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Passive Resistance

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Fowler’s Usage Guidance on the Passive Voice

“…and the agent is (in this case) preceded by by.”

       —Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed.)

Can’t help but chuckle at Fowler’s introduction to “passive territory,” using the passive voice in a clause in which the agent “by” is preceded by “by” to describe that in the passive voice the agent is frequently preceded by by. Clearly, a fitting prelude not to be greeted by us with a byebye.

But if Fowler sounds like too much fun to be of any value, read on. Quite noticably, Fowler avoids giving the point blank general rule of thumb suggested by too many editors who aim to mindlessly eliminate passive voice. Instead, Fowler gives us some of the best counsel advanced by any style guide —

  • Constraints — Far too many modern style guides simply point to active voice as the preference without any attention whatsoever to the fact that clear constraints apply to either voice —
    • Constraints Against Passive Voice — For many statements expressed in the active voice, there exists no natural passive equivalent. When the noun in the subject performs the action that is the verb, and when that is the essence of what is being communicated, attempting to use the passive voice does sound quite lame.
      • Fowler’s first restriction against passive is given by illustration: the natural active voice “she combed her hair” ought not be replaced with the notional passive version, “her hair was combed by her.” One of the reasons I like Fowler’s discussion of passive voice usage so much is that he doesn’t simply leave the matter there, merely providing a sample pair of active-vs-passive then letting the writer accept it as obvious that a constraint against the notional passive exists. Rather, he explains why”since the pronoun she cannot idiomatically be converted into by her in such circumstances….” Quite true. Indeed, it would not surprise me that if a full grammatical taxonomy were to be constructed for passive voice abuse (as far as I’ve seen in any style guides I’ve visited so far, no such taxonomy has been set forth, except as implied in Fowler’s discussion), then I suspect that the majority of passive voice violations are of this type. But permit me to add to Fowler, to suggest that editors who thoughtlessly damn any and all passive voice are overlooking Fowler’s qualification “in such circumstances,” a clear implication being that there are circumstances even for very similar statements for which the agent can be idiomatically converted. Let’s stay with the hair, for instance. A writer whose main focus is the hair style, rather than the stylist, might quite reasonably write, “Her hair was combed by a substitute who had barely graduated from fashion school, since her normal stylist had been hospitalized by a traffic accident.” Yes, that opening clause in the passive voice can be re-stated in the active voice, but it is not constricted from the passive voice and has good cause to remain in the passive.
      • Fowler’s second restriction against passive is also given by illustration: “she had a nice laugh.” Fowler doesn’t give the awkward passive version, but it would go something like a nice laugh was had by her. But again, Fowler doesn’t merely leave the constraint to the imagination, rather explains, “since have is one of several verbs (to lack, to own, etc.) representing a continuing state of affairs not a single act.” But again, I’ll add to Fowler, suggesting that reasonable exceptions to this constraint do exist. For instance, writing “a good time was had by one and all” is not only quite acceptable, but is to be preferred over having an editor force revision to the active voice version, “one and all had a good time.
    • Constraints Against Active Voice — (Oh, I can’t even step further into this territory without a chortle!—far too many editors act as though oblivious to the clear fact that anti-active constraints do in fact exist!) Fowler points out that “some verbs can only be used only in the passive voice.” Hear hear! Oh and, dear editors, Fowler’s use of the passive to state that constaint ought not be overlooked. Sure, we could edit that to the active version — “only the passive voice can be used for some verbs” — but for reasons give by other passive territory usage guidance, Fowler’s expression here is to be preferred. And given his example of a verb that requires passive voice (“the creek was reputed to contain blackfish“), I can’t resist extending Fowler’s advice by pointing out that “some verbs are reputed to indicate actions that can only be expressed only in the passive voice.” There!—double passive!! Alright, granted, that does stretch the point far enough to maybe merit an editor’s scowl, but it is quite definitely not improper usage; indeed, we won’t read too much further in Fowler without encountering double passives. And any attempt to convert mine here to an active voice version will wind up either losing some of the sentence’s important information and intention, sounding more stupid than the worst passive voice violation, or require far more verbage than can be quite appropriately expressed in the passive voice. Or perhaps these anti-passive editors wish to also eliminate such verbs from English?

    Fowler’s discussion of constraints adds a paragraph discussing distinctions that have arisen between spoken usage versus written usage for the natural passive verbs. I’ll come back around to that in due course. Suffice it for now to point out that as much as any of the rest of his discussion of passive voice, that paragraph commends his guide to writers, since I’ve seen no other usage guide that shows any sign of having so complete and accurate a grasp of the matter.

  • Scientifically Passive
  • Double Passive
  • Semi-Passives
  • “She was given a watch”
  • Passive of “avail oneself of”
  • Impersonal Passive

I can’t leave this page of this post without observing that as far-reaching as Fowler’s incursion into “passive territory” is, further comments can be added, as I’ve been doing and will continue to do on other pages in this post. For one thing, Fowler’s own discussion includes some characterizations that suggest areas left unmapped (for instance his reference to “such circumstances” in his discussion of constraints, suggesting other circumstances for which the lines might be drawn differently). And for instance, as I discussed early on in this post, passive voice is quite acceptable and almost universally adopted for copyright notices and disclaimers. Yet I’m not certain exactly where that region of passive voice exists within Fowler’s “passive territory.”


//] - 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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