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Passive Resistance

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“Although active voice is preferred, passive voice is acceptable under the following situations…”

              —IRM Style Guide

One has to wonder if the Internal Revenue Manual’s style gods had their tongues tucked firmly in cheek when they worded their advice in the passive voice, instead of saying something along the lines of, “Although you should prefer the active voice, passive voice is acceptable under the following situations . . . .”

Granted, the passive voice can be abused and overused. I mean, we can abuse and overuse passive voice. So we get this general rule of thumb poked in our eye: “Avoid the passive voice.” Or even as some misleading professors and too many rigid editors and most any government agency demands: “Eliminate passive voice!”

But no no no no no! and again, a vehement “No!” The correct rule of thumb — as is acknowledged by every reliable authority on the matter — is this:

Use the passive voice when inappropriate to use the active voice.
Choose the active voice when passive voice is inappropriate.

Or as I like to say, “Just because you don’t know when the passive voice ought be used, the active voice should not be arbitrarily chosen.”

Editors shouldn’t run everything through a Passive Voice Eliminator without knowing and having broad experience with the complete rule on this one. Passive voice does not weaken writing style; rather, inappropriate use of passive voice weakens writing style. And conversely, writing style is weakened by editors who twist content into active voice when passive voice would serve best. Reiterating for emphasis, since it seems so quickly ignored: The rule is not: Convert all passive to active. In fact, active voice is not universally preferred over passive voice, there being numerous instances in which passive voice is so correct that there is an absence of any reasonable active voice equivalent.

This being yet another of my never-ending multi-page posts, I’ll be exploring the rules as I know them, examples I find in my Internet wanderings, and illustrations from my own writing. Starting with the almost universal and certainly quite acceptable use of the passive voice for copyright notices and disclaimers, then circling back around to the IRM Style Guide’s complete word on the matter, then heading over to my Fowler for an excellent summary of proper use of passive, then on from there as mood and occasion suit.

Ummm, wait. Given the context within which the IRM Style Guide exists, I’ll push that page (and all that are already behind it) to make room for some discussion of the Plain Writing Act of 2010.


//] - so to speak

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Written by macheide

30 April 2015 at 3:57 pm

Posted in so to speak

Tagged with , ,


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