mount_oregano: Let me see (Carmencita)



In the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell expressed concern that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” To overcome these bad habits, he suggested six rules: beware of tired metaphors, use shorter words, cut out unnecessary words, prefer everyday English, and avoid saying anything outright barbarous or ugly. The fourth, most famous rule is:

Never use the passive when you can use the active.

Then, he added:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. … Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

He offered these examples involving the passive voice:

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Here, passive voice is a way to avoid naming the responsible parties, who deserve damnation.

Of course, we’re considering the literary use of language. And Orwell said this about that:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. … [O]ne can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person.

Despite Orwell’s concern (which was politics, not literature) and his caveat (that meaning should come first, then the exact words), his rule about passive voice gets quoted as ironclad. Stephen King, in On Writing, says to avoid the passive voice because “The subject is just letting it happen.” In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say active voice can be more “forcible.” (Strunk and White also say the passive voice “is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary,” but this gets less notice.)

Nothing about passive voice necessarily makes it weak or “passive” in the sense of just letting things happen. The receiver of the action may be more important than the actor. We may wish to avoid saying who the actor or creator of the action is, or may simply not know or consider it important. We may want to express complicated ideas in the most simple way possible and need to choose the most effective sentence structure for that.

The content, purpose, and audience of our prose matters more than the words themselves and any rules about them, especially when those rules are poorly understood and wrongly applied.

Politicians lie. Fiction is intentional lies. If passive voice works for politicians, we as fiction writers can learn from them how to lie better. Becky’s mother was killed in the Martian invasion. By whom? Therein lies the story.

— Sue Burke

Further reference: “How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing”
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003722.html
and “Confusion over avoiding the passive”
http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/grammar/passives.html

(Photo by David Iliff, Creative Commons 3.0)

mount_oregano: Let me see (GreenAsAThumb)



What are the six passive structures in the text about Newspeak by George Orwell?

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised [1] to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in The Times were written [2] in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out [3] by a specialist. It was expected [4] that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in use [5] in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed [6] later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary, that we are concerned here.

Would any of these expressions be better in active voice?

Next: Is passive voice evil?

mount_oregano: Let me see (Salamanca)



Change these sentences from passive voice to active voice.

1. Cities on Venus were built to float above the clouds.
2. The cities could be hurled down to the hellish red-hot surface by simply reversing the antigrav polarity.
3. Becky was plagued by indecision and doubts about her mother’s real role in the invasion.
4. “You’ll get killed if you get caught!”
5. To be continued.

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1. They built cities on Venus to float above the clouds.
2. Simply reversing the antigrav polarity could hurl the cities down to the hellish red-hot surface.
3. Indecision and doubts about her mother’s real role in the invasion plagued Becky.
4. “They’ll kill you if they catch you!”
5. Someone is going to continue this.

Are these sentences better in active voice? Are there other possible answers?

Next: “Newspeak” revisited.

(Photo: NASA, surface of Venus)

mount_oregano: Let me see (YedikuleCastle)



To change passive to active, find the agent of the sentence. This is often indicated with by or another preposition. The verb remains in the same tense, but a form of to be or to get is removed.

The first city on Venus was founded by King Charles XXI.
King Charles XXI founded the first city on Venus.

Many people have been affected by the political changes.
The political changes have affected many people.

Sometimes the agent isn’t known or stated, but can be guessed.

Many more cities will soon be constructed.
Settlers will soon construct many more cities.

Of course, the mere existence of a form of to be does not mean the sentence is passive. Architecture was the chief concern of Charles. This is an active sentence because there is no past participle and the subject receives no action. If you changed to sentence to The chief concern of Charles was architecture, it would still be active. The problem here, sometimes wrongly identified as passive voice, originates with the verb to be, a generally weak verb that serves merely to connect two nouns, architecture and concern. We could write, Architecture chiefly concerned Charles or Charles felt chiefly concerned about architecture, and they might be improvements. But this has nothing to do with passive voice.

Next: You try it.

mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)

05_MarsNASA

How do you change active voice into passive voice?

The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
The verb remains in the same tense, but a form of to be or to get is inserted.
The agent can be included with the preposition by, if necessary.

Martians destroyed Earth.
Earth was destroyed.
Earth was destroyed by Martians.

Some verbs, such as offer, promise, give, send, allow, bring, tell, and throw, can take two objects, and you can make two different passive sentences with them, using each object as a subject.

Martians offered London a chance to escape.
London was offered a chance to escape.
A chance to escape was offered to London.

Martians gave London to Venus.
London was given to Venus by Martians.
Venus was given London by Martians.

Next: See if you can do it yourself.

(Photo: NASA)

mount_oregano: Let me see (Salamanca)



Why use passive voice?

Sometimes the agent is unknown, obvious, or unimportant. She was killed in the Mars invasion. What killed her? We might not know or care.

Sometimes we care more about the action than the agent. For example, London was evacuated before the invasion. Who evacuated it? Probably the proper authorities, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Londoners got away safely.

Sometimes, as writers, we can use it to vary the sentence structure to put certain words at the end of the sentence and emphasize them. We can emphasize the agent, for example. Earth was invaded by evil Martians. We can put longer expressions at the end of the sentence to make it more readable. She was killed when Mars invaded Earth without warning anyone except London’s mayor.

In other words, sometimes you want to say something with more artfulness than active voice allows.

Next: How to change active to passive.

(Photo: NASA. London at night.)

mount_oregano: Let me see (NightFallsOnEurope)



In passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. It is usually made by using the verb to be or sometimes to get and the past participle of the main verb. The agent of the action does not always have to be expressed, but when it is, this is usually done using an expression with by.

If all this seems confusing, a few examples may explain it. (You can also watch this basic grammar video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePfmgMTgXl8)

Here is an active sentence:

Mars invaded Earth.

Here is that sentence in passive, in two forms:

Earth was invaded by Mars. Earth got invaded by Mars.

The past participle is the form of the verb that usually ends with -ed, although there are many irregular verbs. For example: Cook, cooked. Love, loved. Use, used. See, saw. Eat, eaten. Buy, bought.

(The present participle is the form of the verb that ends with -ing, and there are no exceptions: Cook, cooking. Love, loving. Use, using. See, seeing. Eat, eating. Buy, buying. This form is often used in continuous or progressive tenses, a tense that can be confused with passive voice. He was eating is active voice. He was being eaten is passive voice.)

Passive voice can be used with most tenses, but not all verbs can be used in passive voice. For example, Earth died after the invasion. This can’t be changed into Earth was died after the invasion. This is more a matter of meaning than grammar.

Here are active and passive voice sentences in various tenses, aspects, and moods:

Mars invades Earth. Earth is invaded by Mars. (Present Simple)
Mars is invading Earth. Earth is being invaded by Mars. (Present Continuous or Progressive)
Mars invaded Earth. Earth was invaded by Mars. (Past Simple)
Mars was invading Earth. Earth was being invaded by Mars. (Past Continuous or Progressive)
Mars will invade Earth. Earth will be invaded by Mars. (Future Simple)
Mars is going to invade Earth. Earth is going to be invaded by Mars. (Going to Future)
Mars has invaded Earth. Earth has been invaded by Mars. (Present Perfect)
Mars had invaded Earth. Earth had been invaded by Mars. (Past Perfect)
Mars will have invaded Earth. Earth will have been invaded by Mars. (Future Perfect)
I hate Mars invading Earth. I hate Earth being invaded by Mars. (Present Participle form)
Mars would invade Earth. Earth would be invaded by Mars. (Conditional Mood)
Mars must invade Earth. Earth must be invaded by Mars. (Modal Form; there are other modals besides must, including ought, can, should, may...)

Other kinds of structures are possible, but I don’t want to get too repetitive or technical.

Next: Why use passive?

(Photo: NASA)

mount_oregano: Let me see (OpenMic)



How many passive voice structures can you find in this passage? It’s the opening paragraph to the Appendix in 1984 by George Orwell: “The Principles of Newspeak”:

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in The Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in use in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary, that we are concerned here.

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Six. They will be identified in Session 9.

Next: The grammar of the passive voice.

mount_oregano: Let me see (Let me see..)



Like me, you’ve probably been told not to use passive voice, but what is passive voice? Can you recognize it, and is it really death to good prose? In this online workshop, with one brief post per day for ten days, your questions will be answered and your doubts will be erased.

Why am I the person to do this? Grammar pays my bills. I live in Spain and teach English to language learners, from beginners to mastery-level students – which means grammar, grammar, grammar. I hold a Cambridge University Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults. If that were not enough, I’ve worked as a professional writer and editor for forty years.

This workshop will have ten brief sessions:

1. Introduction (this post).

2. Spot the passives, using a text by George Orwell.

3. The grammar of the passive voice.

4. Why use passive voice?

5. How to change active to passive.

6. Exercises, active to passive.

7. How to change passive to active.

8. Exercises, passive to active.

9. Orwell revisited: Where are the passives? Can they be changed?

10. What Orwell really said about passive voice.

Next post: Spot the passives in the first paragraph of “Principals of Newspeak” by George Orwell.

— Sue Burke

July 2017

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