the "passive voice"

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bigheadx
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the "passive voice"

Post by bigheadx » May 7th, 2010, 12:41 pm

I get a daily email from the Oxford University Press about word use and thought today's might be useful for conversations here. Perhaps others have a different point of view than Mr. Garner?

Bryan Garner's Usage Tip of the Day http://www.elabs3.com/c.html?rtr=on&s=e ... c,gj4w,8r5

Passive Voice (1).
Today: Passive Generally.
Many writers talk about passive voice without knowing exactly what it is. In fact, many think that any "be"-verb signals passive voice, as in: "The quotation is applicable to this point." But that sentence is actually in active voice -- even though it needs editing. Most professional editors would change "is applicable" to "applies," but they wouldn't call it "passive" because it's not. It's just a flabby "be"-verb.

The point about passive voice is that the subject of the clause doesn't perform the action of the verb. Instead, you back into the sentence. Passive: "The deadline was missed by the applicant." Active: "The applicant missed the deadline."

And, of course, in the passive form, it's possible to omit the actor altogether -- a prime source of unclarity. Sometimes it amounts to responsibility-dodging, as anyone who follows political discourse knows: "Mistakes were made."

The unfailing test for passive voice is this: you must have a "be"-verb (or "get") plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in "-ed"): "is discussed," "are believed," "was sent," "were delivered," "been served," "being flattered," "be handled," "am given," "get stolen."

Sometimes the "be"-verb or "get" won't appear. It's simply an implied word in the context. For example: "Recently I heard it suggested by a friend that too many books appear with endnotes." Grammatically speaking, that sentence contains the implied verb "being" after the word "it," so it's in the passive voice. To make it active, you'd write: "Recently I heard a friend suggest that too many books appear with endnotes."

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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by polymath » May 7th, 2010, 1:23 pm

"The quotation is applicable to this point" or "the quotation applies to this point" in a vacuum of context could be construed as passive voice. Who or what's doing the applying, the action of the verb to apply, isn't given in either sentence. In formal writing's third-person obviative voice, however, either sentence implies an impersonal first- or third-person narrator doing the applying or a second-person address implying the audience does the applying. Julius Cesear's often quoted veni, vidi, vici one might apply as the self-serving point of Colonial age explorers' glorious invasions. "One" is an impersonal pronoun used for implied first- or third-person narrator or implied imperative second-person address.

On the other hand, passive voice is the preferred impersonal voice of obviative person central to scholarship, science, business, and technical writing.

I've got potential issues with "this" too. The pronoun "this" in prescriptively proper contexts doesn't refer to antecedent subjects. Regardless, the constructions are grammatically incomplete. "The quotation applies to this point": Manly Jones fell off the water wagon because he lacked self-control.
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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by bigheadx » May 10th, 2010, 12:24 pm

Very interesting, polymath! Thanks. Here is Oxford's and Garner's second comment on the passive voice:

Passive Voice (2).

Today: What's the Problem?

What's the real problem with using passive voice? There are three. First, passive voice usually adds a couple of unnecessary words. Second, when it doesn't add those extra words, it fails to say squarely who has done what. That is, the sentence won't mention the actor with a "by"-phrase ("The book was written" vs. "The book was written by Asimov"). Third, the passive subverts the normal word order for an English sentence, making it harder for readers to process the information. To put it a little more dramatically, "The impersonal passive voice [is] an opiate that cancels responsibility, hides identity, and numbs the reader." Sheridan Baker, "Scholarly Style, or the Lack Thereof" (1956), in Perspectives on Style 64, 66 (Frederick Candelaria ed., 1968).

The active voice has palpable advantages in most contexts: it saves words, says directly who has done what, and meets the reader's expectation of a normal actor-verb-object sentence order.

The hedging in the previous sentence -- "in most contexts" -- is purposeful. That is, sometimes you'll be justified in using the passive voice. There's no absolute prohibition against it -- and anyone who tries carrying out such a prohibition would spoil a piece of writing. Among the times when you'll want the passive in a given sentence are these: (1) When the actor is unimportant. (2) When the actor is unknown. (3) When you want to hide the actor's identity. (4) When you need to put the punch word at the end of the sentence. (5) When the focus of the passage is on the thing being acted upon. (6) When the passive simply sounds better.

Still, professional editors find that these six situations account for only about 15% to 20% of the contexts in which the passive appears. That means you ought to have a presumption against the passive unless it falls into one of the categories just listed.

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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by polymath » May 10th, 2010, 1:09 pm

One profound use of passive voice not mentioned: fulfilling the need for depersonalizing a narrator's role for the purposes of projecting unbiased reporting.

An unequivocable example of passive voice taking responsibility;
One hundred residential tapwater samples were qualitatively and quantitatively tested for heavy metal content and concentration.
Passive voice in that situation tacitly implies the narrator, the writer of the report, did or supervised the testing. Personal responsibitlity is taken as a given, yet the narrator is depersonalized in favor of projecting unbiased reporting.

Contrarily, an unequivocable example of depersonalized active voice passing off responsibility yet still projecting unbiased reporting;
ASE certifiied Marshall Laboratories qualitatively and quantitatively tested one hundred residential tapwater samples for heavy metal content and concentration.

How about an example of depersonalized, biased reporting passing off responsibility in passive voice?
A bunch of random tapwater samples were tested for lead poison by popeyed goofballs.

Whether in creative or expository writing, narrator reliability when using passive voice is a multi-edged sword of depersonalized responsibility taking or shirking and bias or objectivity.
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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by Phyllis » May 11th, 2010, 7:16 am

polymath wrote:"The quotation is applicable to this point" or "the quotation applies to this point" in a vacuum of context could be construed as passive voice.
It's not passive voice though I will concede that the first sentence may be paraphrasing a sentence in passive voice: The quotation can be applied to this point. The suffix -able can mean: can be done
Who or what's doing the applying, the action of the verb to apply, isn't given in either sentence.
You are implying that a sentence needs a personal subject to be in active voice. This is not true. In the sentence "the quotation applies to this point", "the quotation" is subject, and "applies" is an intransitive verb. Nor are non-personal subjects a sign of flabby writing. Things move, happen, do things all the time, in poetry, fiction -- and even legal writing.
In formal writing's third-person obviative voice, however, either sentence implies an impersonal first- or third-person narrator doing the applying or a second-person address implying the audience does the applying. Julius Cesear's often quoted veni, vidi, vici one might apply as the self-serving point of Colonial age explorers' glorious invasions. "One" is an impersonal pronoun used for implied first- or third-person narrator or implied imperative second-person address.
I would argue that a personal subject is not needed in the given examples because the intransitive verb "apply" means "is valid". You don't need an agent for that.
On the other hand, passive voice is the preferred impersonal voice of obviative person central to scholarship, science, business, and technical writing.
Oh yeah. This is how the passive voice gained its reputation for pompousness.
I've got potential issues with "this" too. The pronoun "this" in prescriptively proper contexts doesn't refer to antecedent subjects. Regardless, the constructions are grammatically incomplete. "The quotation applies to this point": Manly Jones fell off the water wagon because he lacked self-control.
I've got issues with "this", too, but not so much in the example you discussed. Without context, I simply assumed that "this point" would have been clearly identified in the sentence before. I cringe at the way I used it in the sentence above, fuzzily referring to a whole sentence. It is, of course, fully grammatical to do so, but I usually suspect a problem with paragraph organization if I spot "this" used in this manner, and more than once in a paragraph.

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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by bigheadx » May 11th, 2010, 10:48 am

Here is a third passive voice entry from Mr. Garner and the Oxford Press.....

Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

Passive Voice (3).
Today: The Double Passive.

The problem here is using one passive immediately after another. E.g.: "This document refers to the portion of the votes entitled to be cast by virtue of membership in the union." (Votes are not "entitled to be cast"; rather, union members are "entitled to cast" votes.)

The problem is common with the verb "seek" (and sometimes "attempt"), especially in legal contexts -- e.g.: "There is no evidence that any improper influence was sought to be exercised by me or anybody else over any official decision." President Bill Clinton, as quoted in "The Whitewater Inquiry," N.Y. Times, 8 Mar. 1994, at D20. (A possible revision: "There is no evidence that I or anybody else tried to influence any official decision.")

A few double passives are defensible -- e.g.: "Offerings made in compliance with Regulation D are not required to be registered with the SEC under the Securities Act." But these are of a different kind from "are sought to be included" and "are attempted to be refuted," which can be easily remedied by recasting. The principle is that if the first passive-voice construction can be made active -- leaving the passive infinitive intact -- the sentence is correctly formed.

Here, in H.W. Fowler's famous example, a recasting of the first passive verb form into the active voice clarifies the sense. (Passive/Passive) "The prisoners were ordered to be shot." (Active/Passive) "He ordered the prisoners to be shot." (Active/Passive) "He ordered the prisoners shot."

But in the following example, a recasting of the first passive verb into the active voice does not make sense. (Passive/Passive) "The contention has been attempted to be made." (Active/Passive) "He attempted the contention to be made." The last-quoted sentence is un-English. Sense can be restored to it by casting both parts in the active voice: "He attempted to make the contention."

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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by polymath » May 11th, 2010, 10:51 am

Phyllis,

My point isn't whether or not the given examples are unequivocably in active voice, rather that the examples have arbitrary significance for a passive voice demonstration.

"The quotation" is indeed an appropriate syntax subject in the intended context. "Applies" is apparently an intransitive verb in the given context. "This point" is a less than ideal object. Because "applies" can also be a transitive verb in other contexts, in the given context too, its arbitrariness makes it a less than ideal verb for demonstrating an equivocable active voice construction. Imagine a quotation applying for a job (intransitive) or a quotation applying coercive pressure to a peer (transitive).

What the "applies" example does demonstrate admirably is the power of arbitrary meaning to carry a heavy freight of subjective meaning in a few words, given ample context from which to infer meaning. Both given examples do what passive voice does best, what its strengths are: depersonalizing a narrator (and an audience), taking or shirking responsibility, and projecting bias or objectivity, again, given ample context.

If the purpose of the "applies" example were to demonstrate the potentials of signifier and signified arbitrariness in the realms of linguistics or semiotics, it might be ideal.

An unequivocable passive voice example;
The quotation is applied to the topic under discussion.

A stronger yet still sufficiently equivocable example of active voice with reasonably ample context;
The quotation is applicable to the topic under discussion.

Recast into unequivocable active voice by the putative professional copyeditor;
The quotation applies to the topic under discussion.
However, still, "applies" carries arbitrary significance in the absence of sufficiently ample context.
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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by polymath » May 11th, 2010, 1:58 pm

Phyllis,

Descriptive usages of proximity in time and/or place pronouns like "this" flow across arbitrarily referential parameters.

Plato said: "Abstinence is the surety of temperance." Manly Jones wasn't known as a temperant gentleman. "The quotation applies to this point." Manly Jones regularly fell off the water wagon because he lacked self-control.

Which point about Manly does "this" refer to? The former or the latter? The context doesn't allow for application to both.

"This" can be prescriptively used in intermediate contexts to refer to an ongoing subject or topic that continues through a congruent antecedent and following subject or topic.

"Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder for someone else." * This I know to be untrue on the face of it.

"This" references "it," which, in turn, refers to the antecedent quotation.

However, in rigidly prescriptive usages, unlike personal pronouns and especially "it," an antecedent subject is never referred to by "this," always a following or ongoing one. The linear chronology of human experience demands linear chronology of meaning, in other words, "this" referring solely to an antecedent is an anachronous vice.

But I'm neither a rigidly prescriptive grammarian nor an intolerant one. Anything goes for creatively effective rhetorical purposes, even grammatical vices when they have readily accessible persuasive purposes, like characterizing a character as literacy challenged, depicting an average Joe speaking in an everyday voice that resonates with an audience bracket, a passive voice used for depersonalizing responsibility and demonstrating bias, portraying a questionably credible medical-legal expert's insecure personality by his awkward grammar vices, etc. Voice is a powerful and burdensomely complicated tool.

* Unattributed Spoonerism.
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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by tameson » May 11th, 2010, 7:43 pm

Just a note- scientists are moving away from passive form. Older scientists still use it out of habit, but in general, active is becoming more popular.

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Re: the "passive voice"

Post by polymath » May 11th, 2010, 9:12 pm

Does that mean science is now inclined toward personalizing responsibility for the sake of building audience rapport at the expense of objectivity?

I'm reminded of adverse reactions to William W. Warner's 1977 Pulitzer prize winning creative nonfiction book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeak Bay. It didn't go over too well in some circles for its entertaining approach to marine biology melded with anthropology. Science oughta be tediously, drearily, dryly, unequivocably boring to be taken seriously, I'm unanimously convinced.
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