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Passive Resistance

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Placing Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) side by side with the editorial changes suggested by misguided governmental editors, one gets a sense of the childhood game of Whisper Down the Lane, especially in the instance of use of passive voice. Legislators who enacted plain language law seem to have had a vague familiarity with Garner’s authoritative reference. Bureaucrats who then drafted comprehensive governmental plain language guidelines then showed signs of knowing how to footnote scattered pages of Garner, too frequently without sign of having gained much expertise in Garner’s authoritative advice. Individual agencies then appear to have mimicked selected pieces of the general guidelines, without any sign of having even glanced at Garner. Editors then stray from even those muddled guidelines. The end result shows no sign of Garner’s leadership. Nor any sign of a sound understanding of the legitimacy of the passive voice.

Let’s remind them of what Garner’s authoritative source reference has to say about 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.”

      Garner, p.613

Let’s repeat again what Garner has to say about the passive voice, since governmental editors seem to have skipped that page. Or think themselves exempt. Or don’t realize that in the context of most applicable official writing, “spoil” doesn’t merely the writing ineligible for a Pulitzer; it can actually render the document ineffective, unintelligible, even wrong. So once again, as Garner points out regarding use of passive voice, “There’s no absolute prohibition against it—and anyone who tries carrying out such a prohibition would spoil a piece of writing.”

Garner lists six situations in which “you’ll want the passive” — not “you can put up with”; rather, directly countering those who act as though active voice is universally perferred (or, as they would want me to say, “those who act as though the zombie should always prefer the active voice”). Notice that even Garner does not describe his six preferred-passive situations as an exclusive set; rather, he lists six particular situations that he describes as being “[a]mong the times” when passive is preferred, clearly suggesting that there exist other times when passive is not only acceptable, but the voice that the writer would actually want.

Moreover, even that incomplete list comprise, according to Garner, “about 15% to 20% of the contexts in which the passive appears.” Remember, Garner’s authoritative text on style is aimed at a broad range of writing that includes everything from poetry (in which poorly-used passive has that same effect despised by active-voice activists) and speculative fiction all the way through to laws and official documents. And this 15% to 20% of situations where he would rule the passive voice to be the proper and preferred voice are far less likely to be found in a good novel or in a newspaper editorial. So if that one side of the full range of writing finds his six listed passive situations more rare, almost non-existent, do we need an actuary to demonstrate that we don’t get 15% to 20% for an overall ratio without finding it more than likely and quite reasonable and even rather natural that official governmental documents will be seeing these six situations in well over 20% of the situations where the passive voice has traditionally been found quite legitimate. Not only are government editors skipping over Garner’s complete advice about passive, but quite possibly they don’t realize they’re skipping over advice that aims quite pointedly in their direction.

Garner’s Six Preferred Passives

Garner lists these without elaboration or example, so I’ll quote directly, then return to each of his six situations elsewhere in my own discussion within this post.

“Among the times you’ll want the passive in a given sentence are these:

  • When the actor is unimportant.
  • When the actor is unknown.
  • When you want to hide the actor’s identity.
  • When you need to put the punch word at the end of the sentence.
  • When the focus of the passage is on the thing being acted upon.
  • When the passive voice simply sounds better.”

And permit me to quote Garner’s conclusion after he lists these six instances and had noted the rather nonmaterial percentage of instances in which those six do arise. Take careful note that this is the only place where Garner suggests a preference for the active voice. Yet active-voice activists who like to rely on Garner – for instance governmental plain-English editors – tout a blanket preference for active voice as if ignoring Garner’s second clause in his conclusion (for which I’ve taken the liberty to add emphasis here, since it apparently didn’t make it past the government editors’ strike-out) —

“That means you ought to have a presumption against the passive, unless it falls into one of the categories just listed.” [emphasis added, for good reason]

Far far so very far from the government editors who think Garner says “Never use passive.” Almost as far from those who think the rule is “Active is always preferred,” forgetting that Garner has pointed identified upwards of 20% of situations – quite like, a far greater proportion for technical writing – in which without qualification he has told us that active-voice presumption does not apply. And remembering that with Garner’s legal background, he doesn’t use words like “presumption” lightly, he is not merely saying “Presume active until found passive;” rather, for these listed instances, he clearly intends the presumption to be for the passive. Garner never gives a blanket preference for active, then leaving these six to be a matter of exceptions to the rule; rather the rule itself is that any preference for active voice applies to content other than these six that he has identified.

That is, the order for editorial procedure ought not be “1 Presume active, then 2 Ignore step 3 at will, but then 3 See if any of the passive-voice situations apply, and 4 Even if step 3 has been applied, use active voice anyway,” which apparently is how governmental editors are reading their arbitrary selections from Garner; rather, Garner’s conclusion quite clearly suggests the appropriate editorial procedure to be “1 Identify if the sentence qualifies as one of the known situations in which passive is wanted; and if not, only then 2 Give preference (although even then not an absolute rule) to the active.”

Double Passive

Of particular interest to the governmental editor out to have been Garner giving further attention to double passives. If plain English out to eradicate the passive voice as completely as some teaching assistants and professors and editors are bent on achieving, then this section of Garner’s text ought to have been tritely short, having him scoff something along the lines of, “Since passive is to be banned, double passive is damned to the lowest of all hells.” Indeed, given how it seems governmental editors must have skimmed over the rest of Garner’s advice about passive voice without getting the point, it would not be at all surprising if this section of Garner’s book has been left completely unread by plain-English officials.

Lo and behold, we find the following in Garner’s authoritative guide —

“A few double passives are defensible . . . .”

And what is particularly is that the example of a defensible double passive comes from none other than a quote from an official governmental document! Hello.

To be sure, Garner does rather effectively spear offensive uses of double passive. But first, let it not escape notice that the examples given in Garner’s guide in which a double passive ought be edited are narrative illustrations such as would be found in a news report or a novel or in historical non-fiction, all as contrasted with his “defensible” illustration drawn from official legal writing.

Second, editors who would ban active voice altogether ought take notice that Garner switches the double-passive to a double-active only when any intermediate edit is in his words “un-English.” Except for sentences where such “un-English” expressions are encountered, Garner is quite comfortable converting only one of the double passives to active voice, leaving the other passive intact. Good thing for him that he never published his book after having it edited by government officials. But Garner was only being consistent – in each of his examples, the passive that he left intact qualified for one of his six instances for which he called passive voice wanted, so there he would never had presumed the active voice to be preferred.


//] - 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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