[Paleopsych] CHE: Passive Is Spoken Here

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Mon Apr 18 14:43:33 UTC 2005

Passive Is Spoken Here
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.22


    Silver spoons, real ones anyway, owe a lot of their charm to the
    hallmarks on the back of the stem. Academic writing has its own system
    of validation, its own hallmarks, and one is the passive voice. This
    is a strange development, considering how vigilant we are about
    overuse of the passive when we teach writing, and how insistent
    writing guides can be on this point. "Whenever you come across a
    passive in your writing, recast the sentence with an active verb
    instead." The examples tend to feature painful structures followed by
    why-didn't-I-think-of-that transformations. "When the book had been
    read by the class, the next lesson was presented by the teacher"
    becomes "When the students had read the book, the teacher presented
    the lesson." Yet it's difficult to convince academic writers that
    avoiding the passive is a piece of advice meant for them.

    In weak academic writing, passives are everywhere. (I might have said
    "passives are frequently used," but I wanted an active verb here.) If
    you were reading a poorly written letter or a grade-school
    composition, you might think that the writer simply didn't have
    sufficient command to write in direct and vivid terms. He might even
    have been aware of his limitations, embarrassed by the idea of
    expressing his opinion in a naked way, and taking refuge behind the
    curtain of the passive.

    By the time a graduate has waded into the thick of a Ph.D. program and
    is toiling on the dissertation, the student's printer has spit out a
    lot of term papers. By that point, unlearned writing lessons have
    become writing habits, and those habits have, in turn, become his
    characteristic way of expressing ideas. He has grown used to -- even
    fond of -- them. (I find it unsurprisingly easy to view the weaknesses
    in my own writing as being part of my style.) For graduate students,
    however, more is at stake. Years of abusing the passive have
    encouraged those students to believe that the passive is, after all,
    the voice of academe. "So," the new scholar reasons, "if this is how
    the scholarly world speaks -- or rather, if this is the language
    spoken in the scholarly world -- then that's the way I'll write my
    first book." And lo, thus is the book written.

    The passive voice does two things at once, and those two things at
    first seem contradictory. First, the passive conceals agency, or
    responsibility for action. "The overthrow of the country's tottering
    regime was undertaken by the forces of the Army of Liberation in the
    late spring of 1963." Let's let that Army take responsibility for its
    actions: "Late in the spring of 1963 the Army of Liberation overthrew
    the country's tottering regime." Suddenly, the Army of Liberation did

    There's concealment at work here, too. The passive construction
    distances the writer from the act of making a statement. Take away the
    passive, and the writer -- like the Army of Liberation -- has suddenly
    done something of consequence: He's made a declaration. He's said
    something. You don't have to be an expert in linguistics to know that
    this is not the same thing as "something was said." But too many
    dissertations are written in an imaginary world where objects have
    things done to them and countries are invaded, characters are depicted
    while results are secured. It's not that the passive is a criminal
    offense for writers. There are plenty of places where passive
    constructions feel right. (Use them there.) Prose stripped entirely of
    passives can feel overly energetic, like a kindergarten class at
    recess. "Calm down!" you want to say. Of course, it's important to
    draw a distinction between writing with the passive voice and writing
    in the passive voice. In the first case, the writer uses the passive
    when it's necessary. In control of her prose, she enjoys the way the
    passive voice lends variety to her sentences, yet she remains the boss
    in her own paragraphs. On the other hand, someone who writes in the
    passive hopes no one will notice that she's there. The passive is a
    cozy place to hide.

    Writing can be like going through customs. "Anything to declare?" asks
    a flinty-eyed customs officer. Most people rely on a cheerful smile
    and a shake of the head, hoping there won't be any questions about the
    extra bottle of wine or the embroidered tablecloth. Most academic
    writing hopes to slither through customs. Instead of a smile,
    scholarly writers too often depend on the passive, fearful that a
    direct statement might open them to equally direct inspection.

    Yet strangely, the second thing the passive voice does for academic
    writing is to claim authority. It's an authority based not on
    accumulated research or the wisdom of experience, at least not in the
    case of most dissertations, but on an appeal to the power of
    passivity. To use the passive is to call up the authority of one's
    discipline and the scholars who have gone before. There's nothing
    wrong with wanting to do this, but the passive can't get you there all
    by itself. Academic writers -- particularly young academic writers
    -- use the passive to lend credibility to their writing. "Domestic
    arrangements in 16th-century Lancashire households were often made by
    the eldest daughter." Domestic arrangements are in charge of this
    sentence, while the writer's point appears to be that the eldest
    daughter of the household looked after things. In its Olympian calm,
    the passive asserts -- even demands -- that the reader agree.

    Nevertheless, this sentence is nervous about its own claims, as the
    telltale word "often" makes clear. Was the eldest daughter in charge
    or wasn't she? Is the writer making an important and original claim
    about family relationships or just serving up someone else's research
    nugget? If it's an original idea, it's too compressed to be clear, too
    wimpy to be convincing. A bit better: "My research reveals the
    surprising fact that the eldest daughter was responsible for domestic
    arrangements in most 16th-century Lancashire households." ("Most" is
    quantitative and useful here; "often" is a fudge.) If it's someone
    else's thought and worth paraphrasing, the point needs sharpening. "As
    Henry Pismire has pointed out, in almost half the 16th-century
    Lancashire households for which we have records, the eldest daughter
    was responsible for domestic arrangements." Better because clearer.

    The active voice should be a kind of scholarly credo: I did research,
    I drew conclusions, I found this out. That's rarely what we get. How
    much more often do we read that research is conducted, conclusions are
    drawn, findings are found out? I sometimes imagine a scholar sitting
    down with a great idea, then staring at his laptop and exclaiming "Are
    you crazy? You can't say that -- " and clicking the toolbar to call up
    Active-Voice-Replace, instantly turning every "I found" into "It was

    The passive is a buffer, not only between the reader and the writer,
    but between the writer and her own ideas. I wonder if anyone
    experiences the world as a series of passive engagements. ("Yesterday,
    as the garden path was being trod by my feet, a beautiful butterfly
    was seen by my eye." Which sounds like a case for Dr. Oliver Sacks.)
    Academic writing often places the reader in just such a world, one
    where no feet cross any paths, no eye sees any butterfly. It's
    particularly critical for young scholars to understand that all this
    bother about the passive voice isn't simply a matter of making
    sentences lively, peppy, or more engaging. Yes, the active voice is
    stronger. Readers listen more attentively because they can hear
    another human trying to engage their attention. But for scholars, the
    active-passive conundrum should be so much more. The active voice says
    "I have something to say, and I'm going to say it. If I'm wrong, argue
    with me in print. But take me at my worth."

    Dickens opens David Copperfield with a question that arrests me each
    time I come across it. "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my
    own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these
    pages must show." He even uses a passive. And he gives us one of the
    Big Lessons, smack on the first page. All writing -- even the humble
    dissertation -- is always about the writer. Even in scholarly work, a
    writer is very much present, more subtly than in Nabokov or Beckett,
    perhaps, but present nonetheless. Every scholar, even the graduate
    student writing a dissertation, should strive to be the hero of her or
    his own work, taking command not only of the details but of the voice
    that presents them, knowing when to appear and when to step aside, how
    to attract the reader's attention and how to deflect it. In doing so,
    the scholarly writer becomes responsible for what "these pages must
    show," a world of causality and motivation where arguments are logical
    and evidence is clearly presented, a world where nouns noun and verbs

    To make writing work, you need to make the parts of writing
    -- including the bossy, self-denying passive voice -- work for you. If
    your scholarly project was worth writing, it's because you found a
    path you had to follow, and on the way you came upon something you
    want to tell others about. Do that. And just be glad you never had to
    read a poem that began "Arms and the man are being sung by me" or a
    novel that opened "Ishmael is what I'm called."

    William Germano is vice president and publishing director at
    Routledge. This essay is adapted from From Dissertation to Book, being
    published this month by the University of Chicago Press.

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