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On Writing Well About Passives

passives

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is very helpful to budding writers. But looking at the scraps of grammatically-based advice in Chapter 10, called “Bits & Pieces,” I was astonished at how downright silly some of the statements are. The above remark about passives is one of them.

The reference to comfort level is a bit mysterious: A reader who is not qualified to choose between actives and passives won’t know what’s “comfortable” and what’s not in this domain. But what does Zinsser himself regard as comfortable? Let’s look at the first words in the introduction (on Page ix), assuming this is representative:

One of the pictures hanging in my office in mid-Manhattan is a photograph of the writer E.B. White. It was taken by Jill Krementz when White was 77 years old, at his home in North Brooklin, Maine.

Hmm. That second sentence is a passive clause. Was there really “no comfortable way to get around” crafting it? Why not “Jill Krementz took it when White was 77 years old”? Nothing ungrammatical or infelicitous or awkward about that. Why didn’t Zinsser follow his own advice?

Now, I’m not in any way suggesting he should have. His passive ensures that the subject of the second sentence refers to the topic just introduced in the first (the photograph of White). Using the active counterpart would have switched subjects from the just-introduced topic to a previously unmentioned person (Krementz). Zinsser instinctively didn’t want to do that. He chose correctly. His passive clause, with old information in the subject position and new information in the by-phrase, is stylistically ideal.

Yet once he starts advising you and me on how to write, he tells us we should simply eschew passives unless in the circumstances we simply cannot think of a comfortable way not to. Such circumstances do exist: The verb rumor has no active form, so we have to say The count is rumored to be a vampire; the active counterpart *People rumor the count to be a vampire is not grammatical. But are we really supposed to use passives only under grammatical duress?

He regards himself as offering vitally important advice (albeit advice that he himself ignores):

The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style — in clarity and vigor — is the difference between life and death for a writer.

Use a passive and you’ll die? No, he changes his story several times over in rapid succession. It’s not about life or death, it’s about strength versus weakness. No, it’s about brevity. No, it’s about precision. No, it’s about insipidity. No, it’s about ambiguity. No, it’s about energy level. No, it’s about being able to identify participants. Just read what he says:

“Joe saw him” is strong. “He was seen by Joe” is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality: something was done by somebody to someone else. It’s also ambiguous. How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A style that consists of passive constructions will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

Zinsser has no idea what he wants to get across. He vacillates wildly between unrelated claims about passives, several of them clearly false. For example, He was seen by Joe is no more ambiguous than Joe saw him. (When did Joe see him? Once? Every day? Once a week?) Moreover, it clearly and precisely specifies “what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.”

Zinsser not only slaps us around the head with a succession of eight nonequivalent reasons for not using passives, he tells us lies as well.

His book may be valuable in all sorts of ways to novice writers, but the inconsistent hectoring on the topic of passives is not going to help anybody to write well. It’s a jumble of confused nonsense that I hope users of the book mostly ignore.

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