Saturday, August 16, 2008

Passive Aggression

Someday--maybe, if I get around to it--I'll explain why the usage guide in the fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (chapter 5, "Grammar and Usage," by Bryan A. Garner) was not a good idea. For the moment, though, I'll comment on a part of it that isn't bad at all: section 5:112, on active and passive voice. Garner goes into great detail, and to his credit he doesn't scold. All he says about style is the last sentence: "As a matter of style, passive voice {the matter will be given careful consideration} is typically, though not always, inferior to the active voice {we will consider the matter carefully}" (curly brackets in original).

By the way, there's a problem in Garner's description of the passive. Says he, "The passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb's past participle....Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit, the past participle must always appear." I believe--and I may be incorrect--that the infinitive is considered uninflected. But it's common for a passive to be formed with the infinitive of to be, as in this sentence. If I'm correct about infinitives being uninflected, then restricting the formation of the passive to inflected forms of to be is incorrect. If I'm incorrect about this, then all verb forms are inflected, "inflected form of to be" is synonymous with "form of to be," and "inflected" here is just a wasted word. Since I'm not sure of myself on this, I'd appreciate your comments.

(There are a few other comment-worthy items in this quotation from Garner--"colloquial usage" [redundant according to his definition of usage, but he uses the phrase a lot] and "sometimes implicit" [he seems to be inconsistent in his acceptance of implicit words]--that are off-topic for the moment. I hope to come back to them in later posts.)

The manual itself is full of passive sentences. Opening it at random, I came to sections 9:56 through 9:63. These sections include 10 sentences with passive voice and 15 without--40 percent are passive. This figure includes cross-references--sentences in which the verb is see in the imperative--among the nonpassives. If we omit these from the calculation, we get 10 sentences with passive and 9 without--53 percent passive.

The point here is not to mock either Garner or the manual (which I hold in the highest reverence, and I'm not joking about that). We've all heard (and perhaps participated in? hmmm?) griping about the passive voice, but in some contexts it seems preferable to the active. Among those contexts are statements of how things are done--they're a given, and that's that, and we don't need to say who says so--and fiats from an authority figure. Both of which apply to the manual.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Garner is wrong (not for the first time). The passive is formed with the appropriate form of "to be" + the past participle.

The Ridger, FCD said...

ps - I'm far more likely to be found arguing for the virtues of the passive than against it. One should use it appropriately, but what isn't that true of?

Ed Absurdum said...

I loved your essay on the virtues of the passive. And you're right about Garner having some experience with being wrong. I plan several future posts that will feature him.