Quite a few readers, my wife included, were visibly shaken by my suggestion that we burn our copies of The Elements of Style, the famous “little book” originally written by William Strunk in 1918 for his students at Cornell and later edited and augmented for public consumption by Strunk’s most illustrious student, the essayist E.B. White. The book has been an invaluable resource since 1959 when it was first published for a mass market, and it has given many students like me a much-needed leg-up when we were first learning to write like grown-ups.
So what’s your problem, Hale?
Strunk and White’s discussion of the active voice has done more harm than good. They take an unnecessarily and misleadingly prescriptive posture that is not supported by their own analysis or by the example of their own prose, and they lump together a couple of unrelated issues in a way that was bound to create some confusion.
Their discussion of the active and passive voices is contained in their Section 14, “Use the active voice.” Opening on that prescriptive note, they then offer a couple of strawmen examples of bad sentences that use the passive voice. But the examples are not bad because of the passive voice.
Here’s the first one:
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
It’s a terrible sentence, yes, but it isn’t the passive voice that makes it so. The writer ends the sentence with a clause that seems virtually redundant, “by me,” except that without it, as Strunk and White note, readers are not sure who will always remember his first visit to Boston. If it matters who and you don’t want to (a) leave the reader uncertain about it and (b) sound stupid, then you wouldn’t use the passive voice for this sentence.
That’s not a problem with the passive voice itself, but with how the writer has flubbed making this sentence a coherent statement. But I might write the sentence the same way if I had a good reason to.
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by Betsy Callahan and her aunt Tooty, all thirty-seven members of the Beacon Hill Fire Station, a Chinese chef named Juan, and, not least of all, by me.
I think Strunk and White would admit that that’s a pretty good sentence, passive voice and all (even a little lapse in parallelism), because now those last two words come across as meaningfully emphatic. And who doesn’t want to read on to find out what went down between me and Betsy, Aunt Tooty, Chef Juan, and those 37 firefighters? That’s a good sentence: it makes the reader want to keep reading.
So the examples that Strunk & White give us are not clearly problems with the passive voice. But then, buried fairly deep in this section is a little nugget of wisdom that contradicts their insistence that we “use the active voice.” The authors note that “The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often… determine which voice is to be used.”
This is the most important thing—and the wisest—that the authors have to say on the subject (allowing, of course, for their use of the passive voice in the last clause): that the choice of which voice we use is an essential tool in organizing our sentences with care.
But this good and necessary observation gets muffled under the vociferous imperative: “Use the active voice.” And the lesson gets lost thereafter amid all the foolish blather spouted by later writers and teachers who simply parrot Strunk and White but with more feathers than flesh and bone.
Let me say this as emphatically as I can. English has a passive voice because it serves some very good and important purposes. It gives us more latitude to organize our sentences meaningfully. It lets us decide which information is important to include and which can be left out. And it lets us be diplomatic. The only problem with the passive voice is the same problem with any element of composition: if you’re doing it by default, you’re writing without having your brain in gear.
There are some other problems with Strunk and White’s discussion of the active voice. One is that half of the discussion contained in this section doesn’t have anything to do with the active voice. Fully half of the section is devoted to idiomatic locutions such as “there is” which the authors see as a problem, but are fuzzy about why. (It’s not a passive construction, and I will say more about the problem with their problem with “there is” in part two of this piece.)
So, my general argument with The Elements of Style is that the authors are unnecessarily and sometimes confusingly prescriptive. They tell us to use the active voice and then note that we can use the passive voice to help arrange words in a sentence meaningfully. Then, without warning, their discussion of the active voice turns to something else entirely different.
And I can’t end here without noting that the authors do not consistently follow their own advice. Indeed, they use the passive voice quite frequently. Toward the end of the section they write: “Note, in the examples above, that when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter.” The clause, “when a sentence is made stronger,” is needlessly passive.
We can revise it, as Strunk & White advise, to make the clause active: “Note, in the examples above, that when we make a sentence stronger, we usually make it shorter.” But then, using the active voice as they say, to make the sentence stronger, also makes the sentence longer which, according to them, usually makes it weaker.
Stronger and weaker? Active and longer?
Burn, baby, burn.