Passive Aggressive

Genetics was on the front page of Wikipedia yesterday as Featured Article of the Day! This was pretty cool, but this of course attracted a crop of editors and comments that wanted to improve on the article — some wonderful and knowledgeable, some newbies, some with an ax to grind.

The one that really got to me was the guy who got really upset with usage of the passive voice:

“With all due respect, I find the drenching of this article in passive voice to be sophomoric and cumbersome. I intend to re-edit the entire article and make it readable to a literate audience, as I believe that Wikipedia articles should be written in a dynamic manner. Should you chose to remove all of my edits, I will seek redress.”

My reply:

“Please don’t get too passive aggressive with me: [1].” …. “I was concerned that your attempt to remove the passive voice made the article harder to read by introducing unnecessary vocabulary. If you can do it in a cleaner manner then you are welcome to it.” …. “While it is hardly arduous for me to comprehend your verbiage, I would importune you to contemplate first the lucidity of your emendations before foisting them upon a somewhat less literate audience.”

That link I made there is worth reading, it’s to a Language Log post “Passive Aggression” that illustrates the fallacy of an absolute injunction against the passive voice.

And so I tend to ignore the injunction, although I do appreciate that it can generally improve readability. But if removing the passive voice from a sentence requires introducing more complicated vocabulary, I think it is actually reducing the clarity of the sentence. Some examples of changes this editor made…

  • “For genes that are closer together” was replaced with “For genes located in closer proximity
  • “DNA (rather than protein) was the genetic material of the viruses” was replaced with “DNA (rather than protein) comprised the genetic material of the viruses”
  • “A popular theory during Mendel’s time was the concept of blending inheritance” was replaced with “A popular theory during Mendel’s time pertained to the concept of blending inheritance” (the theory was only related to the concept? This one isn’t even correct. I’m not even sure it’s passive??)

I’m really not a writing expert, but I think the article needs to be as accessible as possible — in these cases, the passive voice is preferable to doing some grammatical backflips over fancy vocabulary. Make sure to read that Language Log post, it’s very funny!

4 thoughts on “Passive Aggressive

  1. Jill

    Interestingly, not one of the changes you quoted used passive voice in either the original or the replacement. It seems this guy believes using the verb “to be” in any of its forms means using passive voice, which is patently false.

    I absolutely agree with you that all the examples are clearer and easier to read in the “before” forms than with the changes the guy made. And that his use of “pertained to” was just bad.

  2. Madeleine

    Thank you for telling me this! I suspected this but doubted myself because he was acting so “expert” about it. I’ll try to be more confident in the future.

  3. Lucas

    I’ve always thought the injunction against the passive voice is idiotic. In high school, my English literature teacher gave us an assignment at the beginning of the semester to write an essay about Martin Luther King. She gave us a premade outline, and was very clear that any essay which included any passive voice would fail. The first sentence of her outline said “born 1929″. Assuming that this was a trick, the first inane sentence of my essay read “Martin Luther King came into this world in 1929.” I got an A-.


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