Dear WordPress proofreader, you’re wrong.

by theadventuresofbeka

Dear WordPress proofreader,

Every time I write a post, I review the corrections that you suggest. Without fail, you always point out at least one passive voice construction that I invariably use. Oftentimes, there will be a multitude of green lines indicating that my writing style is not active enough for your taste. As a linguist who has researched the passive voice and considers herself a descriptive grammarian (who also hates to be told she is wrong when she knows she is right), I take offense to these suggestions.

This is my response as a prescriptive grammarian to the “may” vs. “can” debate.

Your correction of the passive voice is a perpetuation of the myth that the passive voice is “incorrect”. There is nothing incorrect about the passive voice. In fact, there are many contexts in which the passive voice would be a more “correct” choice on the writer’s part.

Firstly, there is the matter of style. Certain styles of writing are more likely to be expressed through the passive voice. Western scientific academia, in general, is more likely to use the passive voice because it conveys a greater distance between the writer and his/her ideas (2). An unidentified subject suggests that the author is discussing facts instead of opinions (which are often considered to have more validity within Western culture). The involvement of the personal self is not usually encouraged in this style of writing.

Secondly, there is the matter of organization and emphasis. In many cases, the passive voice is used because it helps to maintain a desired word order (4). Word order and thus the passive voice can be used as an indication of what information is new, what the topic is and what element within the sentence is being emphasized (end-weight principle and information-flow principle). Most of the time, the use of the passive voice does not change the meaning of a sentence, but it does change the focus (1). In some cases, it can also change the meaning (4).

Thirdly, the passive voice (specifically the short passive) is often used when the agent (the “doer” of the action) is repetitive, unimportant, or not known (3). For example, when I wrote the sentence “I got my nose pierced” in my post about what I did in 2014, I used the get-passive because I felt that mentioning who pierced my nose was extraneous information. I was trying to emphasize an experience that I underwent rather than the person who inflicted such an experience upon me.

According to corpus research, 25% of academic finite verbs are used in the passive voice (2). No, I would not consider most of my blog posts as academic writing. I would however argue that my style of writing is heavily influenced by my many years of academic writing and I do not consider this to be detrimental to the quality of my work. Perhaps if my blog was focused on fictional short stories, your suggestions would be more advantageous.

In conclusion, I think that you should re-consider what you consider to be “good writing”. Instead of looking at textbooks and age-old sayings that have no credibility today, why not evaluate language based on how it is actually used?

Note: For fun, I have put in bold all instances of the passive voice that the WordPress proofreader found and attempted to tell me to correct.

Full Disclosure: This was written based on information I compiled for a research paper I wrote in a grammar class last year. It sounds nothing like the research paper though.

 

 

Sources

(1) Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(2) Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, England: Longman.

(3) Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, England: Longman.

(4) Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher’s course (2nd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

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