Passive activity, voice-wise

Subject: Passive activity, voice-wise
From: Thom Remington <remingtf -at- DSSRV01 -dot- DS -dot- DUPONT -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 25 Jan 1996 08:39:22 -0500

I didn't know that a discussion of passive voice would stir up so much
activity, he said passively!

In my initial post a week or two ago, I said I disliked passive voice
actively. Now, after seeing a lot of discussion on the subject, I'm not so
sure any more. I'm also not convinced that passive voice's bad reputation
is due to the name. To be sure, our culture reveres the active over the
passive, but I wonder if we're not missing something here.

For example, there's the Serenity Prayer. For those of you who don't know
it, it's a cornerstone of the Alcoholics Anonymous program:

Grant me the courage to change the things I can, the strength to withstand
the things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Before you flame me, I know I don't have it exactly right, but that's the

What does this have to do with passive voice? Two things immediately come
to mind:

A When the circumstances of my job require me to use PV, I'll accept
it. I may try to change it, but I'll know when to quit trying.

2 Perhaps the whole concept of passivity ("strength to withstand the
things I can't change") is underrated. Gandhi defeated the British Empire
by means of passive resistance, after all!

Passive voice has its place. I maintain that a good writer can use passive
voice and make it work clearly, just as a bad writer can inadvertantly make
active voice as clear as mud. Consider the following example, written
entirely in active voice:

Experimental evidence has demonstrated that the diurnal introduction into
the alimentary system of a single example of any of a variety of species of
pomes has an ameliorative effect for the dread felt by iatrophobes, by
rendering the necessity of proximity of the object of such iatrophobia that
much less likely.

The normal version of the above is "an apple a day keeps the doctor away."
I could translate it into passive voice: "The doctor is kept away by an
apple a day." That's a whole lot easier to read than my first example,
written entirely in active voice!

Passive voice is one tool in our arsenal. To reject it out of hand is to
deny us something that can be useful. To overuse it is like the kid who
gets a hammer and decides everything is a nail. To fail to use it where
appropriate is just as limiting.

Thom Remington
DuPont External Affairs Technical Publications
Wilmington Delaware

Opinions expressed are mine alone.

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