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How did the passive voice get such a bad name?

Many grammatical superstitions and biases can be traced back to overreaching and misguided language critics: the prohibitions concerning sentence-final prepositions, split infinitives, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, or using contractions or the first person.

One bias whose origin is more elusive is the dissing of the passive voice. When did writers concerned with writing start to worry about the passive? My best guess is the early twentieth century, after college education had expanded and freshman composition became a staple of the English curriculum.

In 1871, Harvard’s president Charles William Eliot complained that young men entering his university exhibited “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, [and] ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation.” Shortly thereafter, in 1885, Harvard required a course in freshman composition known simply as English A. By 1890, the majority of American colleges had followed Harvard’s lead in requiring a composition course.

Textbooks for the courses appeared, including Barrett Wendall’s 1891 English Composition. Regarding the passive, Wendall simply remarked that its function “is to effect a separation between an action and the agent” and that “we may with perfect propriety wish to express either” the passive or active voice.

Wariness of the passive shows up in the privately-printed first edition of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style in 1918. Strunk wrote that the active voice was “more direct and vigorous” than the passive, which “sometimes results in indefiniteness.”

Strunk was not the first to come to this conclusion. In his introduction, he wrote that George McLane Wood had contributed examples to the discussion of the passive. Wood was the editor of the US Geological Survey, and his 1913 Suggestions to Authors warned about the “undesirable use” of the passive when conjoined with the active, as in “These creeks flow through broad valleys until the brink of the Clealum Valley is reached” and similar examples.

Strunk also cited other works, notably The King’s English by the brothers Fowler as well as Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1916 book On the Art of Writing. The Fowlers merely mention the “trap” of vagueness that arises in complex sentences, prescribing “we must admit” in place of “it must be admitted” and “that they put forward” in place of “a policy put forward.” Quiller-Couch offered three bits of advice on straightforward prose: prefer the concrete to the abstract, prefer the direct word to the circumlocution, and

Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its’s and was’s, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. …

The passive is also mentioned in the 1918 Century Handbook of Writing by Garland Greever and Easley Jones. It gave one hundred rules of writing; rule 46 was titled “The Weak Effect of the Passive Voice” and asserted, “Use the active voice unless there is a reason for doing otherwise. The passive voice is, as the name implies, not emphatic.”

As composition textbooks flourished in the early twentieth century, screeds about the passive were common; linguist Arnold Zwicky has documented several from the 1930s and 1940s including one that gives a two-page attack on the passive style and the passive voice, which “shows action in reverse” and “makes meaning static.”

By the time, George Orwell flatly stated, “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” in his 1946 “Politics and the English Language,” bias against the passive was pretty much fixed in the rhetorical canon. The mass publication of The Elements of Style in 1959 introduced that oversimplification to generations of American writers, but its origins lie in George McLane Wood’s Suggestions to Authors and Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures On the Art of Writing.

And there’s no need to shy away from it.

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