Sunday, April 26, 2009

What's wrong with the passive voice?

“Strunk and White said so” is not a sure-fire defense in a style argument.

SaysGrammar Girl  in a piece for the NYTimes on the anniversary of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." I used to do that back in high school when I first began to use it but I've mellowed down since. I still read it from time to time, like most of the other people in the NYT special, but tend to use my own style in writing. 

I think Strunk and White's value is in erasing almost all traces of style, leaving one with an almost-blank state to begin with. As long as one remembers that language and the rules of grammar aren't set in stone (and even stone crumbles and weathers after a while), using the book is fine. 

Just don't quote it like a (or worse, THE) bible of writing style. 


7 comments:

themadengineer said...

Personally, I love the passive voice. It always gives me an impression of a dispassionate, "I'm trying to be objective" tone to it.
I think people dislike the passive voice because it's vague and sort of evasive, and reminds them of attempts to weasel out of things.

missingpoints said...

When writing advertising copy you're advised to avoid the passive voice. Anyway, there's a time and place for everything and a blanket condemnation of a style can't be right.

More importantly, the text of Strunk and White uses the passive voice a lot.

TheCoolCanadian said...

Passive voice can be very useful, even powerful – if used to emphasize something at the end of a sentence. The reader will always remember the last thing mentioned in a sentence, so why not. It may not have "life" and "movement" like what we get from an active voice, but variety is the spice of life, so what the hell? Same thing with fragments. They can really add panache to one's writing, just don't overdo it.

And here's a kicker: Norman Lewis, author of Better English, now concedes that the use of THEIR to modify a singular subject IS NOW OKAY! WTF? Just because north Americans are too lazy to use the right agreement, we all have to agree?

• SOMEONE left THEIR umbrella in the park.

I'm not a right winger but I just can't agree with Mr Lewis on this one. No, no, no, nooo!

missingpoints said...

I'm a Filipino so we speak a slightly different form of english. I think we use THEIR the same way too.

TheCoolCanadian said...

But, Mr. Lewis' justification that if the speaker uses He or She, it might end up not politically correct since the tendency is to use HE instead of SHE most of the time. You know, men's dominance over women.

I just wonder if he also agrees with the horrible:

• "Where's my pants?" (not unless your pant is only made for one leg)
• "I need two coffees, please!" (Is it difficult to include the word TWO CUPS OF COFFEE)
• "If I was a king" (this is a killer. What the hell happened to the SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD)
• "Fresh Baked cookies" (What? An adjective modifying another adjective? Does anyone remembers what an ADVERB is)

I was shock to find out as well that Tagalog speakers now just say: TAS for TAPOS. When I left Manila in 1981, people never said: "Oo naman". There was no "naman" after "oo". Then, I keep reading people writing: "Bale kapatid ko siya!" Why would it be "bale"? Your kapatid is your kapatid, not PARANG KAPATID like when one says BALE KAPATID.

Man, I could go on but I don't want to irk you. I notice you're rather cool and a man of few words. I am a man of few words as well because I truly believe in brevity of expression, but I blabber when I'm annoyed ;)

Bear with me :(

missingpoints said...

Language is constantly evolving. The meanings of words, as well as syntax, change over time.

Have you read Leslie Savan's "Slam Dunks and No Brainers"? It's a nice look into pop language, not so much slang as it is catchphrases.

Today in Manila you'll hear people paying jeepney fare saying "Bayad NGA po," which irks me.

TheCoolCanadian said...

"Bayad NGA po," which irks me.

-Ha-ha-ha! GRRRRRR!