October 30th, 2013


Passive Workshop: What Orwell really said (Session 10)

In the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell expressed concern that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” To overcome these bad habits, he suggested six rules: beware of tired metaphors, use shorter words, cut out unnecessary words, prefer everyday English, and avoid saying anything outright barbarous or ugly. The fourth, most famous rule is:

Never use the passive when you can use the active.

Then, he added:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. … Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

He offered these examples involving the passive voice:

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Here, passive voice is a way to avoid naming the responsible parties, who deserve damnation.

Of course, we’re considering the literary use of language. And Orwell said this about that:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. … [O]ne can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person.

Despite Orwell’s concern (which was politics, not literature) and his caveat (that meaning should come first, then the exact words), his rule about passive voice gets quoted as ironclad. Stephen King, in On Writing, says to avoid the passive voice because “The subject is just letting it happen.” In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say active voice can be more “forcible.” (Strunk and White also say the passive voice “is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary,” but this gets less notice.)

Nothing about passive voice necessarily makes it weak or “passive” in the sense of just letting things happen. The receiver of the action may be more important than the actor. We may wish to avoid saying who the actor or creator of the action is, or may simply not know or consider it important. We may want to express complicated ideas in the most simple way possible and need to choose the most effective sentence structure for that.

The content, purpose, and audience of our prose matters more than the words themselves and any rules about them, especially when those rules are poorly understood and wrongly applied.

Politicians lie. Fiction is intentional lies. If passive voice works for politicians, we as fiction writers can learn from them how to lie better. Becky’s mother was killed in the Martian invasion. By whom? Therein lies the story.

— Sue Burke

Further reference: “How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing”
and “Confusion over avoiding the passive”

(Photo by David Iliff, Creative Commons 3.0)