Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

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The editor’s role

On Friday, I was talking with a long-time colleague – my mentor in the world of instructional design, which is the other professional hat I wear – over a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back, as it were, On The Market.

As part of his we-were-so-lucky-to-have-you speech (which, believe me, the editor or writer on your workforce appreciates beyond rubies, even if it does make them a little embarassed), I got to hear some war stories about my predecessor on this team: an Oxford-educated editor of the Mrs. Badcrumble or Miss Thistlebottom school, who once gathered everyone for an emergency meeting so she could berate them on their grammatical shortcomings – a list that (of course) included a bunch of the old superstitions of grammar nitpickery. A veteran which-hunter, in other words.

This sort of thing is quite bad enough, even though I’ve grown used to being unwillingly represented by the most myopic practitioners of my craft, but it gets even better. The thing that really floored me was when my colleague told me about his efforts trying to submit a draft to this editor. He’s a natural collaborator; we share, among other things, an ethos of pride in the work but not ego, so he makes liberal use of the comments feature to tag his drafts with notes asking if such-and-such wording makes sense or has the right tone or is sufficiently supported in the rest of the piece. You know – all the things a writer’s supposed to do.

The response he got was, “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just the editor.”

Folks, gentlebeings, let us explore the ways in which this is Wrong Wrong Wrongity Wrong.

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Struck Funk

The Elements of Style belongs on every editor’s bookshelf, but not for the reasons you might think.

To get this out of the way first: It’s not a very good writing book. For a rundown of why this is so, Geoffrey Pullum’s 2009 Lingua Franca essay “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” remains a thorough guide to the many faults of the “Little Book,” ranging from its innocuous-but-largely-useless style advice (“Be clear,” as if one generally sets out to do otherwise) to its truly wrongheaded guidance on grammar, exemplified by the dog’s breakfast it makes of its discussion on the passive voice. Strunk and White certainly had a lot of advice for writers, but very little sense of when they themselves were following it (which they often weren’t), and even less actual knowledge of the grammar they purported to be authorities on, leading Pullum to conclude, “English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.”

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