eye on this as I write my blog — well, when I am conscious of my writing at all. However, I think one of your post’s suggestions, “trusting your intuition”, may need a caveat or two:

I did a few years of philosophy where I was forced to read very bad philosophical writing. One day, after years of forced readings in those bad writings, I realized that I actually enjoyed the article and was able to see good content despite poor style. But this new skill came with a price: I also saw that this poor style had become part of my sensibilities — part of my tastes and preferences.

I still write poorly because of both my medical and philosophy training– of intuitions formed by years of reading very bad writing. (and, well, perhaps because of some influences of foreign languages, mathematics and personality influences too). 🙂

All to say, intuition, for many of us, is untrustworthy.

You quoted, this quote:

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.

If our intuition has been polluted by years of reading snobbery, our intuitions will probably only help us in writing for snobs. So, when trusting our intuitions, we best understand ourselves, our training, our preferences and our intended audience, eh?

Similarly, connecting to my previous comment, our intuitions could lead us to connect art and religion, but they may be due to our personal experience and not to some universal sociological or psychological truth. 🙂

David L Rattigan (post author) , May 30, 2012 Reply

I hear what you’re saying, and you’re right. I regularly edit pieces where it’s clear someone has learned a particular way of writing, without ever questioning whether it’s effective. Especially true of some academics, I think, who have learned to create ridiculously convoluted sentences, full of clauses and sub-clauses and complicated words that say something in a page what could have been said in a paragraph. But even they, I think, have an intuition that it’s not effective English — if they thought about it, they’d probably realize they just learned that artificial voice.

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