Tuesday, January 13, 2009


The Much Maligned Passive Voice

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946):
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Many teachers and self-proclaimed authorities cling to this prohibition against the passive voice like Queequeg to his idol Yojo. I am curious to learn when the prohibition first arose.

I've been reading some of Samuel Johnson's essays from the Rambler and observing how he used the passive voice. I suspect, although in the absence of statistics I can't prove, that Johnson and other great English prose stylists alternated on purpose between the active and passive voices for the sake of variety. See, for example, the first sentence of Rambler 186 (Dec. 28, 1751):
Of the happiness and misery of our present state, part arises from our sensations, and part from our opinions; part is distributed by nature, and part is in a great measure apportioned by ourselves.
Related post: Tense and Voice.

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