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Passive Resistance

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Legislating Plain Writing

Plain Writing Act of 2010

Let it not go unnoticed that the text of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (P.L 111-274, 10/13/2010) itself includes several statements quite appropriately expressed in the passive voice —

  • Section 1 — “This Act may be cited as . . .” as compared with some convoluted active version such as “Any person, agency or other entity may cite this Act as . . . .” Although the action conveyed by the verb “cited” implies some person or other being that would be performing that action, hence could conceivably be expressed in active voice, here the active voice is not the preferable choice, contrary to loosely stated style advice. Rather, the Act itself being properly given the focus as the subject of the sentence, the passive voice is the not only acceptable and natural, but is preferred, indeed preferred to the point of being the only truly “plain” expression.
  • Section 6(b) — “No provision of this Act shall be construed to create any right or benefit . . .” as compared with some convoluted active version constructed along the lines of the substandard active-voiced replacement suggested here for Title 1. Again, although nothing can be construed without there being a person, agency, court or other entity performing the action, this provision is quite properly expressed in the passive voice, placing the clear focus on the central subject of any construing, any provision of the Act.
  • Section 7 — “The budgetary effects of this Act . . . shall be determined by reference to . . .” as compared with some convoluted active version reminding us as to the responsible parties for preparing such budget impact statements, then re-casting this passive in the active voice along the lines of, “[Agencies required to take action under this Act] shall determine the budgetary effects of compliance by reference to . . . .” Here, not only would the active voice replacement shift the focus and require some non-plain language maneuvering to properly identify the subject, but the full wording of Section 7 of the Act with its necessary parenthetical references is best cast in the passive voice, yet another of the numerous acceptable passive voice instances recognized by style authorities.

Don’t overlook the Act’s Section (3)(2)(C), which exempts from the Act any “regulation.” I’ll swing back around to that territory in some distant future page of this long and winding post. Suffice it here to point out that I find absolutely no irony nor impropriety nor hypocrisy in the Act’s own language using the passive voice for several of its provisions. For one thing, as I’ve briefly pointed out, the use of passive voice is quite acceptable — to the point of being exclusively so — in each of the Act’s provisions in which the passive voice is used. On the flip side, and I won’t go into detail here, but careful reading of the rest of the Act clearly demonstrates that in instances in which the passive voice was not as urgently needed as in the three provisions listed here, the Act expressed its requirements in the active voice, although many if not all of those other provisions could have been expressed in a passive voice. As I see it, the Act’s drafters followed their own requirement of plain language with respect to the use of passive voice, in that the passive voice was used when it was appropriate to do so, while the active voice was used when the passive voice was not necessary. A good model to lead the charge it set out to lead. Sadly, in the case of passive voice, its own leadership seems to have too quickly been overlooked or ignored or abandoned.

[Further comment pending on the Plain Writing Act . . . ]

Federal Plain Language Guidelines

[Further comment pending on the Plain Writing Act . . . ]

Plain Language Agency by Agency

U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual

By other legislation, Congress authorized the U.S. Government Printing Office to determine the form and style of Government printing. Although a great reference for many governmental style issues, the U.S. GPO Style Manual is silent on the matter of passive voice.


//] - 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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