“Use the active voice” – full stop

Here is one example of the effect which following up on Strunk and White’s linguistic advice may have (see last week’s blog post on this):

He spent a considerable portion of 1802 in Nellore collecting manuscripts, interviewing local Brahmins whom they considered accomplished poets, collecting information on local libraries and their contents, and finally translation work (p. 137).

(Thanks to my husband for the example.) They? Who are they in this context? The subject in the preceding clause is “he”, pronominalising Lakshmaya in the sentence before that. Is this the work of a copy-editor, alerted to a passive (“who were considered accomplished poets”) and applying Strunk and Whites dictum “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive” (p. 18 in my copy)? (If so, he or she may have been pleased to be able to change the who into whom at the same time.)

Nearly five years ago I reported on a conference paper by the late Geoffrey Leech on this blog, called “Decline and (?)disappearance: The negative side of recent changes in Standard English”. The passive was one construction under threat according to Leech, which he attributed to the over-zealous application of prescriptive rules in popular (American) usage guides like Strunk and White. So, copy-editors at OUP’s New Delhi branch and elsewhere: keep the passives in, this will keep them alive and “vigorous”, but will stop us from making grammatical blunders in the first place.

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2 Responses to “Use the active voice” – full stop

  1. Paul Brians says:

    Politicians and bureaucrats will always keep the passive voice alive. It allows them to evade responsibility.

  2. adrianstenton says:

    Of the two books I have on Indian English (Nihalani, P., Tongue, R.K. and Hosali, P. (1979) Indian and British English: A Handbook of Usage and Pronunciation; Yadurajan, K.S. (2001) Current English: A Guide for the User of English in India), both published by OUP Delhi/New Delhi, the latter has a section on the passive, which includes: “… in cases where the subject of the active sentence is unknown or unimportant, English naturally uses the passive voice, ‘This road was laid in 1920.’ (We are not interested in who the contractor was that built the road.) ‘He was killed in the war.’ (We don’t know which enemy soldier killed him.) ‘He was fined for violating the traffic signals.’ (To say that the police fined him is pointless.) In all such cases the normal construction is in the passive voice. There is no point in framing them in the active voice.”
    So perhaps the OUP copy-editors do not follow their own dictums/dicta!

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