Fear and loathing of the passive

Many of us use the passive too much in our writing. As a result, writing manuals and editors often advise us not to use it. But the passive does have legitimate uses, so we need to cut back on our use of the passive, not drop it totally.

A few weeks ago, I was reviewing a draft paper containing the following text: “It is not clear what shall provide material information means.” This text is very difficult for a reader to process because it is not immediately obvious where one phrase starts and the next one begins. Two things cause this difficulty:

  • the sequencing within the sentence
  • the facts that the subject of the sentence is long and is a quotation

Sequence in the sentence

One problem in the sentence was the sequence of its main constituents. The object (what) precedes the verb (means) and is separated from it by the subject (shall provide material information). As result, the reader cannot easily guess the sentence’s structure until she gets to the very last word (means).

One way to fix the sequence is to turn the sentence into the passive, so that it reads: It is not clear what is meant by shall provide material information. Now the verb (is meant by) follows the object (what) immediately. With this change, the reader can see the structure as soon as she gets to the verb, before she needs to start deciphering the long subject phrase.

To sum up, here is one legitimate use of the passive: to move a long subject phrase after the verb, if doing that will make the information flow clearer.

I stole the title of this post from a paper by Geoffrey Pullum, who has written a great deal about the passive. I particularly like his paper’s many examples of critics denouncing instances of “the passive” that aren’t in fact passive at all. www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.html

Signpost that quote

The second thing that made the original sentence difficult to process is the unusual length and complexity of the subject. Moreover, the subject is in fact a quotation. The subject isn’t really shall provide material information, it is the phrase “shall provide material information”. The sentence is about what that phrase means.

One thing that would help a lot is to use some device (such as quotation marks, italics or underlining) to show explicitly that “shall provide material information” is a quotation. This change would also make it clearer that this 4 word phrase forms a single unit.

So, after both the changes I have suggested above, the sentence could read: It is not clear what is meant by “shall provide material information”.

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