Passionate About The Passive Voice Despite the advice of grammarians, linguist Geoff Nunberg believes in the usefulness of the passive voice.

Passionate About The Passive Voice

Passionate About The Passive Voice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Despite the advice of grammarians, linguist Geoff Nunberg believes in the usefulness of the passive voice.


50 years after its publication, Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" still influences our thinking about language, particularly our disapproval of the passive voice. But our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks the passive has gotten a bad rap.

Professor GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguistic, UC Berkeley School of Information): For its 50th anniversary edition, Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" has been given the full biblical treatment - in a shiny black hard cover with a title stamped in gold. But there was nothing less like a Bible when the book first appeared in 1959. It was more like a tract, an ostentatiously slender little volume that mixed sensible advice with idiosyncratic fetishes about punctuation and usage. The book had a quirky charm and its style was a model of pith. But by all rights, it should have gone out of print around 1965, if only so that its devotees could have the pleasure of hunting it down in the bargain bins of second hand book stores. Some critics have been hard on the book. In a recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Education, the linguist Geoff Pullum called it over opinionated and under informed, and said that it had degraded American student's grasp of English grammar.

But you can't fault Strunk & White if their whims and prejudices have been canonized and sucked up into a cloud of free floating linguistic folklore. It's just a sign of how muddled and reflexive our received linguistic wisdom has become. Take the way we vilify the passive voice as weak and wussy. Strunk & White disposed of this matter in 200 words and they actually weren't that doctrinaire about it.

But it's become an article of grammatical faith which teachers and usage guides defend with judiciously chosen examples. Compare, I kicked a can and a can was kicked by me. Can't you hear how the first is more vigorous, more muscular, more butch? But then there are plenty of passives that loose their own oomph when they're made into actives. Imagine some Strunk & White fan revising all the titles in the popular musical catalogues, so that we're left with The Animals' "Please Don't Let Anybody Misunderstand Me" and the Eurhythmics' "This Is What They Make Sweet Dreams Out Of." Not to mention Elvis's "Someone Or Something Has Shaken Me All Up."

But the popular rap on the passive isn't just that it's limp, but that it's deceptive, a way to avoid taking responsibility for your actions. The text book example is mistakes were made which CNN's Bill Schneider described as the past exonerative. That charge is due, not to Strunk & White, but to George Orwell's "Politics and the English language," another quirky usage essay that's been absorbed into the culture of wallpaper. The Orwellian overtones of the passive have become so strong that a lot of people use the term for any sentence that sounds evasive, whatever its grammatical structure happens to be.

On, a self-styled language expert name Paul Payack chastises Obama for using the passive in the sentence, there will be setbacks. In The New Republic, Jason Zengerle hears the passive voice in a prediction that Axelrod will become a lightning rod for public concern. And in a New Yorker piece, not long ago, Nancy Franklin ridiculed Bernard Madoff for using the passive voice when he said - when I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly. That statement may have been disingenuous, but it didn't have any passives in it. But the point was missed not just by Franklin but by the platoon of checkers and editors who famously vet every sentence before it can appear in the magazine.

If nobody can identify a passive sentence in E. B. White's own New Yorker, may be its time to abandon the term. On the language log blog, the linguist Mark Liberman was prompted to announce its end with phythonesque finality. Passive voice has ceased to be, it is expired, kicked the bucket, and shuffled off this mortal coil, it is an ex-grammatical term.

And certainly a lot of the confusion has to do with the term passive voice itself. The style guides are always saying things like: as the name implies, the passive makes writing sound weak and ineffectual. But the grammatical term passive doesn't have anything to do with passivity or unassertiveness. The Latin word Passivus is related to the word pati or suffer, the same route that shows up in the noun patient and in the Passion of Christ. The passive is just the construction we use to focus on the one who undergoes or endures the action of the verb. And if using the passive can sometimes be culpable, there are also times when it's morally imperative.

The writer Julia Kristeva once said that learning the passive is one of the things that makes us human. It's the device that enables us to put ourselves in the place of the people who wind up as the direct objects in history. The done-to rather than the doers. You think of all the nouns we derive from the passive forms of verbs, the abused, the oppressed, the persecuted, the dispossessed. And the passive voice is particularly useful to have around in a time when people are being laid off, tossed out of their homes, dropped from their medical plans and generally worked over.

There is a familiar cadence to those strings of passives. If the syntax Orwell used when he talked about history's victims, defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets, nothing limp about that.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist and the author of the new book "The Years Of Talking Dangerously." For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.