Saturday, July 30, 2011

Don't never use the passive voice

Back in the 20th century writers loved wrecking the rules of grammar in the name of literary freedom. The poet e. e. cummings astounded readers by breaking one-two-three-four-five rules in a single sentence just like that. My friends in college declared that a preposition is not something to end a sentence with. The great satirist James Thurber told a meddling editor that, "When I split an infinitive, it is going to damn well stay split."

One prejudice that writers seemed loath to challenge is disdain for the passive voice. Good writing is assumed to rest on having strong, clear subjects act directly on well specified objects.

Ah but that passive voice... so maligned yet, as I know, so useful. This very morning I see a writer missing an opportunity for EDITORIAL IMMORTALITY due to a misguided circumvention of the passive. From the Wall Street Journal 7.30.11:
The only way out of this mess is to return to the growth policies that nurtured the boom of the 1980s. The circumstances aren't the same... But the principles are the same: Encourage businesses to expand, rather than government; let markets allocate capital, rather than politicians; liberate entrepreneurs by reining in the regulatory state.

Putting politics aside, I read this paragraph and was bothered by the stylistic choices. "let markets allocate capital, rather than politicians" is messy and inefficient. "Politicians" and "markets" should be paired in close counterpoint.

To recast the thing, I build a stronger sentence with the help of one passive construction... thus:

Encourage the expansion of businesses, not government; let capital be allocated by markets, not politicians; give more freedom to entrepreneurs, not regulators.

To me, such moments justify the new rule I will introduce to my fall writing class at NYU:



Anonymous said...

Completely agree. In fact, I find that blind adherence to any particular rule usually leads to bad writing. Clarity is key: Will the reader get the joke? Could the reader be confused? These are the questions we need to ask, rather than: Is this in the active voice? Is the infinitive form split?

brandsinger said...

Thanks - well put, Anonymous one. I like sentence fragments too. And grrrrrrrrunts!

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brandsinger said...

This email to me was typical of the tepid reaction to my "never don't use" posting.

A/ Your version is of course much, much better.

B/ But - and I'm certain of the grammar here -- I think it's because of the parallelism, not the voice. By x not y, by x not y, by x not y. The only
clearly passive construction is the second of the three, let capital be allocated. The other two don't look passive. 'Encourage businesses' is active, but is that construction different from 'Encourage expansion?' The noun construction 'expansion of businesses' is more abstract than the verbal construction 'business to expand' but (as my wife's upstate relative would say (it wonders me whether that is a passive construction.)

Anonymous said...

Claude, this is why I am so lucky YOU trained me!
Yer pal and erstwhile colleague,
Jessica Ryan Ohlin

brandsinger said...

Yer the best!
You need no training - just troops to lead!