Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting


In an earlier Lingua Franca post I grumbled about writing advisers who vilify the passive as if it were a dangerous drug (despite using it copiously themselves in private). Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years (for the evidence, see my article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive“). So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good English (1982), by Edward D. Johnson, also known as The Washington Square Press Handbook of Good English, is a bit more sensible on the topic than most works addressed to the general public in the past half century.

Johnson does begin by serving up a small portion of the usual unappetizing gruel, perhaps because he felt it was incumbent on any usage writer to do so. The usual half-truths are repeated: that actives are “simple and direct” (some are, some aren’t); that the passive “takes more words than the active” (marginally true sometimes, but often false); and that it “can be cumbersome and distracting” (he makes it sound like an elephant, or a deep-sea diving suit). But then things improve, as he goes on to explain that the passive “has its legitimate uses.”

“Don’t be afraid of the passive voice,” he says firmly. Adults “can forget that ‘Avoid the passive’ rule”: It’s for kids. “The passive voice is respectable, is capable of expressing shades of meaning that the active voice cannot express, and is sometimes more compact and direct than the active voice.”

When does the passive express a shade of meaning that the active doesn’t? In what could be called the finger-pointing use of long passives. A passive with a by-phrase lays stress on the agent. In The money was stolen by a man, judging from those footprints, Johnson points out, the passive ensures that the agent (a man) is at the end of its clause, where it naturally receives stress. The active (a man stole the money) would be stylistically worse.

And when is the passive more compact and direct? One class of such cases comprises Johnson’s “trouble-saving passive.” If you were to take a sentence like Smith was arrested, indicted, and found guilty, but the money was never recovered and try to wrestle it into the active voice, as so many writing guides insist you should, you would have to find subjects for all the active verb phrases. You’d need subjects for arrested Smith (the police department? the county sheriff?), and indicted him (a grand jury, as in the U.S.? the Crown Prosecution Service, as in Britain?), and for found him guilty (a judge? a trial jury?), and for recovered the money (the detectives? some bank or post office? the people whose cash had been stolen?). Implementing this pointless and clumsy elaboration would make the sentence nearly twice as long.

Johnson also notes the utility of what he calls “the pussyfooting passive,” which he says “is essential in journalism” because “often the writer does not know who did something or is not free to say who did it, but he wants to say it was done.”

This is all true. In fact it seems hardly fair to call it pussyfooting. Consider the Wikipedia article on John F. Kennedy: Section 7 begins: “President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas … “; “he was shot once in the back,” and so on. Using an active with Lee Harvey Oswald as the subject at this point would be a distracting and pointless anachronism (Oswald has no place in the narrative of the shooting and the minutes following it). The passive is exactly the right choice.

Next we learn that Kennedy “was taken to Parkland Hospital” and “was pronounced dead.” Then within a couple of hours “Lee Harvey Oswald … was arrested,” and two days later “A Requiem Mass was held” and “Kennedy was interred.” Replete with passives. But following Orwell’s advice (“Never use the passive where you can use the active”) by providing the necessary active subjects would be absurd here: It would burden the exposition with pointless identifications of an ambulance driver, a physician, an arresting officer, a priest, and a grave-digger. It would make the writing worse, not better. The “pussyfooting” short passive (with no by-phrase) is exactly what’s called for in good writing when the alternative would be libel, anachronism, unfounded conjecture, or irrelevant detail.

Edward Johnson’s discussion of the passive and when to use it, then, while not complete or perfect, is vastly superior to the “use the active voice” dogma repeated in so many dreadful books and articles and web pages on writing.

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