active voice, passive voice

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What's Passive Voice? What's Aggresive Voice?

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Xah Lee, 2010-10-02

In writing, you know that there is passive voice and active voice, right? And the writing style guilds tell us, that we should use active voice. In the following sentences, can you tell which is active voice and which is passive voice?

  • (1) At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.
  • (2) There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
  • (3) It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had.
  • (4) The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

Take 5 min to answer before you read on.

The Language Log recently has a blog asking readers to identify passive/active voice. (Apparantly, they've been beating this horse for a while, but i only started to read Language Log last month.) Before i tackle the question and post my redoubtable comment with implicit offense at grammarians, i thought to myself: it's been some 17 years when i read anything technical about passive/active voice in Strunk & White... so let me make a quick stop at Wikipedia to refresh myself just so i won't come out a fool.

So, my first stop is at: Passive voice. And WHAM! It is incomprehensible, and to ME!? To understand the article well, i'll have to delve into my brain and read it carefully about all the “subject”, “verb”, “object”, “adjective”, “adverb”, “aux verb”, and perhaps reacquaint myself with the evil “split infinitives”. Fuck that. By my mastery of info age, i took the shortcut and went directly to the article English passive voice instead. The article there is still a bit dense, but i found the above 4 examples about passive voice, quoted right from “Strunk & White”, except that 3 of them are actually active voice! The source of this is from:

  • 〈50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice〉 (2009-04-17) By Geoffrey K Pullum. The Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (32): B15.


The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.


What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors: ...

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that's a mistake. It's an adjective here. “Become” doesn't allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

So here we are.

I pride myself as a good writer (n i'd like to think within top 100 on this earth), albeit with unique usage and style. (See: The Writing Style on I read “Strunk & White”'s The Elements of Style in the early 1990s, i think twice, among quite a few other writing guides and advices. I've seen countless advices for active voice in the past 20 years, everywhere. For example, here's quote from GNU Emacs Lisp Reference Manual: Documentation Tips. Quote:

Write documentation strings in the active voice, not the passive, and in the present tense, not the future. For instance, use “Return a list containing A and B.” instead of “A list containing A and B will be returned.”

Not until today, i realized, just how much i did not understand what is Active voice and Passive voice, and when you look into this issue, such as Wikipedia article on it, you see that it is quite technical. Unless you have a good study of linguistics, you wouldn't understand it. And of course, the common advices on “active” voice, even from professional style guides, are just totally clueless.

Today, “passive voice” simply means sentences that do not sound dynamic or in action. The word “passive” in “passive voice” just mean the opposite of “aggresive”. So, if a sentence sounds lame, it is passive voice! And, actually, for pop communication, i think i endorse this interpretation; screw linguistic history.

Here's one of the article from Language Log about this issue:

  • 〈“Passive Voice” — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.〉 (2009-03-12) By Mark Liberman. At: Language Log

PS for those you who got it wrong, don't feel bad. Few people on this earth can get it right, and most of them mob toilets at McDonalds. Just be happy that we all understand split infinitives, at least.

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