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Passive Resistance

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Actuarial Science, Passively

In case it wasn’t obvious throughout this post, what first triggered my outrage over the excesses of the anti-passive crusade was the unwarranted intrusion of passive voice exterminators into statements within my own field that can’t reasonably be converted into active voice without wandering off aimlessly, getting watered down into tripe that sounds less active than dry rot, getting twisted up in knots, or losing their meaning entirely. Actuarial text is quite commonly heavily characteristic of the scientific writing that Fowler and other style authorities cite as suitable for passive voice. And as all style authorities point out about selecting the voice that is appropriate to the focus, much actuarial writing regards subject matter for which attention to the proper focus all but necessitates passive voice.

Mindless conversion of actuarial text from passive voice into active voice runs the risk of rendering the expression incomprehensible, unusuable, perhaps even wrong.

Unadulterated Dawson

As I steer my vessel toward the peaceful waters of retirement, I’ve been finding pleasure in reading a very old actuarial text, Practical Lessons in Actuarial Science, written by Miles Meander Dawson (implicitly passively so stated), first published in 1898. Might anti-passive crusaders might roll their eyes and wag their fingers, prejudiced against the text because of its age, conveniently forgetting that the overwhelming majority of our best writers come from the years that predate that book? Whatev. I recommend Dawson’s heavy reliance on passive voice over any active-voice-diluted modern equivalent.

Some examples, starting with the introduction —

“This edition of Practical Lessons in Actuarial Science has been carefully revised.

“The text has been read for errors very thoroughly bt two expert readers, one reading the old edition and one the copy of the new, besides reading of both by the author.

ax has everywhere been changed to ax in order to conform to the Universal Notation. All other changes deemed necessary in order to so conform have been made also, it is believed.

The final form of Nx, i.e.== Dx+1+Dx+2+ . . . . . has been retained because [it is] still retained in the Institute of Actuaries’ Text-Book, Part II., to which the student will pass from this book . . . .”

That launch will will suffice to indicate what follows throughout the text. A constant wind of passive voice (even with its “it is believed”) that makes it into the 4th paragraph before an active voice in a clarifying clause finally offers an active voice (“student will pass”) before turning back to passive.

Today’s mechanistic anti-passive bureaucrats would run out of red ink bloodying up Dawson. Giving us the supposedly more plain, supposedly more personal, supposedly more powerful, supposedly preferred version starting out something like, “The zombies have carefully revised this edition of Practical Lessons in Actuarial Science . . .”

Look, we know the writer here; his name is given to us on the title page, and he really doesn’t need to repeat “I revised . . . I and several others read . . . I changed it to ax . . . ” etc throughout the entire book, sticking that “I . . . I . . . I . . . ” everywhere. We know the author. What is important here becomes the focus, so takes its natural place as the subject of each sentence: the content. Which properly drives the text into its natural passive.

Open the book beyond that introductory page to any random page, and in virtually every single case the passive voice is used. And once we have left the introduction, that “easy out” of letting the author speak in order to convert to active voice is no longer available to us — if anti-passive crusaders want a text such as this to have the author claiming “I do this” and “I do that” throughout, then good writing gets flushed down the toilet in a rush.

Here, from the beginning of a new lesson on page 127, we have the following sentence written in passive voice —

“In the last lesson a formula was derived to give the value of an insurance of one dollar in terms of an annuity of one dollar at the same age.”

So, do we really prefer the book to be rewritten to something like, “In the last lesson, I derived a formula to give the value . . .”? I know, the hard-core anti-passive crusaders would not relent and would try to claim that to be friendlier, more personable, better at communicating. It isn’t. The student isn’t brought closer to the teacher; rather, by continually placing the teacher as the subject of every single sentence, the student’s attention is repeatedly diverted from the focus, which in this case is the formula. Let the primary focus take the subject of each sentence. And in a textbook such as this, that will give us the result we have in our hands, from the age when writers did know how to write well without interference from bureaucratic meddlers: good information written almost entirely in the passive voice.

Theory and Practice, Passively

But maybe enjoying good classical actuarial literature over a century old isn’t quite fair, since isn’t that almost as bad as expecting a writer like Emerson or Thoreau to never use the passive? Alright, let’s try a book published the same year I began my actuarial career, The Theory and Practice of Pension Funding by Trowbridge and Farr. Even almost 40 years later, almost every pension actuary owns a copy.

Of hundreds of examples here that rely on the passive voice, I’ll give the first passive from chapter 1 —

“The word ‘pension’ is here limited to benefits provided by defined-benefit pension plans.”

I cringe to think how that simple, plain, clear delineation of scope might be forcibly converted to the supposedly preferable active voice. “Here we limit the word ‘pension’ . . .”? Like with Dawson’s book, repeatedly pointing to the author solely to achieve passive voice is extraordinarily distracting and adds nothing to the content or clarity. Perhaps switch to an imperative—”Here, limit the word ‘pension’ . . . “? A book flushed out with such imperatives in every other breath would take on a style worse than making all the English writing students wear army boots 24/7, again without achieving any advantage over the passive version.

The same could be said of every single examples of the thousands of passive voice sentences in this well written actuarial text. Every single such passive sentence follows cardinal rules recognized by the real authorities such as Garner: the passive voice properly places the key focus of the sentence as the subject, and the passive verb is both natural and preferable to any active-voice alternative.

[other actuarial texts to eventually be added here . . . yes, it’s true, go ahead and laugh: actuaries do prefer the passive voice . . .]


//] - so to speak

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Written by macheide

30 April 2015 at 3:57 pm

Posted in so to speak

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