The Passive in English

Wheeeee!
Image by Erika Hall via Flickr, illustrating a real live passive (can you spot it?)

There’s an excellent essay by Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log, in which he explains — in a way that anyone can understand if they try — what a passive construction in English is.

Our grumbling about how these people don’t know their passive from a hole in the ground, we have received mail from many people who want a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I’ll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay. I can’t make it simpler than it is.

Pullum and others at the Log rightly ridicule overzealous application of the “grammar rule” that the passive should be avoided at all times. I actually find the “rule” useful, and this is not incompatible with my agreeing with Pullum’s post. The passive is often used for blurring agentivity (even as it can be used for the exact opposite) or for sounding official/smart. As long as common sense (i.e. a native speaker’s intuition) comes first, I find I can actually make my writing simpler, more direct, and a better read by eliminating passives that only snuck in because part of me thought they sound smarter or something.

Also, when writing for EUDEC, I often find myself tempted to say something like “the wug1 was selected because…”, in order to glaze over the fact that the ones doing the choosing were, in fact, the Council I’m writing for. (I happen to always be a bit uncomfortable with our role as elected representatives, and I wish EUDEC were more of a direct democracy.) But having written something like, and being aware of the tempting perils of the passive, I often correct it to “we chose the wug because…”, which is both more honest and, I think, easier to read.

Anyway, Pullum’s essay will surely be a long-lasting contribution to the Internet war between descriptivists and prescriptivists, and is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to find out, in just 2500 words and without needing a linguistic background, what the passive is. It’s also a neat example of the kind of thing linguists look into. So check it out.

Footnotes

  1. “wug” doesn’t mean anything, but you probably know two or more of them would be “wugs”. []

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.