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THE VOICE OF PASSIVITY

I got an odd query the other day. Was it right, a reader asked, citing the phrase the school was upgraded, to use the passive voice there, rather than the active — the assessors (say) upgraded the school?

The short answer is, why not? Active and passive have been part of English — indeed of any language I know — since it was born. I replied quoting the American declaration of independence in 1776: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights... etc. Not God created/endowed them.

The truths, in fact, were not self-evident at all in the 18th century. Worse, many who signed the declaration never believed for a second that all men were equal, if those men were black. But no matter, as far as grammar goes. They were not expert in humanity, but they were in English.

Real intention

I could have gone further back. To the Church of England’s 1662 prayer book: Jesus was made man, and was crucified.... To Shakespeare: our revels now are ended. To Chaucer: love will not be constrained. Three pillars of the English language; are we to imagine they didn’t know it?

Yet this is not the full answer. Where did this anti-passivism come from? It began —like the advice, “use the short, Anglo-Saxon word, not the long Latin one” — in reaction against Victorian verbosity. He shot the tiger is four words, the tiger was shot by him is six. It was strengthened by a dislike of the ‘double passive’, as in the order was attempted to be carried out. That’s an example from a recent textbook, and horrid it is. I’m less sure about another example, a new definition was sought to be inserted in the bill; ugly, but not unusable, I’d say. And the murderer was sentenced to be hanged is perfect English, whatever it may be in penal theory. But so far, so good.

From this, however, it was a long step to George Orwell’s famous essay of 1946, “Politics and the English Language”, in which he declared flatly: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Like much else in that essay, this was over the top.

It is often argued that the active is more vigorous than the passive. It may be. But so what? Which is better: he was delayed by floods or floods delayed him? The true criterion is not vigour or its reverse, but what is the matter of real interest. Is it him and his delay, or the causes of that delay? I’d choose the first sentence, the passive one, here.

No rule

It’s easy to think up such examples. Take India was once ruled by the British. That’s the obvious choice in a history of India. Go for the British once ruled India if it’s their empire that you’re on about. The Americans of 1776 were on about the rights of man, not the beneficence of God.

Yet Orwell’s ‘rule’ figures regularly in those witty lists of common errors: Avoid clichés like the plague. Never use exclamation marks!!! The passive is to be avoided. He laid down five rules. Most were sound — certainly sounder than the way he damned some quite inoffensive words that offended him. But this rule is no rule at all.

Happily, Orwell added a sixth rule: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Well said. Sorry, I mean he said that well.