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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Passive Voice

The same insatiable criticism may be traced in the efforts for the reform of Education. The popular education has been taxed with a want of truth and nature. It was complained that an education to things was not given. We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods, we cannot tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We are afraid of a horse, of a cow, of a dog, of a snake, of a spider. The Roman rule was, to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing. The old English rule was, 'All summer in the field, and all winter in the study.


Ralph Waldo Emerson is not afraid to use the passive voice, as in this passage where I have helpfully italicized some passive constructions. Really, there is nothing wrong with the passive voice per se. I was brought up to hate it, but really it is almost unavoidable: only the most strenuous and puritanical effort would eliminate it from normal academic prose. Go to your bookshelf and look at page 44 of any random scholarly monograph. Count the number of passive constructions and you will usually find between 2 and 10.

In Emerson's day the passive was not stigmatized by overzealous instructors. You could say that this passage exploits the passive by using it it heavily at the beginning and then switching to the active. You might even say that the most vivid writing here comes about when he makes this switch, and I wouldn't contest that, but doesn't that writing seem even more vivid because the writer has just used a stiffer, more unwieldy tone in sentences like "The popular education has been taxed with a want of truth and nature"?

The prose of good writers is elastic, moving to the rhythm of the thoughts expressed. You can feel the movement of the writer's mind. There is no mechanical suppression of a certain construction, a certain stylistic mode.


Vance Maverick said...

Agreed of course that passive constructions are OK. But I do think those first sentences of this extract suffer from the defect attributed to the passive voice -- that they're evasive about agency. Person or persons unknown have been making a criticism...and then it turns out that it's Emerson who wants to make it. I can see veiling the agent if you're setting up a contrast, but here it seems arbitrary. Moving into the fourth sentence (still containing passives, as you highlight) is like a sudden awakening.

Jonathan said...

Sometimes you want to be vague about agency. Emerson wanted to, evidently--maybe because he wants to attribute the opinion to a wider set of people than merely himself. When he switches to active voice he also uses the first person plural, but that is perhaps a different group than the one in the first half of the paragraph.

Clarissa said...

I was criticized so much for using passive constructions that now I'm even afraid to write "Galdos's Gloria was published in 1877."