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This report is taken from PN Review 164, Volume 31 Number 6, July - August 2005.

Passive is Spoken Here William Germano

Silver spoons, real ones anyway, owe a lot of their charm to the hallmarks on the back of the stem. Academic writing has its own system of validation, its own hallmarks, and one is the passive voice. This is a strange development, considering how vigilant we are about over-use of the passive when we teach writing, and how insistent writing guides can be on this point. 'Whenever you come across a passive in your writing, recast the sentence with an active verb instead.' The examples tend to feature painful structures followed by why-didn't-I-think-of-that transformations. 'When the book had been read by the class, the next lesson was presented by the teacher' becomes 'When the students had read the book, the teacher presented the lesson.' Yet it's difficult to convince academic writers that avoiding the passive is a piece of advice meant for them.

In weak academic writing, passives are everywhere (I might have said 'passives are frequently used', but I wanted an active verb here.) If you were reading a poorly written letter or a grade-school composition, you might think that the writer simply didn't have sufficient command to write in direct and vivid terms. He might even have been aware of his limitations, embarrassed by the idea of expressing his opinion in a naked way, and taking refuge behind the curtain of the passive.

By the time a graduate has waded into the thick of a PhD programme and is toiling on the dissertation, ...


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