I have a friend who is studying to be a speech pathologist. This semester she's taking a class about how dementia can affect language comprehension--she was telling me something about Alzheimer's and passive voice, but I can't remember what it was. (I hope that's not a bad sign.) In the meantime, here's something about lack of passive voice in the later work of Iris Murdoch and Agatha Christie. (P.D. James was the control!) http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~weifeng/papers/Hirst+Feng-2012-english-study-authorship.pdf
The leathery-eared marsupial was found eviscerated in its rutting hole earlier this evening, police sources report. They were at a loss to explain the frilly cross-dresser's knickers around the beast's ankles, the bespattering of its torso with hot wax, let alone the canteloupe stains all around its microgenitalia.
However, in the words of local police spokesman, Constable Troughlolly: "the satanic paraphernalia scattered throughout the rutting hole, the presence of bondage equipment which has clearly been custom-tailored to accommodate the hideous deformities of the deceased, the background drone of death metal, the Sailormoon comics stiff with some unidentified glop, and the presence of a drugged, naked 9-year old laid out on the altar, clearly indicate that the deceased was one 'pervy bilby'."
(Pointedly not rising to Darqeau's bait, because idiotic, generalizations are not interesting, just tedious. How old are you, D?)
You're both right, of course. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Americans like banal, trite crap.
Given the choice between "BAD" and "GOOD" (Pleasure/pain?--a dicohtomy which is in itself a sweeping generalization--because there is, in fact, very many variations) most people would of course choose "good" like the good little stimulus-responsee's they are.
However, the conceptual, ideal of "that which is superb" is completely subjective. Under what I would rudely label as "choosing blandness" exists an ideal (also called 'values') for the so-called tasteless American, sometimes ones like "tradition" or "being connected", and that ideal is often what is really being chosen.
Darq-o: Please be careful with sweeping generalizations like: "Americans love mediocrity" --even when you use your own life and family to illustrate your point. I think there are people all over the world who settle for the mediocre either by choice or by circumstance -- but I would doubt very gravely that any of them "love" it.
Given a choice between the average and the superb, I think most people would choose the superb -- even Americans.
In grammer school, I was always one of the smart kids in class. It wasn't long before I started to feel shamed for this. By middle school, i was trying to get bad grades in order to be cool. I didn't succeed very well... regardless of my poor performance, It was hard for me to get less than a B.
I should never have graduated high school considering my performance. I skipped class regularly, and rarely completed assignments. When I did complete them, however, I always received good marks... and so, somehow, I graduated with a 2.9 GPA.
I grew up in a family of American Illiterates... meaning that they only read the traffic signs and advertisements that are placed in front of them. I was never encouraged to read books.
Americans love mediocrity. From the food they eat, to the words they speak. I am pleased to have developed a very defined hatred for such...
"A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences - sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine... Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit."
I'm not really sure what "education for citizenship" means, but if it has to do with creating a stronger sense of community among the general population (what over here in Europe we call "civil society"), I'm all for it and wish you all the best!
C_b, you're right. Understood largely, American culture is rich and vital and celebrates a number of things that have won it the admiration of people around the world, notably, individualism, egalitarianism, cultural diversity, human rights, democracy, altruism, religious faith, family, etc. – to mention things that seem to me particularly emphasized in the best of American culture. When I referred to "a culture that celebrates mediocrity and ignorance", I was thinking in narrower terms (and perhaps thinking narrowly) about America's infantilizing, profit-driven mass-media culture (TV, Hollywood blockbusters, the general press, advertising, etc.) which orients itself toward the lowest common denominator and acts appalled whenever someone tries to address Americans as intelligent adults. Sadly, it is this culture that seems to dominate public discourse in America today. There is nothing new about American anti-intellectualism, of course, but I think the "dumbing-down" of the public discourse over the past decade or so (and especially with the militaristic fear-mongering of the Bush II years) has been especially disheartening.
Rolig, I agree with everything you said, except that American culture "celebrates mediocrity and ignorance." Them's fighting words. Do you understand how insulting that statement is? I have to assume either "no," or that you truly believe it. Either way it makes me sad.
jmp, I sympathize with your anger at being second-guessed by an animated, indeed, overly animated, paper-clip. I too hate it when the grammar-check tells me that perfectly good constructions are wrong, or at least suspect. If you have confidence in your own grammar and spelling, just turn off the option that puts squiggly lines under everything the MS Word program thinks is wrong, and do a final spelling and grammar check at the end to catch typos.
As for the passive, sometimes you need it to express emphasis clearly. Certainly, there are times when it is the best choice. The wimpy indefinite "they" is to be avoided as much as possible, I think. (Would that sentence be better if I said: "Writers should avoid the wimpy indefinite "they" as much as possible"? Perhaps slightly, but it also changes the focus of the sentence.) And as Ms. Bear suggests, specific details usually make a sentence stronger (clearer, more muscular).
Also, to return to the question of perceived "elitism", I do appreciate American egalitarianism, and the desire to make texts as comprehensible to as wide a public as possible. But I wish that there was not such a stigma placed on learning, and that when a person reads a text with words she or he does not understand, the person is expected either to feel stupid for not knowing something or to blame the writer for being elitist. For most people, it really is not too difficult to learn things, and people should be encouraged to try. But such encouragement is unlikely to have much effect in a culture that celebrates mediocrity and ignorance.
Well I think the passive voice is entirely and solely adequate to whatever task I ask it to perform. I write what I want to write. How dare that paper-clip second-guess me? (Or do I mean, "How dare I be second-guessed by a paper-clip?") It's completely absurd. I can't see any instances of 'sloppy writing'.
@dontcry: As a 21st century teenager, I feel I should contribute this: don't lose hope. My generation may be easily distracted and far too involved in our TV and computer games, but not all of us. I am a voracious reader, as are a lot of my friends. And keeping books in the forefront of your kids' minds is the best way to encourage their reading. That's what did it for me. There were shelves and shelves full of books in my house. My mother is a librarian and I used to go to her library after school a lot and just pick books from the shelves at random. The love really is passed down from the parents.
re the whole passive tense thing: I hate it. I really really hate it. I hate it in English and in German. I hate it in German because it confuses me, and I hate it in English because I find it so dull and... clinical? I'm not sure that's the word I'm looking for. It reminds me of written procedures in text books and whatnot. "0.25M of hydrochloric acid is added to the beaker. A milky precipitate is formed". *hork*
That's an instance--"The Brooklyn Bridge was built..."--where it's probably okay to use passive voice (though "built 1870 - 1883" has a number of editorial problems with it, not least a missing preposition).
Still, I would argue pretty forcefully that the sentence would be far more informative and better constructed if it were "Historians estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 construction workers, most of them immigrants, built the Brooklyn Bridge," (or whatever the number or fact is) rather than lazily using the ubiquitous "They."
You asked why passive voice is flagged, and that's why. It's lazy. Of course there's a place for it, in English as well as any other language. MS Word flags it because a lot of passive sentences indicate sloppy writing. The percentage should be fairly low—though I admit I'm a raving lunatic on this point and 10% is pretty unrealistic, just for the type of instances that jmp indicates.
Edit: I don't think MS Word flags things to force changes. I think it flags things to make you aware of stuff you need to be aware of and might want to change. But that's neither here nor there--I just found the use of "force" to be rather arch and pointless. :)
1. I don't study enough sloppy text to calculate percentages. I know that when I worked as a journalist I was positively encouraged to use passive construction to foreground important information. Consider: "The Irish Government today announced a program to ..." *Yawn* A lot of readers will have switched off even before you arrive at what the story is about. Compare: "A program to castrate foxes was today announced by the Irish Government." This version has much more impact and is simply more effective in terms of delivering the key bit of information, ie. the 'news'. I therefore can not agree with the proposition that passive voice 'is not informative'.
2. Languages differ. Indonesian for example is a Subject-Verb-Object language as English is, yet the passive voice is used more commonly. Bentuk pasif shifts emphasis away from the speaker, which is highly admired in a society and culture that emphasises communal values over individual. It also tends to be very economical. For example, for the question Sudahkah mengebiri serigala?Have (you) castrated the fox?, the standard answers with positive polarity would be: Active - Saya sudah mengebirinya. Passive - Sudah saya kebirinya. The critical bit of information in either answer is sudah, the past tense marker which effectively turns receive into have received. This is elegantly foregrounded in the passive answer, which in turn often leads to the entire sentence being reduced to a single word, sudah. Perhaps because I spent a lot of time working with Indonesian I don't mind the tone of the passive voice. It seems quite natural to me even in English. As a translator I had to think long and hard about whether to convert the author's passive voice into a translated active. There's probably not much more I can say without over-generalising. But because I have been somewhat attuned to elegant passives, a politician's statement for example that uses the passive to avoid taking ownership of an issue is to me very recognisable. Like you, c_b, I abhor the passive being used in this way.
c_b: As a great-great, etc. granddaughter of a DAR, I know exactly what you are saying. Americans are 'git down to business' kind of people. Always were. And to those who came after, you're welcome.
As a 21st century mother of two children, I also know what you are saying. We read to our children from the time they were still wet behind the ears until they kicked us out of their beds at "reading-time" (about 12 or 13 years old *sniff*). I always was a BIG reader, my husband, 'meh.' Our kids have soooo many more distractions (not that it's all a bad thing...especially girls' sports) than we had, it's not surprising that they don't read as much as some of us older (gulp) folks do. But I firmly believe that they WILL -- IF we keep the books around, talk about the books, refer to the books, love the books...etc.
Rolig, I have no real answer for your question except a couple of thoughts that might apply. And I don't mean to sound argumentative, so I hope you (and anyone else) won't take offense. 1) The American penchant for irritation with perceived "elitism" has a long and ... I was going to say "glorious" but let's face it, it's more like "violent"... history. We are a nation of people who wish we were tough frontiersmen (and -women) who "ain't got no use for book-larnin'." (I coined that phrase. You're welcome.) We pride ourselves on being tough, strong, resourceful, inventive, profitable... Not necessarily on being brainiacs. 2) Not everyone does complete high school. 3) Not everyone who completes high school can read. 4) Of those who complete high school and can read, many do not see reading (even something as simple as a newspaper) to be a fruitful or interesting hobby, or worth their time. (I could give you a recent, startling example from my own life, but it would probably bore you.)
Consequently, things like newspapers, forms, and tax instructions are to be written at an "average" reading level to ensure maximum understanding.
This is not to say that more erudite materials are not available to those who want them. But for the purposes mentioned on this page, you want the maximum number of people to understand. And for that you use an "average" reading level.
I don't see anything particularly harmful about this practice. In fact I find it egalitarian and, in that sense, quite American.
Isn't there something strange about the fact that virtually everyone in America today is expected to complete high school, and yet newspapers, corporate documents, and other kinds of document don't expect people to be able to read above an eighth-grade level. I certainly approve of the kinds of protocols sionnach mentions, where one wants to be sure the patient understands what is going on. But generally I think the American media do far too much "talking down" to the public. The result is that when someone displays the least erudition or even the ability to speak articulately and knowledgeably on a subject he or she is accused of "elitism". What's wrong with expecting people to use a dictionary if they don't know a word? Isn't that more respectful than assuming they won't understand a twelfth-grade-level text?
I know that in the protocols for our clinical research studies, the informed consent form (which attempts to explain the study rationale, and its potential risks and benefits to participating patients) is supposed to be written at an 8th grade reading level. Anything fancier, and you couldn't be sure that all patients would have understood the risk adequately.
(Actually, having the patient understand the risks adequately is an impossible goal - nobody ever really does, and there is usually far too much anxiety and emotion floating around, particularly with seriously ill subjects. Plus humans are very bad at assessing risk anyway - our brains aren't wired for it. You'll get different enrolment rates if you say:
the data to date suggest 1 of 4 people receiving this treatment will die
the data to date suggest 3 of 4 people receiving this treatment will survive
though, obviously, both describe identical scenarios)
Because most newspapers are written at about a 7th-grade reading level. That's the reading level of standard informal American English. Anything higher than that is most likely inappropriate for corporate use (though obviously not for academic reading or medical/technical materials).
Anyway 7-8 is the target; I've not really seen a lot of stuff get produced in my work that is actually that low. It's usually more like 9-11. What we really have to watch for is the percentage of sentences using passive voice.