Passive is spoken here

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Apr 21 17:19:28 UTC 2005

from the Chronicle of Higher Education
>>From the issue dated April 22, 2005

Passive Is Spoken Here

Silver spoons, real ones anyway, owe a lot of their charm to the hallmarks
on the back of the stem. Academic writing has its own system of
validation, its own hallmarks, and one is the passive voice. This is a
strange development, considering how vigilant we are about overuse of the
passive when we teach writing, and how insistent writing guides can be on
this point. "Whenever you come across a passive in your writing, recast
the sentence with an active verb instead." The examples tend to feature
painful structures followed by why-didn't-I-think-of-that transformations.
"When the book had been read by the class, the next lesson was presented
by the teacher" becomes "When the students had read the book, the teacher
presented the lesson." Yet it's difficult to convince academic writers
that avoiding the passive is a piece of advice meant for them.

In weak academic writing, passives are everywhere. (I might have said
"passives are frequently used," but I wanted an active verb here.) If you
were reading a poorly written letter or a grade-school composition, you
might think that the writer simply didn't have sufficient command to write
in direct and vivid terms. He might even have been aware of his
limitations, embarrassed by the idea of expressing his opinion in a naked
way, and taking refuge behind the curtain of the passive.

By the time a graduate has waded into the thick of a Ph.D. program and is
toiling on the dissertation, the student's printer has spit out a lot of
term papers. By that point, unlearned writing lessons have become writing
habits, and those habits have, in turn, become his characteristic way of
expressing ideas. He has grown used to -- even fond of -- them. (I find it
unsurprisingly easy to view the weaknesses in my own writing as being part
of my style.) For graduate students, however, more is at stake. Years of
abusing the passive have encouraged those students to believe that the
passive is, after all, the voice of academe. "So," the new scholar
reasons, "if this is how the scholarly world speaks -- or rather, if this
is the language spoken in the scholarly world -- then that's the way I'll
write my first book." And lo, thus is the book written.

The passive voice does two things at once, and those two things at first
seem contradictory. First, the passive conceals agency, or responsibility
for action. "The overthrow of the country's tottering regime was
undertaken by the forces of the Army of Liberation in the late spring of
1963." Let's let that Army take responsibility for its actions: "Late in
the spring of 1963 the Army of Liberation overthrew the country's
tottering regime." Suddenly, the Army of Liberation did it.

There's concealment at work here, too. The passive construction distances
the writer from the act of making a statement. Take away the passive, and
the writer -- like the Army of Liberation -- has suddenly done something
of consequence: He's made a declaration. He's said something. You don't
have to be an expert in linguistics to know that this is not the same
thing as "something was said." But too many dissertations are written in
an imaginary world where objects have things done to them and countries
are invaded, characters are depicted while results are secured. It's not
that the passive is a criminal offense for writers. There are plenty of
places where passive constructions feel right. (Use them there.) Prose
stripped entirely of passives can feel overly energetic, like a
kindergarten class at recess. "Calm down!" you want to say. Of course,
it's important to draw a distinction between writing with the passive
voice and writing in the passive voice. In the first case, the writer uses
the passive when it's necessary. In control of her prose, she enjoys the
way the passive voice lends variety to her sentences, yet she remains the
boss in her own paragraphs. On the other hand, someone who writes in the
passive hopes no one will notice that she's there. The passive is a cozy
place to hide.

Writing can be like going through customs. "Anything to declare?" asks a
flinty-eyed customs officer. Most people rely on a cheerful smile and a
shake of the head, hoping there won't be any questions about the extra
bottle of wine or the embroidered tablecloth. Most academic writing hopes
to slither through customs. Instead of a smile, scholarly writers too
often depend on the passive, fearful that a direct statement might open
them to equally direct inspection.

Yet strangely, the second thing the passive voice does for academic
writing is to claim authority. It's an authority based not on accumulated
research or the wisdom of experience, at least not in the case of most
dissertations, but on an appeal to the power of passivity. To use the
passive is to call up the authority of one's discipline and the scholars
who have gone before. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do this, but
the passive can't get you there all by itself. Academic writers --
particularly young academic writers -- use the passive to lend credibility
to their writing. "Domestic arrangements in 16th-century Lancashire
households were often made by the eldest daughter." Domestic arrangements
are in charge of this sentence, while the writer's point appears to be
that the eldest daughter of the household looked after things. In its
Olympian calm, the passive asserts -- even demands -- that the reader

Nevertheless, this sentence is nervous about its own claims, as the
telltale word "often" makes clear. Was the eldest daughter in charge or
wasn't she? Is the writer making an important and original claim about
family relationships or just serving up someone else's research nugget? If
it's an original idea, it's too compressed to be clear, too wimpy to be
convincing. A bit better: "My research reveals the surprising fact that
the eldest daughter was responsible for domestic arrangements in most
16th-century Lancashire households." ("Most" is quantitative and useful
here; "often" is a fudge.) If it's someone else's thought and worth
paraphrasing, the point needs sharpening. "As Henry Pismire has pointed
out, in almost half the 16th-century Lancashire households for which we
have records, the eldest daughter was responsible for domestic
arrangements." Better because clearer.

The active voice should be a kind of scholarly credo: I did research, I
drew conclusions, I found this out. That's rarely what we get. How much
more often do we read that research is conducted, conclusions are drawn,
findings are found out? I sometimes imagine a scholar sitting down with a
great idea, then staring at his laptop and exclaiming "Are you crazy? You
can't say that -- " and clicking the toolbar to call up
Active-Voice-Replace, instantly turning every "I found" into "It was

The passive is a buffer, not only between the reader and the writer, but
between the writer and her own ideas. I wonder if anyone experiences the
world as a series of passive engagements. ("Yesterday, as the garden path
was being trod by my feet, a beautiful butterfly was seen by my eye."
Which sounds like a case for Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Academic writing often
places the reader in just such a world, one where no feet cross any paths,
no eye sees any butterfly. It's particularly critical for young scholars
to understand that all this bother about the passive voice isn't simply a
matter of making sentences lively, peppy, or more engaging. Yes, the
active voice is stronger. Readers listen more attentively because they can
hear another human trying to engage their attention. But for scholars, the
active-passive conundrum should be so much more. The active voice says "I
have something to say, and I'm going to say it. If I'm wrong, argue with
me in print. But take me at my worth."

Dickens opens David Copperfield with a question that arrests me each time
I come across it. "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,
or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must
show." He even uses a passive. And he gives us one of the Big Lessons,
smack on the first page. All writing -- even the humble dissertation -- is
always about the writer. Even in scholarly work, a writer is very much
present, more subtly than in Nabokov or Beckett, perhaps, but present
nonetheless. Every scholar, even the graduate student writing a
dissertation, should strive to be the hero of her or his own work, taking
command not only of the details but of the voice that presents them,
knowing when to appear and when to step aside, how to attract the reader's
attention and how to deflect it. In doing so, the scholarly writer becomes
responsible for what "these pages must show," a world of causality and
motivation where arguments are logical and evidence is clearly presented,
a world where nouns noun and verbs verb.

To make writing work, you need to make the parts of writing -- including
the bossy, self-denying passive voice -- work for you. If your scholarly
project was worth writing, it's because you found a path you had to
follow, and on the way you came upon something you want to tell others
about. Do that. And just be glad you never had to read a poem that began
"Arms and the man are being sung by me" or a novel that opened "Ishmael is
what I'm called."

William Germano is vice president and publishing director at Routledge.
This essay is adapted from From Dissertation to Book, being published this
month by the University of Chicago Press.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 33, Page B20


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