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The JC’s guide to writing nice.™

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/ˈpæsɪv/ (adj.)

Grammar: A voice of verbs in which the subject is the one sinn’d against, rather than the one sinning, as it would be in the “active” voice. “I am sinn’d against”: passive. “I am sinning”: active.

Children are — well, when the JC was in short pants were, at any rate; things are doubtlessly softer now — forced into passives for formal prose — when writing up scientific experiments for Biology homework, for example — and our theory is that this has elided into the idea that the passive voice is somehow better, more precise and even more technically correct. But the opposite is true: only when using the passive can one avoid mentioning the “actor”. This is handy in one notable case: when the actor was you and the action was a fuck-up.

Why is it the standard means of writing in science? The enlightenment programme was to describe the universe as it is, unmediated by the peering eye and the meddling hand of homo sapiens. This is not about you, scientists. This approach had some naïve appeal, in the industrial revolution, but the more quantum-entagled we get the less plausible is the idea that one can observe the natural world without changing it. So we should just admit it: the experiment did not convene itself: it was the scientist’s pre-existing hypothesis that the scientist set out to test. The passive voice, that is to say, is disingenuous.

Why you should avoid it

The passive is not only disingenuous, imprecise and prone to omit key information (who did it) — and for fans of elegant prose it saps even the most energetic sentence of its joie de vivre; along the way depersonalising and sterilising whatever meat there may have been on the bones of the sentence — and replacing that meat with guff.

To be sure, there are times where you should use the passive voice (if you can’t identify the antagonist, or if doing so might give offence), but generally passives are longer, flatter and duller than their active equivalents.

In a magnificent piece of irony, here is what Dr. Eva Dabrowska, of Northumbria University, has to say about people who overuse the passive tense:

Our results show that a proportion of people with low educational attainment make errors with understanding the passive, and it appears that this and other important areas of core grammar may not be fully mastered by some speakers, even by adulthood. These findings could have a number of implications. If a significant proportion of the population does not understand passive sentences, then notices and other forms of written information may have to be rewritten and literacy strategies changed.”

To translate for people with “low educational attainment”:

“Our results show that some uneducated people don't understand the passive and struggle with basic grammar, even as adults. This may mean we have to rethink how we communicate with a mass audience.