I really enjoyed “Mistakes Are Made,” by Geoffrey Pullum, one of the writers on Lingua Franca, one of my new favorite blogs. We just had a whole conversation in my technical writing class about how to use and not to use the passive voice. I especially appreciated Pullum’s response to a colleague’s suggestion that he avoid the passive voice in an obituary he was writing:
The second passive my colleague fingered was this (which actually has a pair of them): “But all plans were disrupted when she was diagnosed in December 2010 with metastasized and inoperable terminal cancer.” The critical comment was:
Again, this is passive voice. Maybe appropriate here, I guess, but in general, I try to avoid the passive.
I was genuinely amazed. Am I seriously supposed to say “But an unexpected eventuality disrupted all plans”? And “when an oncologist named Price diagnosed her … “?
More generally, do the writing tutors of the world really think we should not report that a politician has been shot until we can specify the gunman? Do they honestly think it’s wrong to say that the lights are left on all night in an office building without supplying a list of the individuals who controlled the switches? We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.
The end of Pullum’s piece is especially nice, not because of the obvious “gotcha!” he plays on his colleague by counting the number of passive constructions in a book she wrote, but because the fact of the passive constructions he finds demonstrates that the passive is necessary. It’s time for the tyranny of the active voice to be brought to an end!