Mistakes were made: Lillian Clementi on the passive voice {guest post}

Lillian Clementi is the Managing Principal of Lingua Legal (TM). She has over 15 years’ experience in translation, editing, and document review. She’s also known for her conference presentations on good writing and comparative style in French and English.

Lillian is certified by the American Translators Association for French-to-English translation. She also holds a German-to-English translation certificate from New York University; an M.A. in French, with a focus on translation, from George Mason University; and a B.A. in French from Loyola University.

Many thanks to Lillian for sharing her expertise with us today!

. . . . .

Mistakes were made.

This is the kind of passive sentence that can get you in trouble. The kind that Edward Johnson, author of The Handbook of Good English, calls “the pussyfooting passive.” The kind that makes style writer Patricia T. O’Conner say that “a passive verb can be the next best thing to a lie.”

In many cases they’re right: there’s no denying that the passive is overused, and it often offends not only against our moral sense―by allowing the actor to abdicate responsibility―but also against good style, by making text longer and harder for the reader to understand.

But the passive can also be very useful. Geoffrey K. Pullum, one of the co-authors of the The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, argues that “the passive is a perfectly useful and respectable type of clause; there is no merit in blanket warnings against it.” Even O’Conner concedes that it has legitimate uses.

Among them is what Johnson calls “the trouble-saving passive,” which he describes as “capable of expressing thoughts and shades of meaning that the active voice cannot express, and is even sometimes more compact and direct than the active voice.” Here’s an example:

Capone was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and sent to prison.

If what you need is a quick summary of what happened to Al Capone, this is a very elegant solution. Active voice would actually make the text longer, since we’d have to bring in a whole courthouse full of people—police, prosecutors, judge and jury. In fact, the English passive can be very useful and efficient in a variety of situations. As Johnson notes, “If the agent is too obvious, too unimportant, or too vague to mention, the passive is usually better.”

And there’s more. In Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession, C. Edward Good lists a total of eight advantages of using the passive. For now, let’s focus on three.

  • Advantage no. 1: as we saw a moment ago with our friend Al Capone, the passive can streamline your writing by eliminating unimportant information.
  • Advantage no. 2: the passive can turn nouns into verbs when we don’t know the subject. This is a plus because―as we all know―English generally prefers verbs over nouns. Compare these two sentences:

Sorting of these articles is now underway.

These articles are now being sorted.

The first version here has what legal writing guru Bryan Garner calls a “buried verb”: the real action is in the subject (sorting), and the whole sentence is running on one anemic little auxiliary (is). The passive version resurrects the buried verb and buys us a cleaner sentence structure.

  • Advantage no. 3: the passive helps avoid the his/her problem. Take a look at this example:

Alternatively, the shareholder may receive the next-highest whole number of shares and pay the difference in cash on the date the option is exercised.

Make this sentence active, and politically correct English requires the tiresome “… on the date he/she exercises his/her option.” Not to mention that the shareholder could easily be an “it.” The passive allows us to dodge all of that, I think very neatly.

Bottom line: the passive is a perfectly legitimate and extremely valuable resource. Used well, it can actually make your writing simpler, cleaner and more elegant.

One last example:

The decision not to hand over power to the former opposition leaders … means the United States will occupy Iraq much longer than initially planned, acting as the ultimate authority for governing the country until a new constitution is authored, national elections held, and a new government installed. (Washington Post, June 8, 2003)

Here the passive is extremely economical, packing in a lot of information without making an already complex sentence more cumbersome, or getting away from the point―which is not to identify the actors, but to tick off a laundry list of the actions that need to be completed before the occupation can end. Try rewriting this in the active voice and see what kind of, um, quagmire you get into.

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10 thoughts on “Mistakes were made: Lillian Clementi on the passive voice {guest post}

  1. I am going to read this later today. This is so useful. The other day I was translating a legal/consumer rights document and the Italian source text was in passive voice. Using passive voice in Greek would sound vague and as if talking to “someone else” and not the addressee. I was lucky to have the English translation of that same text which was really helpful to understand that you can’t be too literal about certain things. Lillian Clementi is a true professional.

  2. Hi new Cali Girl! We miss you here at NCATA (NCTA, NCATA, must be a little confusing for some people, but at least NCATA no longer seems to be confused with other NCATA’s, like the National Chapter for Acrobatics and Trampoline Artists!). Read your posts about ABBYY – good stuff. I am still an ABBYY fan (PC). Also read Lillian’s guest post the other day, terrific as she always is (when I first recommended her to you as a top “get” for your blog, I may have mentioned to you that she was a former NCATA president and still a member and presenter). Anyway, I wonder if you would also post this to NCATA’s social media, or let Cece do this (Lillian is a-okay with this if you are).
    Give a shout now and again to us here in the DC metro! Fondly, Marjon

  3. Pingback: On the English language | translation, untangled

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  5. Pingback: Posts of the Day – May 2014 | Tranix Translation & Proof-Editing Services

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