Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Zwicky on passives for Dummies

Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has an interesting post on the much-maligned passive in the For Dummies books.

According to Steele, Dr. Alan Rubin, author of Diabetes for Dummies
said he had some friendly discussions with his editors about the passive-voice rule. "Sometimes I'll write something like 'the patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone,' and they'll change that to 'the patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone,' " Rubin said. "I have to tell them these are extremely sick patients, they can't take care of themselves, they have to be passive whether Wiley likes it or not."

Ok, the patient was passive (comatose, in fact), but does the sentence have to be Yet another demonstration of why the technical term passive is not such a great choice.) Of course not. It could be recast as something like "the patient was comatose, so the doctor gave her/him thyroid hormone", though that's longer and also introduces the doctor as an important participant in the story. There are ways we --oh, sorry, you -- can avoid passive and keep the sentence short: "the patient was comatose and got thyroid hormone". The VP "got thyroid hormone" in this version is not passive in form, true, but it also takes subjects denoting a recipient, rather than an agent, so if you dislike the passive because you want agentive subjects, this version won't really make you happy. But then "was comatose" doesn't take agentive subjects either, and it's hard to see how you could convey the coma information with a VP that takes agentive subjects; you can devise non-copular VPs --"lapsed/fell into a coma", for instance -- but their subjects denote affected persons rather than agents.

As I have discussed here, the only way to really make your writing vigorous and manly is to eschew all the girly non-agentive constructions and verbs.

1 comment:

David said...

A very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

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