Passive

From The Jolly Contrarian
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Towards more picturesque speechTM

George Orwell on plain English | SEC guidance on plain English Plain English Anatomy Noun | Verb | Adjective | Adverb | Preposition | Conjunction | Latin | Germany | Flannel | Legal triplicate | Nominalisation | Murder your darlings

In a magnificent piece of irony, here is what Dr. Eva Dabrowska of Northumbria University has to say about 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.”[1]

The passive is a voice beloved of lawyers and scientists — but not, despite her best efforts to the contrary, Dr. Dabrowska — which saps even the most energetic sentence of its joie de vivre; along the way obscuring responsibility for action, depersonalising and sterilising whatever meat there may have been on the bones of your sentence.

To be sure, at times where one should use the passive (if you can’t identify the antagonist, or if doing so might give offence), but generally a passive sentence is longer, flatter and duller than its active equivalent.

Plain English Anatomy Noun | Verb | Adjective | Adverb | Preposition | Conjunction | Latin | Germany | Flannel | Legal triplicate | Nominalisation | Murder your darlings

References

  1. Or, 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.