Believe it or not, I do put clear and accurate communication ahead of grammatical perfection, at least when it comes to technical and scientific writing. When it comes to fiction, I’d say that the ability to tell an good story well comes first. But grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the tools of the trade, and using them correctly means removing speed bumps that stand between the minds of the writer and the reader.
In He Said, She Said, I wrote:
Until recently, the best way to start a flamewar among writers was to ask, perhaps disingenuously, ‘What’s so wrong with passive voice?’
My friend Neeraj (whom I delight in driving to the dictionary with words like “disingenuously”) asked:
So, what should be the priority then? Active or Passive, does it matter in a technical blog too? I remember in my school days, our science teacher used to say that examiner should be able to understand the explanation for science and the English part can be neglected if its fine but not correct or perfect. Don’t I have the exclusion here then?
PS: Though the medium was English but still English is not our primary language and I wonder why I read all the subjects in English then?
I would agree with the science teacher, that in technical and scientific writing, clarity should be the #1 priority. This question brings to mind the old verse:
Johnny was a chemist,
But Johnny is no more –
For what he thought was H2O
English as Lingua Franca
First, to answer the question of “Why English?” I’m tempted to say, “Because Chinese requires double the space on a hard drive and it’s so darned hard for the rest of us to learn!” but instead, I’m going to point to another article that explains it in historical terms: FYI: How Did English Get To Be The International Language Of Science? For another viewpoint, one that argues the dangers inherent in English as the lingua franca of Science and other fields, see The Global Imperialism of English: Impacts on Science.
What is Passive Voice?
Before discussing priorities and grammar, let’s make sure everyone “gets” what we mean by passive vs. active voice. Active voice is nice and direct: Somebody did something. Maybe they did it to someone, but we know who did it. This is the language of children and good journalists. “Bob robbed the bank.” Or, “I shot the Sheriff.”
In passive voice, something is being done. We don’t know by whom; we’re left to guess. “The Deputy was shot, but he is expected to live.” In the first part of the sentence, passive voice is used because we don’t know who shot the Deputy. (All I know is, it wasn’t me!) If we knew, though – if the ugly truth was that the Sheriff shot the Deputy – then using passive voice to cover it up is wrong.
In the second part of the sentence, “…but he is expected to live,” we could rewrite that to say, “but his doctors, nurses, family, coworkers, and members of the press corps expect him to live.” Does it matter who expects? Not really – the fact that he’s not likely to die is the whole point, so there’s nothing wrong with using passive voice there, either.
Priority: Active or Passive?
Back to the matter of clarity: Which is clearer? Which is more complete, precise, and accurate?
- The flower was opened.
- The warmth and UV rays of the sun opened the flower.
In most non-fiction, active voice is the better choice unless the answer is “I don’t know” or “It doesn’t matter.”
In fiction – as opposed to journalism – a little caginess is allowed. Imagine a murder mystery. The lead detective arrives on the scene:
“The victim lay sprawled across the lawn. Her skull was cracked open; gray matter flecked the green grass. It appeared that she had been bludgeoned with a heavy object. The depth of the injury suggested that the perpetrator was enraged…”
Who cracked the victim’s skull and how? Who bludgeoned her and with what? Who or what made the perpetrator so angry? If I told you that on page one, what would be the point of reading the book?
From the detective character’s point of view – that point of view through which the writer wants the reader to see the scene – the answer is, “I don’t know.” And so, passive voice is quite appropriate. But the goal of a mystery is ultimately to find out, and put responsibility where it belongs. Before we’re done, the perpetrator – whoever he is – will have done something, and we will know why. We’ll know with what. And we will turn that passivity into action:
“Desperate to cover up his crimes, Michael Justice had beat Maryann senseless with a shovel. It infuriated him to think that this meek little woman could not only reject his advances – she could end him. He thought she was the only one who knew about the six other women buried beneath the rows of corn in his back yard, but he was wrong. Though the police had not taken the hysterical woman seriously, at first, her brutal murder demanded that they follow up on her tip. The killer’s trial was swift. Realizing that life in prison, the best he could hope for, amounted to the life of a caged animal, he chose not to appeal. As the clock ticked midnight, the coroner pronounced the prisoner dead. The state had executed Justice.”
For more examples, see Passive Voice: When to Use It and When to Avoid It. You might also find The Passive Voice is a Hoax! amusing. It makes a very valid point – similar to the one that could be made of lawyers, contracts, journal articles, and the use of obfuscating “legalese.”
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