Monday, August 27, 2007

Active. Bloody. Voice. Damn it.

The following post may not be entirely useful for people studying the sciences. Science papers have their own rules and conventions, and many of my scientist acquaintances have remarked that their professors encourage them to write almost entirely in the passive voice. Others insist that this convention is changing. Scientists: check with your profs.

Humanities students:

You use the passive voice too much. Yes, you. Yes, you do. It's hard to blame you; passivity can be useful at times, and to discount it entirely is to remove a certain richness from the English language. However, that is no real excuse for your blatant overuse of it. An essay that relies heavily on the passive will seem uncertain and sometimes unclear. You need to learn to stick with the active voice as much as you can.

Before I go on, a clarification may be in order:

"Passive voice" and "past tense" are not synonymous.

That's right, Person Who Carefully Went Through All His Papers and Changed the Passive Constructions to the Present Tense: "voice" and "tense" are different things altogether, as, not incidentally, are "passive" and "past." If you're writing a literature paper, you should be writing in the present tense anyway.* Here, in case you're still confused, is an illustration of the difference:

Past tense:

John built the store.

John's little adventure with the store occurred in the past. The past singular third-person form of the verb "to build" is "built." The present singular third-person form would be "builds." Elementary, my dear Watson.

The above sentence is in the active voice. It contains a subject (John), a verb (built), and a direct object (the store). The subject is acting on the object.

Passive voice:

The store was built (by John).

It doesn't matter when John built (or builds or will build) the store. "The store will be built (by John)" is still a passive construction. The "by John" is optional; the sentence makes grammatical sense without it, though it sounds a bit stupid. Here the sentence starts with an acted-upon object (the store) and is followed by a verb phrase (was built). The subject is implied.** If the "by John" is included, the subject is stated, though as part of a prepositional phrase. The order of the sentence is thus twisted on its head. The object is given the place of prominence; the subject is erased or rendered incidental.

An Internet personage named Stefan has pointed out in the comments section below that intransitive verbs (verbs that don't take direct objects) are less likely to appear in passive constructions than transitive verbs. This comment merits a bit of explanation.

"To build" is solely a transitive verb. It needs to take a direct object; "John built" is not a complete sentence. "To drink" can be either transitive or intransitive. "John drank" (intransitive: no object necessary) is a complete sentence, but so is, "John drank the water" (transitive: object required). The sentence "John drank from the stream" employs the intransitive sense of this verb, and it can thus only take an indirect object. "To go" is an intransitive verb. "John went the store" is nonsensical; the verb needs a following preposition. "John went to the store" includes an indirect object ("to the store").

[Note to Stephanie, whose comment below led me to revise the above paragraph: I actually think the rules must be slightly different in English and French. I'm not sure that English has such a thing as an indirect transitive. I've certainly never heard the term before, though that may not mean anything. I'm not infallible, you know! I get stuff wrong and then have to pretend I was being edgy! I can't do long division! My socks all have holes in them! I shall never learn to play the bagpipes!

Moving along...]

To use an intransitive verb in a passive construction is possible but discouraged, as it makes the resulting sentence unnecessarily convoluted and involves a dangling preposition. This sentence--

The store was gone to (by John).

--is functional but very awkward. I'll discuss dangling prepositions at some point in the future, but for now, I'll just advise you to avoid them. Try not to let your prepositions hang off the ends of your sentences; make sure that they always have objects to take.

Experimental scientists tend to like the passive because it allows them to avoid using the word "I" all the time and thus gives them a way to make their papers sound less subjective. However, experimental scientists are often writing process essays; they are describing how they (or others) have accomplished certain experiments. Students of literature, history, and philosophy should never be in danger of writing something such as:

I analysed this poem by opening my book and running my finger slowly along each line. I noted important words, including "heart" and "chicken"; I also determined that the first three verses were written in iambic pentameter and the fourth in dactylic hexameter.

If I had to mark an essay written in this fashion, I would probably eat it.***

Humanities essays are not process papers. The reader assumes that the writer is engaged in the process of analysis; any explanation of the finer details of the analysis itself is unnecessary. There is therefore no real danger of overuse of the "I." Overuse of the passive, however, is still a problem.

Look at the following passage:

The poem is written in blank verse. In the second stanza, it is implied that the narrator is a parakeet, as bird imagery can be seen throughout. A sly allusion to the structure of the Parthenon is also hinted at.



Who has written the poem in blank verse? The poet? The audience? Fairies? Who implies that the narrator is a parakeet? Bird imagery can be seen by whom? Who hints at the goddamn allusion to the structure of the Parthenon? Why is nobody doing anything in this passage? Where are the actors, for crying out loud?

The main problem with the passive construction is that it eliminates the actor, leaving only the action and the acted upon. Even a passive construction that includes a "by John" sort of element is shoving the actor to the outskirts of the sentence; it is also unnecessarily convoluted.**** By failing to mention the actor, you are once again expecting your readers to do all your work for you. Be clear and concise. The above passage would be less vague and meandering if it read:

Geoffrey Rathers writes the poem in blank verse. In the second stanza, he uses subtle bird imagery to imply that the narrator is a parakeet; he also hints that he is alluding to the structure of the Parthenon.

The passage still doesn't make any damned sense, and I would still blast any student who wrote it for not explaining how Rathers has alluded to the structure of the Parthenon.***** However, grammatically, it is much clearer. Note that though the two passages are almost exactly the same length, the second actually seems shorter; it has fewer stops and starts, and its sentences are rather more straightforward.

The passive voice is not always a bad thing. I use it quite often in informal writing and even occasionally in formal papers; sometimes, there simply isn't an actor. However, do try to eliminate it from your writing. Once you have mastered writing without it, you can allow it to creep back. Yet for now, practise stamping it out. Too much passivity will have your markers screaming in frustration and scrawling, "BY WHOM?" in your margins, and no wonder. Don't. Erase. The actor. The actor is your friend. Embrace the actor. Give him chocolate. Let him act.

You may have noticed that the original passage above also contains an expletive ("it is implied"). Expletives often act much like passive constructions in that they eliminate the actor. Who implies it? Kill your expletives too.

The next post will probably be much longer than this one. It will deal with postwriting, the most neglected and possibly the most vital portion of the writing process.

*And not slewing back and forth and back and forth and back and bloody forth from the present to the past. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn't know by now that it is silly, grammatically and structurally, to change tense in the middle of a freaking sentence for no particular reason. Stop doing it.
**"The subject is implied" is itself a passive construction. Actually, much of this paragraph is passive. However, the example is general; there is no actor here.
***Without salt, even.
****Why write, "The poem was written by Charlton Heston" when you can write, "Charlton Heston wrote the poem"? Of course, Charlton Heston probably didn't write the poem, as Charlton Heston seems more like the sort of guy who believes in his heart that poetry is for jumped-up nancy boys, but you get the general idea.
*****Whatever the hell that even means.


Stefan said...

Sorry to be nitpicking, and maybe English is less restricted, but still... This is your example:

"The store was gone to (by John)."

I seem to remember that the passive voice can only be applied to transitive verbs (i.e. verbs that take an object, like "to build"). "To go" is not transitive, and can therefore not be used in the passive voice.

Kem said...

Okay, you caught me; it's not a good example. Perhaps "The store was built by John" would have been better here. However, it's not entirely true that intransitive verbs can't be used in the passive voice; it's probably safer to say that they are horribly ugly and awkward in the passive, and that they cause hideous dangling prepositions. This sordid truth does not stop people from using intransitive passive constructions. I'm pretty sure I've come across "The text can be looked at as..." before.

Nevertheless...I could have chosen a better example, and I shall go back and change it. Thanks for pointing it out. People reading these comments should note that Stefan is referring to a Kem-induced idiocy that no longer exists in the guide.

Stephanie said...

I only discovered this blog a few days ago so pardon my commenting on a post that was written quite a few months back...
I think there is a confusion about transitive and intransitive verbs in this post. Note that what I know about transitive and intransitive verbs I learnt from French grammar.
To me an intransitive verb is one that admits no object, whereas a transitive verb can be either a direct transitive (no preposition is required between the verb and the object) or an indirect transitive (a preposition is required).
But in English you have these wonderful things called phrasal verbs, which probably make this issue a lot more complicated than I realise.
In any case, thanks Kem for this tremendously satisfying blog!

Kem said...

Stephanie: Yeah, you're right. I think I must have been on crack, albeit only metaphorically, when I wrote that paragraph. I shall change it now. Thanks for pointing out the stupidity.

Kem said...

A further note: I think the problem was not that I was wrong but that I was a little vague. As I now note in square brackets above, English and French may differ in this case. It's really too bad, as a lot of Canadians learn their English grammar in French class.

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