WIS-ful Thinking Blog

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WIS-ful Thinking Blog

Your Comments on Passive Voice

Posted on: Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 3:34pm

Topic(s): Teaching Writing

I should have known the way to stir excitement in writing teachers was to talk about passive voice. Thanks to those of you who replied to the October 12th post, including this cross-cultural comment from Modern and Classical Languages instructor Li Wang, who observed that in Chinese:

when passive voice is used, it often denotes that something which is not so good happens. Just like in your family when you say "The car keys are lost again." If in Chinese, it would indicate that the speaker thinks this is some undesirable situation.

Writing instructor and science editor Margi Fox suggested a rewrite for an example I provided in the post.  My claim was that passive voice improves clarity when it helps a writer keep the main topic of a story near the beginnings of the story’s sentences. Margi wrote [boldface mine],

I don't think we have just two choices in the second example:

The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide. [original post example quoted from Booth, Colomb, Williams, The Craft of Research]

We can change the verb itself and keep the order that does increase clarity and cohesion:

The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests now face destruction from increasing demands for more agricultural lands and…

My example used passive voice (“rain forests are now threatened) to keep rain forests at the beginning of the second sentence. Margi’s rewrite keeps the rain forests in place, but avoids passive voice by swapping in a different active verb (“rain forests now face destruction”).

The general principle illustrated by the example still holds true: if you have to choose between putting the main character/topic at the beginning of your sentence or writing the sentence in active voice, you’re better off giving up active voice. But Margi’s editing demonstrates you don’t always have to choose.

I have one more passive voice example to show because it touches on a question from October’s meeting of the Roots of Rhetoric reading group (which you are all invited to attend: https://library.wwu.edu/use/wis/fac-reading-groups). The question was whether writing, or any other liberal arts topic, should be taught for its vocational benefits (communication skills, critical thinking) or as a means to equally (if not more) important goals—for example, how to make meaning, or to understand more about who we really are.

I originally raised the topic of passive voice for reasons compatible with vocational training. It’s easier to find employment if you write clearly, and your clarity improves if you know when to use passive voice (and when not to). But as Margi Fox reminded me, you don’t always have to choose. Yes, it’s practical to know how verbs shape readers’ perceptions of what a story is about. But in this excerpt from a talk on gender violence by Jackson Katz, it’s easy to see how that same knowledge also reveals a great deal about what we mean and who we are:

This comes from the work of the feminist linguist Julia Penelope…. It starts with a very basic English sentence: "John beat Mary." That's a good English sentence. John is the subject, beat is the verb, Mary is the object, good sentence. Now we're going to move to the second sentence, which says the same thing in the passive voice. "Mary was beaten by John." And now a whole lot has happened in one sentence. We've gone from "John beat Mary" to "Mary was beaten by John." We've shifted our focus in one sentence from John to Mary, and you can see John is very close to the end of the sentence, well, close to dropping off the map of our psychic plain. The third sentence, John is dropped, and we have, "Mary was beaten," and now it's all about Mary. We're not even thinking about John, it's totally focused on Mary. Over the past generation, the term we've used synonymous with "beaten" is "battered," so we have "Mary was battered." And the final sentence in this sequence, flowing from the others, is, "Mary is a battered woman." So now Mary's very identity -- Mary is a battered woman -- is what was done to her by John in the first instance. But we've demonstrated that John has long ago left the conversation.

You can find the whole text and video of the talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue/transcript#t-162095

Finally, some commenters noted that although passive voice does have good uses, they’re reluctant to point this out to their classes because much of the time it’s still used inappropriately in student writing. If you have a student who could use help identifying and rewriting passives, the Hacherl Research and Writing Studio is a good resource: (https://library.wwu.edu/rws), including the Studio Partners program for students whose writing needs ongoing support (https://library.wwu.edu/rws/forms/studio-partner).