Revolt Against Bogus Writing Rule

October 20, 2011

Hear the applause? It’s me praising this articulate defense of writing with passive verbs when they’re the most effective way to communicate something. Avoiding the passive in favor of the active, like many “rules” of writing, is a well-intentioned but misguided proscription that I followed for years. Teachers preached it in high school. It was a mantra during my many years in the newspaper business. Some of my professors in a graduate writing program harped on avoiding passive constructions. Graduate students in writing critique groups, indoctrinated like me, relished pointing out passives. Countless times I twisted a well-turned passive clause or sentence into an active one, verbal contortions that reordered elements at the expense of the clearest possible expression. In the defense of passives linked to above, a professor of linguistics, Geoffrey Pullum, writes: “We really have to get over this superstitious horror about passives. It’s gone beyond a joke.”