An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary agree on the meaning of straw man (which they cross-refer to man of straw). As the OED puts it, the relevant sense is:

an imaginary adversary, or an invented adverse argument, adduced in order to be triumphantly confuted

Professor Faxman is lucky not to be invited to step outside. I don’t mind people offering arguments against my views, but accusing me of employing straw-man arguments or opponents is fighting talk. I cited the usage-guide authors and style pontificators I critiqued in my paper, and provided verbatim quotes. They are real people who really said what I said they said. Their blanket disparagements of passives are foolish, and significantly they do not follow their own foolish advice, but use passives whenever they feel like it (see my discussion of William Zinsser here just last week).

Faxman warns his own students against the passive for a key reason that he thinks I missed: “Avoiding it saves words. Saving words reduces demands on cognition, which makes the reader’s job easier.” Bunkum.

He requotes two examples that I quoted from Sherry Roberts, and points out to me (as if I were innumerate) that the passive clause In early April, all applications will be reviewed by the committee is longer than The committee will review all applications in early April.

I quoted these examples because Sherry Roberts claims that “A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town” (!). Stupidly, the example she gives is a long passive: the kind with a by-phrase), where the issue of evasiveness (obscuring agency or responsibility) doesn’t arise. The responsible agent in her example (the committee) is clearly specified; nothing is sneaky, and no metaphorical horse is filched.

But Faxman is concerned with the word count. The passive has “22 percent more words and you don’t remark on that,” he says. What a shameful piece of numerical dishonesty! Only two extra words (be and by) are required in a long passive (some cognitive demand!), and the higher the sentence length the smaller the percentage increase in word count. The percentage goes to zero in the limit. This is a case for citing absolute numbers, not percentages, because the percentage depends on other irrelevant aspects of the sentence and means nothing.

And Faxman completely overlooks what happens with short passives. Take Lee Child’s novel-opening sentence I was arrested in Eno’s diner (also cited in my paper). It has only six words. The active counterpart The police arrested me in Eno’s diner, which Child could have written instead (ineptly), would have seven. Faxman would say misleadingly that the active has 17 percent more words than the passive; but this whole word-counting project is deeply silly.

Sometimes you can express things more tersely or effectively using a passive, and sometimes the active is briefer or better. Skilled choice will depend on factors like what information is newly introduced by the sentence; what was introduced in the previous sentence; whether in context it is relevant to mention the agent (it often isn’t); and how long or cumbersome the agent noun phrase is (long phrases are best positioned later). You can’t defend your choices of actives or passives simply by word count. Style advice isn’t that easy!

I promised above to explain why I call my anonymized correspondent as Faxman (not, for instance, Strawman). Well, his letter arrived by fax, a medium so old-fashioned that Dilbert’s boss uses it. Unaccountably, Faxman says: “You have, I deduce, gone to some trouble to hide your email address from people like me.”

Very strange. If you supply Google with the keywords “Geoff,” “Pullum,” and “contact,” your top hit will be this page, where my academic and personal email addresses are both revealed. My university also provides this list of linguistics and English language faculty, with a link to the page about me, which gives a working email alias. Every day I answer at least one or two messages on the topic of English grammar from complete strangers. They find me easily enough, as Faxman should have been able to do. However, since he deems it fitting to insult me, perhaps it is a blessing to be absent from his email address book.

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