Fear and Loathing of the English Passive

Geoffrey K. Pullum
Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh
Published online 22 January 2014 at Science Direct
Print version to appear in Language and Communication, 2014
Version of August 17, 2017 • Copyright c 2014 by Geoffrey K. Pullum

Abstract: Writing advisers have been condemning the English passive since the early 20th century. I provide an informal but comprehensive syntactic description of passive clauses in English, and then exhibit numerous published examples of incompetent criticism in which critics reveal that they cannot tell passives from actives. Some seem to confuse the grammatical concept with a rhetorical one involving inadequate attribution of agency or responsibility, but not all examples are thus explained. The specific stylistic charges leveled against the passive are entirely baseless. The evidence demonstrates an extraordinary level of grammatical ignorance among educated English language critics.

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