In which the passive is praised

Grammar checkers, like the one in Microsoft Word, fail to take account of deliberate writing styles. They apply a fixed set of rules and we all know that rules will only take you so far before you get a compulsive urge to break them. Ah. Just me, then?

Take fragments for example. Microsoft doesn’t like fragments. Yet, it’s quite easy to see examples on billboards and in magazines every day. Fragments  are used for emphasis. Because we’re worth it. A fragment doesn’t have to be grammatically complete – “look, Ma, no verb!” – to make perfect sense to a human being. We contextualise all the time, without it even being a conscious action. There can be deliberate stylistic reasons for opting out of basic subject-verb-object sentence structures, to heighten the reader’s reactions and create atmosphere, for instance. If the writer’s intention is conveyed, then there’s no real problem. However. If you. Write in fragmentary hiccups. It’s an issue. Obviously.

My other green wiggly line bête noire relates to the use of the passive voice. In the US, the passive voice is hugely out of favour and the trend is spreading within the UK. I think that’s a great shame, as the passive is perfect for certain types of formal communication and I’m a big fan of it as long as it’s used in the right place.

Traditionally, the passive voice was the only suitable voice for scientific or other academic writing, as it is considered to sound impartial. The writer isn’t telling you their personal point of view, merely what they have observed from experiment or analysed through research.

Outside of academe, though, the passive voice can come across as distant, stuffy and impersonal. Indeed, it’s often associated with law, bureaucracy and officialdom; with keeping us all in line. Actually, in these circumstances, the emotional distance created by the passive voice may be entirely appropriate.

So, a sign saying “Dogs must be kept on a lead” might be seen to lack a certain personal touch (it does still intend you to take responsibility, after all) and simply asserts that the thing must be done. It could even be seen as a bit passive-aggressive. But I don’t think so. What I like about it is that there’s an undercurrent, a certain implied and mature inclusivity: we’re all in this together, all reasonable, civic-minded people who can see the need to keep a dog on its lead and we’ll all do our bit, of course we will. Won’t we?

Compare this with “Keep your dog on a lead”. Here, the use of the imperative makes it direct and clear that it’s your responsibility as the reader of the sign. But, the imperative form instructs someone to do something, gives an order, so this is in no way a friendly message. It’s patronising, infantilising and puts up a distinct Us/Them barrier. There’s a nanny assumption: someone, somewhere knows what’s best for you and without a good nagging, you’ll fall short of the required standards. Now wash your hands.

When I write user instructions, I’ll be the first to reach for the active voice – “first you open X, then you press Y and Z happens”. I’m really not in favour of hanging on to the passive voice at any cost; that way horrible and tortuous sentences lie. Even if you start off with a pretty straightforward-seeming piece of passive text, sometimes an awkwardness of phrasing will sneak in to test your linguistic creativity.

All I’m asking is that you take a moment and don’t write off the passive voice just because it’s not fashionable right now. Use the context to guide you into either the active or passive voice. Formality might favour the passive; informality is more suited to the active. Whatever you do, please don’t try and combine them in one document or the style police will be round.

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