Passive Voice, George Orwell, General Outrage

Disputes & Brouhaha About Promoting Or Condemning the Passive

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crossposted from


To report facts, to explore causes, to traduce complexity so as to reveal what underpins it: these represent just a few of the reasons that written language has such massive potential power for those who would move beyond intuition and belief to a realm of knowledge and understanding. Yet we must admit that another function prevails at times in our linguistic endeavors: to obfuscate reality, to deflect attention, to use nature’s intricacies to deepen incomprehensibility and thereby leave the interpretation and determination of what is happening, as well as what might be necessary to bring about change in the arenas of policy and action, up to those whose ‘stakeholding’ interests are most palpable, easiest to ‘monetize,’ and so on and so forth.

In relation to the first purpose, passive voice construction normally is worse than useless. It hides what the writer seeks to reveal; it evades what the narrative purports to pin down.

In the second case, however, no more perfect vehicle exists than passive voice for seeming to admit and describe and assess, without actually assigning responsibility, determining causation, or explaining how matters have reached particular passes. As noted in the previous installment of the Happy Union Grammar Nerd, such attributes make passive usage ideal for attorneys, propagandists, politicos, diplomats—even criminals who have the necessary sophistication to care about how they express themselves.

Today’s H.U.G.N. episode consists of three primary components, along with the usual concluding sections that provide examples of and alternatives to problematic usage.

  • Initially, we examine a set of contentions that flow from neuroscience, cognitive science, and linguistics, about the likely ‘hard-wired’ preference for passive voice usage in the speech centers of the brain, a deconstruction that concludes that although writing emanates from speech, it is far from precisely the same, so that one may prefer to say, “He was shot,” but persist in making a choice to write either, “The officer shot the young man,” or, “Somebody obviously shot the youth in the leg and then blew his brains out.”
  • The follow-up to this briefing offers readers a chance to ponder George Orwell’s oft-quoted 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which the redoubtable storyteller and political scribe denounced usage of the “was-shot” variety, at the same time that his condemnation practically overflowed with just this sort of construction.
  • Finally, some of the hundreds of thousands—or millions—of particular instances of quibbling about this matter appear, a few of which mention Orwell and the anomaly of his insisting that writers ‘do as he said, not as he did.’

As always, this Happy Union Grammar Nerd encourages any reader who cares to do so to challenge this analysis; to present specific examples of problems that seem impossible to solve in this or some other area of style or usage; to share piquant examples or personal experiences of ‘life in the passive lane’ that modern mediation has become.

For those who love data, now the Grammar Nerd presents a factual nexus for folks to consider.   Here, for example, are some author searches that add “passive voice” as an identifier:

  •  ”george orwell” + “passive voice” = 16,700 hits;
  •  “william faulkner” + “passive voice” = 45,800 hits;
  •  “mark twain” + “passive voice” = 197,000 hits;
  •  “sinclair lewis” + “passive voice” = 19,100 hits;
  •  “charles dickens” + “passive voice” = 168,000 hits;
  •  “virginia woolf” + “passive voice” = 93,200 hits;
  •  “jane austen” + “passive voice” = 13,400 hits;
  •  “richard wright” + “passive voice” = 24,000 hits.

As anyone can see, despite the fervor of both the frequent diatribes against and encomiums in favor of Orwell’s work, every other search of writers and “passive voice” that I tried yielded more instances than did an Orwell string, with the exception that Jane Austen’s results contained a few thousand fewer citations.

Meanwhile, googling the essay title alone drew forth 181,000 ‘hits.’ Since Orwell’s attack on passive verbs was such a huge part of his argument, that the initial search above only garnered 16,700 cites seems a little crazy, or in any event implausible.

Finally, the overall level of concern about passive voice is far from paltry. 757,000 articles and such followed from a simple search for “passive voice” alone. Even the more complex search, “passive voice” dispute OR disagreement analysis OR prescription, ended up with 412,000 leads for investigators.

These are not “taylor swift” numbers, but they show a level of interest that is suggestive of some degree of popular, or at least widespread, thinking about these matters. And, as a result of our labors, we now have some more ideas to add to the mix.

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As last week’s article pointed out, our mental machinery’s proclivities diminish to zero the chance of eliminating the passive voice from speech. In fact, a few recent scientific initiatives —that utilize precise machines to measure the exact location of electrical activity in the brain—argue that we are more or less hard-wired for such locution.

Cornell University has an operation that calls itself the Neurosyntax Imaging Laboratory. Other schools have projects that seek similar understanding with similar tools. Passivity in speech, intone such authorities, is simply inevitable, likely irreversible, perhaps like genetic selection of lying or dissimulation.

Furthermore, without a doubt speech is the basis for writing in similar fashion as listening is the foundation for reading. The authors of the above study suggested that Orwell’s frequent passivity was in one way or another irremediable. They even dragged the estimable E.B. White and his predecessor and collaborator, Mr. Strunk, into the depiction, quoting a line from the Elements of Style that uses passive voice while advising that avoiding its employment would enliven one’s prose.

However, one must recognize that such expert contentions are the consequence of one sort of research, but these brain-nerds are making conclusions about another field of enquiry. While the underpinnings of writing are speech, and some neural circuitry serves both our voices and our scribblings, in no way are these two normal aspects of being powerfully human the same.

Moreover, I have dispositive empirical evidence that eliminating the passive voice is fairly easy, with a few years’ practice. Whether such discipline is apt or pretty is definitely another matter, but in no way can one contend that contextualizing our ideas must make use of passive construction.

In any case, for the past forty years, I have remained a practitioner of “Death to the Passive Voice!” Most of my writing is devoid of it. To activate my texts even more, for an entire year I wrote without using a single “to be” linking verb. Only present progressive helping verbs were permissible in my practice. Therefore, without qualification I can assert, and prove, that ridding oneself of passive writing is entirely manageable, whatever advantages or disadvantages might attend such, depending on one’s perspective, obstinacy or tenacity.

In contemplating passive verbs, readers may listen to a variety of authorities who argue strongly that writers should avoid them wherever possible. My experience demonstrates conclusively that such excision is always doable, definable aspects of the language brain notwithstanding.

And then, we might turn to George Orwell.

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Only a few style-and-grammar prescriptions are likely to generate as great a scholarly and critical interest as that which “Politics and the English Language” has received. Google estimates a total of just over two-and-a-half million resulting connections if a researcher enters the following slight variation on the title in the Internet giant’s ‘engine:’ “politics of the english language.”

Whatever the plethora of reasons that might engender that level of engagement, the fact is incontrovertible that people “check out this Orwell shit about, you know, ‘Politics and the English Language,’ or more generally ‘the politics of the English language.’” And at least a small chunk of this huge sample—plausibly a majority of entries—nod to or note in some way the matter of passive voice, in passing as it were.

For whatever reason, then, a sizeable number of global citizens, who have interests that bridge ‘politics and the English language,’ find George Orwell’s pronouncements alluring enough to perform a Google look-up. At the same time, Orwell himself writes in the text, which is a rushed and scattershot affair indeed, more like a schoolboy’s composition than a completely articulated scholarly or otherwise expert conceptualization, “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

What in hell does that imply? The essay’s tone is about as far afield from irony as one side of the galaxy is distant from the other. In his helter-skelter need to state these things, and (What? ‘Have done with them?’ ‘Get back to them as time allows?’ What?) convey them to readers, he had caught himself writing vaguely, reflexively relying on passively voiced verbs.

“A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

Is the erstwhile defendant of a certain sort of righteous anti-communism  accusing himself? Such is not out of the question for the man who wrote 1984 as commentary, at least in part, on the totalitarian tendencies of ‘democracies.’ Certainly, the question might cause one to consider paying attention.

Every utterance, every merest linguistic gesture—an arched-eye, a discrete cough, etc.—has a skein of political meaning inside it that connects it to all our very political species’ use of language over time. In this vein, Orwell writes, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”

Moreover, one’s always-political articulation, when it is in fact intentionally about power and dominance and, in Leonard Cohen’s immortal phrase, “who’s to serve and who’s to eat,” presents us with a troubling notion. Is honesty quite safe?

Might one want to ‘hedge one’s bets,’ ‘trim one’s sails,’ and in general try to ensure that one does not utter too many things that might offend those parties to matters of State who actually plan and administer the course of things? The directors of intelligence agencies; the executives in charge of tax bureaus; the chiefs of police forces; the monopoly-financed marketers of chemicals; the ‘well-connected’ providers of ordnance; the lead designers of everything in existence; the list is extensive of such brokers of the common experience of humanity whom one might elect not to insult or speak out against. Moreover, truly, those on the government side of this listing exchange places regularly with those in the commercial end of operations.

Orwell notes the effects of such caution against the multifaceted powers-that-be. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

As a matter of course, one might make too much of such a thing. The composer of a diatribe against, among other things, the passive voice, creates a minimum of sixty-one clauses with a passively-voiced verb or infinitive; this in a relatively brief essay in which 4,000 words are his own rather than excerpts or quotations. He then distinctly points this faux pas out to those who listen in.

“So what? Maybe it’s random.” Such voices as this also exist. They might make one giggle. Perhaps such a characterization is a ‘straw man,’ for which, if so, I apologize—just making sure that we agree in this case that Orwell’s is a pointed ‘admission against interest’ on his part.

At a minimum, in this impassioned note against a certain foible that is replete with that very error, we could stipulate that Orwell’s discovery and admission suggests something or other. Maybe we might wonder what this meaning might be. In any event, for a Grammar Nerd, such conundrums are irresistible.

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For whatever the observation is worth, quite a bit of dyspeptic accusation and disputation happen over both Orwell’s imprecation against passive voice and the general issue of using passive verbal construction. These writers  occasionally really insult and assault each other. At other junctures, they scoff at Orwell.

Once more, what all of this signifies—in a wider, omniscient scheme of things—is almost certainly never going to be completely discernible. As well, though I would find such a choice discomfiting, one could argue that the upshot of all this is that, in our writing, either passive wording will remain ineluctable or such inscription is fine and dandy for the most part.

The first item in this little series made the case, as a default, for opting to write actively. Whether one agrees or disagrees, a rational statement of why such an election could be best-practice is possible, and all sorts of writing teachers also offer just such analysis. For our purposes, today though, we shall simply note some of the assertions in these irascible narratives and test their resonance, see if they seem accurate or probative.

No less an authority than The Columbia Journalism Review has a typically ‘balanced’ view. It cites no less an iconic manual that mandates stylistic selection than the Chicago Manual of Style. “’The choice between active and passive voice may depend on which point of view is desired. For instance, the mouse was caught by the cat describes the mouse’s experience, whereas the cat caught the mouse describes the cat’s.’”

One can only beg pardon, but another view is possible. “The mouse ended its days in the jaws of the cretinous little feline.” “The mouse suffered a terrible death, bleeding and in shock from its encounter with the cat.” “The mouse died because of the cat.” Or, “the mouse could not escape the cat.”

Are such choices better? Who knows? But they certainly convey the sense and intensity of what is happening, from the poor little fuzzy mouse’s POV too.

CJR itself states the matter like this: “Passive voice is better when the object of the action is more important than the subject performing the action, or when the subject performing the action is unknown. ‘Joseph Doke was shot as he walked to work’ is necessary if the person doing the shooting is unknown. You can write ‘Someone shot Joseph Doke on his way to work,’ but that puts the emphasis on the shooter instead of the shootee.”

Once again, we’ll beg forgiveness. Here’s another alternative to passive verbs for lamentable Joseph Doke. “Joseph Doke first froze, and then slowly fell, with an unknown shooter’s .45 bullet in his head.”

Perhaps the unfortunate Joseph died many hours previously. “Joseph Doke, face a peaceful mask, lay where some shooter had killed him from ambush.” Similarly, “Poor Joseph’s corpse, his face a grotesque grimace of pain, lay where someone shot him down.”

As always, one can select, “Joseph Doke was shot as he walked to work.” One has committed no sin against the Grammar Gods. Just as reasonably, however, one can choose otherwise, as would I.

One might ramble on interminably about all of this. The examples are, if not infinite, close enough to limitless to represent more than a lifetime’s labors to ponder comprehensively. Next month, Happy Union Grammar Nerd will exemplify, very specifically, the reactionary consequences of many common usages of passive voice.

Are such aggressively self-righteous and conservative, often irredentist, results intentional? Readers will have a chance to decide for themselves.

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This work has already made clear how ubiquitous these types of expression are. Moreover, that one may in fact like them is beyond dispute. However, also demonstrable is the likelihood that on average readers will see as stronger, clearer, and generally better actively voiced sentences.

Orwell’s Passivity

In sixty-one sentences, at the very least, dear George exhibits what he decries. Was this the result of draconian difficulty? Did it emanate from inevitable reflexivity? If one examines these very identifiable complete thoughts, or phrases and ‘dead clauses,’ only to find that eliminating passive voice is quick and easy,, then the answers to the above queries would seem likely to be, well, “No!!

Here are six of those collections of words. That is a sample of roughly ten per cent of the total, more or less at random.

  •  ”(I)t is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” The first instance: “The general assumption is that doing anything about it is impossible.
  • ”Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” Also early on: “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which writers can avoid if they are willing to take the necessary trouble.
  • ”As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed.” One of the first items after the ‘political turn:’ “As soon as writers and thinkers raise certain topics, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of anything except hackneyed turns of speech.
  • ”In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).” A little later in the ‘political heartland:’ “In addition, the passive voice almost universally predominaates in preference to the active, and noun constructions replace gerunds (examination of instead of by examining).”
  • ”(Modern writing) consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” In the explanatory section: “(Modern Writing) consists in gumming together long strips of words which some hidden interlocutor or force of nature has already set in order, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
  • ”Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.” From near the end: “Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which the jeers of a few journalists effectively destroyed.”

This entire exercise, including composing the paragraph that houses this material, finding and cutting and pasting, and correction required plus-or-minus seventeen minutes.

One would hope that agreement here would be fairly straightforward. Explanation such as what the above interrogatories imply does not account for Orwell’s ‘passive tendencies,’ so to speak. Or perhaps one might convince a thinker otherwise. Eh? Inquiring minds do like to inquire.

Exceptions or Choices?

Situations that purport to ‘mandate’ or in general favor passive voice supposedly exist. Highly authoritative pontification on both why we must have or must avoid such writing is omnipresent in grammar and style circles.

The point of these ‘Grammar Nerd’ ramblings is not to mandate. However, the HUGN does prefer active writing. He has chosen to compose so as to identify things without use of passive forms.

Thus, those who contend that passively voiced text is, even occasionally, superior do irritate him. One further example facilitates our exit for the day.

Wikipedia’s entry on the subject includes a section, “Advice in Favor of the Passive Voice.” Three of the four examples there, as we shall see, are precisely like every single prose defense of such usage, at best a matter of choice.

However, the cases on display do include the ‘exception that proves the rule,’ as it were. In poetry, passive construction—at least in English, when rhyme and meter matter—is often no more avoidable than gas is to those who like beans.

From Wikipedia: “Passive writing is not necessarily slack and indirect. Many famously vigorous passages use the passive voice, as in these examples.”

The Grammar Nerd feels differently, with the ‘metered’ exception.

*Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. (King James Bible, Isaiah 40:4)

God shall exalt every valley, level every mountain, straighten all that is crooked, and smooth the rough places.

*Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (Shakespeare’s Richard III, I.1, ll. 1–2)

The metered exception does exist.

*For of those to whom much is given, much is required. (John F. Kennedy’s quotation of Luke 12:48 in his address to the Massachusetts legislature, 9 January 1961.)

For those who receive so much must also give back in equal measure.

*Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons, 20 August 1940.)

Never, in all history’s conflicts, have so many owed so much to so few.

And that, as the saying goes, is that.

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