The Passive Voice Discussed by Someone Other Than Me.

Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy has two worthwhile posts about the passive voice. Enjoy:

“The supposed sins of the passive voice (part 1 — misidentification)”


“The supposed sins of the passive voice (part 2 — when the passive voice is better than the active, or at least as good)”

I agree with most everything in these two posts, but I want to stress two things. First, as Volokh says:

It seems . . . that passive voice is indeed often bad, for three reasons: (1) It tends to be less engaging, (2) it usually adds a few more words and some extra grammatical complexity, and (3) it sometimes obscures who’s actually doing something. “The dog was bitten by the man” is an example of passive voice bringing less verve, and requiring more words, than the active. “Mistakes were made” is the cliche example of passive voice as obfuscation or barrier to analysis.

Second, the most important point, the one I stress every time I talk about the rules of English with my students, is this: You are the boss of your writing. You’re in charge. Thus, you can break any rule in A Writer’s Reference if you do it purposefully and intelligently.

On another note, I must stand up for Strunk and White The Elements of Style*. Volokh quotes Geoff Pullum of Language Log, who casts a disparaging word in the direction of the little book or at least its advice on the passive voice (though, having read Pullum’s post before, I know he’s not a fan of the entire book). I disagree for two reasons.

First, the book lays out grammar and punctuation in an engaging style, one that will hold the reader’s interest from start to finish, unlike most books on grammar and punctuation. And because the reader will actually read the book, she will come away knowing much more than she would had she bought a thicker, boring guide, one of those “longer, lower textbooks–books with permissive steering and automatic transitions.”

Second, as I’ve written elsewhere, The Elements of Style is worth all the other grammar and usage guides if only to read and re-read the introduction. Strunk’s advice to “Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!” ring in my ear every time I write or revise. Oddly, Pullum criticizes even this advice. He’s wrong, of course. Writers–student or otherwise–need constant reminders to omit needless words, even when they know which words are needless.

White’s paragraph describing the reader as “a man floundering in a swamp” is a description of audience I use again and again to help my students understand their job as writers. And so, contra Mr. Pullum, I recommend you get “the little book”!

*For reasons I outline here, I prefer the 3rd edition to the 4th.

The Progeny of Florida v. Jardines

My Honors 300: Writing in the Law students from the last two semesters will find this interesting. Remember that Florida v. Jardines involved a drug sniffing dog on the porch/curtilage of a home. Remember also that the dog and its handler stayed on the porch for some time, longer than someone who knocks and leaves. Well, the Court of Appeals of Indiana (a state court) in J.K. v. State just relied on Jardines to rule that officers need to knock and leave. That is, police officers have an implied invitation to approach a door and to knock on it. They can’t, well, do the following:

The officers surrounded J.K.’s residence around one o’clock in the morning and repeatedly knocked on the door for over forty-five minutes. During that span of time, the officers peered through the windows and continuously yelled into the house demanding that an occupant answer the door.

You can read the opinion at the link above or read a summary on The Volokh Conspiracy.