Alas poor passive, we hardly knew you

 Alas poor passive, we hardly knew you

It's standard practice among dispensers of business writing advice to rubbish the passive. Examples like "mistakes were made" and "the decision was taken to" and "it has been decided that" paint the picture of a clunky verbal construction that produces language that is invariably woolly, bureaucratic, evasive. While it's probably no bad thing to observe the maxim "keep 80 per cent of your verbs active", in practice it's not that simple.

For one thing, most business writers are not grammarians and find it quite hard to understand or recognise the passive in the first place. Many of the business writing manuals that ban the passive unwittingly make liberal use of it themselves (Language Log has some great examples), and many refer to the passive as a tense (it's not, it's a voice - it has been and can always be applied in any tense). When I worked for a major magazine empire, I remember a set of guidelines that was circulated to all journalists in the hopes of sharpening their writing skills. It contained a lengthy section on the passive, illustrated with three examples - two of which were actually in the active. Even as distinguished a passive-rubbisher as the Plain English Campaign has some trouble. It explains the passive as a reversal of the usual subject-verb-object order and gives the example: "The television [object] was watched [verb] by Peter [subject]". Now unless I'm mistaken, "the television" is surely the grammatical subject of "was watched". The whole point of the passive is that the subject of the verb is no longer the real doer of the action, but rather on the business end of the verb - while still being its grammatical subject. Compare: ACTIVE: The cats [subject] are chasing the mouse. PASSIVE: The mouse [subject] is being chased by the cats. If in the second sentence "the cats" is really the subject, we'd have to write "The mouse are being chased by the cats", which clearly won't do. It seems hard work to explain all this to writers, only to ask them to forget it all again. And when you set up a polarised example like the cats-and-mouse one, it's easy to see the passive sentence as a kind of evil twin of the active version. But this isn't how people actually write or come to use the passive, and it doesn't explain that there are plenty of times when a well-formed passive construction is just what's needed.

Despite its unpleasant name, which smacks of weakness and victimhood, the passive is a grammatical, not a moral, category. There are many good writers who naturally avoid cat-and-mouse passives quite unconsciously. There are also many marketing types who think an active verb is one that sounds kind of dynamic, like "punch" or "drive" or "deliver", or "buy now" instead or "purchase" - not a misconception that will do their writing much harm. The passive can be well used or ill; poor passives are just a by-product of a true evil: lazy writing. They're just one sub-set of a whole range of back-to-front constructions that annoy readers because they put the element that matters most to the writer first, and the bit the reader would prioritise last.

The commercial world is full of such sentences: "Call the product helpline on xxxxx if you live in Wales." "Download the pdf form to apply for membership." "Sign up for our newsletter and a chance to win free tickets to Paris." All of these sentences have the bit that matters to the reader last. If you've just created the pdf form or the newsletter, that's what is likely to be uppermost in your mind. But writing exists to be read and, if they are interested in you at all, your readers are interested in membership or Paris, not your pdf/newsletter creation skills. Good writing (and editing) is just this effort of thinking for your reader, and writing things their way round.

Language Log puts the point perfectly: "One of the hardest tasks in writing is taking the viewpoint of your audience, reading your own stuff the way your readers are likely to; putting the sentences in your head down on paper isn't enough." Fail to follow this advice, and you'll end up writing some unwieldy passive constructions. But don't blame your laziness on the poor passive which, after all, has many valid uses. Here's a few: "He was beaten and tortured but still refused to talk" [to emphasise what's been done to the subject] "Your bill hasn't been paid for three months" [to soften the blow] "The window was forced but nothing was taken" [unknown actor] "The architectural beauty of Grand Central Station is largely overlooked by the thousands of commuters who pass through its portals every day" [subject of corresponding active sentence would be too unwieldy] "The award was presented by Nelson Mandela himself" [suspense] Any more for any more? Back to the Plain English Campaign and a 1998 speech to the European Commission by founder Chrissie Maher : "Be personal and stay active. Use 'I', 'we' and 'you', and not titles and other paraphernalia, and use the active, not the passive, voice of a verb. It is surprising how much of a difference those little changes make to the tone and sense of what you are writing. And just because the passive has been used in the original language, that doesn't mean that you have to use the passive in English." "Has been used" is a passive, and a perfectly good one.