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In Defense of the Passive

August 19, 2013

In the second of a two-part article on passive voice, Stu Allan and Professor Kon Kuiper examine the arguments against passive and when writers should and shouldn’t use passives.” (p.8) They argue that “claims of some inherent relationship between passives and bureaucratese flow from shonky analysis” (p.8) It’s an interesting article – and an amusing one – that takes a close look at the ‘how’ of effective use of the passive voice.

They assert: “Many awkward sentences aren’t awkward because they use passives: they’re awkward because they’re wordy, clumsy, or pretentious. Some passives are vague, ambiguous, or even deceitful, and give the construction a bad name.
However, most passives are chosen for legitimate rhetorical purposes, persisting in our grammar despite teachers and style guide writers’ efforts to persuade writers they’re useless. These efforts have little basis in linguistic theory, and rarely is there more than passing mention of the important role that passives play in communication.
In fact, the passive is widespread because it is a useful variable. Passives often fulfil important functions such as avoiding naming the agent, emphasising the action receiver, softening the information, and facilitating the development of ideas.
When these functions are performed positively, passives enable writers to effectively communicate different perspectives.” (p.12)

When the passive should be used

According to Allan and Kuiper, reasons to choose the passive include (I am quoting from their table on p.9):

  1. The active subject is unknown.
  2. The active subject is self-evident.
  3. There may be a special reason (tact or delicacy) for not mentioning the active subject.
  4. There is a greater interest in the passive than the active subject.
  5. It may facilitate the connection of one part of the sentence with another.
  6. To contribute to an authoritative style.
  7. To make an assertion vague.

“The answer to why passives resist lies in the tools that languages evolve to communicate nuances of information. Commonly, languages have a range of tools, but the relatively small number of tools in English gives passive an especially important role as a rhetorical device.” (p.10) “Active and passive voice enables a shift in our interpretation of the event….” (p.10)

Mistakes have been made

“…much of passives’ bad press is undeserved. However, that isn’t always the case, especially with regard to some short passives, which provide incomplete information by omitting to tell the reader who or what the agent is. The classic example came from President Reagan: 
“Mistakes have been made.”
When Reagan made this statement about an illegal armaments trade, he avoided stating whether the country, the government, the military, or Reagan himself had made the mistakes. We assume the omission of the agent was conscious and purposeful. Steven Pinker calls this statement an evasion of responsibility. Many people would regard Reagan’s statement as unethical and deceitful, and a passive was the tool used to deceive.” (p.10)

However, sometimes omitting the agent is simply intellectual laziness – an appeal to some unspecified authority, as in the passives it is known or is understood or is thought. Julia Stanley distinguishes between suppressed and deleted agents, noting that when suppressed the agent is deliberately omitted to strengthen the argument, that is, the agent is known to the writer but isn’t communicated to the reader for unethical reasons.
Whether we suppress or delete the agent, we might review our reason for doing so and check that we’ve good reason for not naming the agent.” (p.11)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Stu Allan and Kon Kuiper (2011) Passive Be Damned Part 2: Passive Resistance, Southern Communicator Issue 24, October, pp.8-12

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