Re: Active vs. Passive

Subject: Re: Active vs. Passive
From: "Charles P. Campbell" <cpc -at- PRISM -dot- NMT -dot- EDU>
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 1994 15:01:17 MST

>"The legs were attached to the table using screws."

Passive voice, all right.

>"The carpenter attached the legs to the table with screws."
>Clearly the active sentence is not in the third person.

The carpenter sentence is active, all right, but definitely in
the third person.

I'm a whole lot less sanguine than I used to be that very many
people actually understand grammatical terminology any more. Students
in my editing class often discover that they have heard grammatical
lingo but don't really understand what the terms mean--don't readily
distinguish, for example, among voice, tense, and person as
characteristics of verbs. The problem seems to be one of hierarchy
and relationship rather than of simple unfamiliarity. Is it that
people aren't learning foreign languages? (Many of us learned more
about English grammar by studying foreign languages than by any other
single means.)

Those of you who clearly understand basic grammatical terms, flush
this message now. The rest is for the grammatically insecure. (Nice
thing about lurking on the net is that you don't have to let your
insecurities show.)

First person, "I attach the legs with screws."
Second person, "You attach the legs with screws."
Third person, "He/she/the carpenter attaches the legs . . ."

Compare instructions "Attach the legs with screws" (second person,
"you" implied in imperative mood of verb) with "the purchaser must
attach the legs with screws" (third person, with the purchaser having
to identify with the abstract character "purchaser").

Active voice, "[Somebody] attaches the legs."
Passive voice, "The legs are attached."

Note that in the active form, the attacher is the subject of the
sentence. In the passive sentence, the attacher isn't there.

So far so good. We seem to run into trouble whenever somebody's
style guide tells us always to prefer either the active of the
passive. Now, in general, active sentences are less trouble to
interpret, but in many contexts scientific and technical, we're
more interested in the attachee than the attacher. In other
contexts, the passive helps us maintain coherence in paragraphs
by keeping us focused on a single topic. Compare these paragraphs:
The legs are packed in a special carton enclosed within
the table top. They will be attached to the table top
with the special hardware found in the plastic bag within
the legs' carton. Also included in this bag are special
snubbers that prevent damage to the legs.
Do we care who packed the legs or who's going to attach them? No.
Passive voice keeps us focused on legs and associated parts.

But suppose we're writing assembly instructions: we'd want to keep
the assembler as the subject of most sentences (that is, you):
First, find the carton that contains the legs. It is tucked
under the table top. Remove the legs carefully. Then
open the plastic bag and remove the special hardware (see
diagram) that you will need to attach the legs to the table
top. Also included in this bag are snubbers . . .
Here we've used active voice to involve the reader/assembler, but
mixed it with passive structures.

Moral: understand grammar. Avoid active/passive dogma.

And have a good weekend.

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