Content Strategy

Pinker and the passive voice: what does science have to do with it? (Part B)

Posted by Richard Howard on Dec 10, 2014 7:40:25 AM

“As a language changes from beneath our feet, we feel the sands shifting and always think that it’s a deterioration,” explains Pinker. But Lanham might reply that language, just like other cultural and political institutions, doesn’t just shift and evolve naturally like the wind and tide patterns. Rather, language is a field of battle and contention, and the underdog who aims to speak truth to power needs to analyze how the language of the entrenched and powerful works to hide the role of those vested interests in manipulating information into very particular, self-serving narratives. 

Lanham’s critique is a corrective against the blinkered, uncritical adoption of the passive-voice statements that mark The Official Style. But because his message hit such a nerve and became so popular (especially among college writing instructors), we’ve supposedly seen the active voice turn into a new sort of dogma. And true enough, it’s sometimes pushed ignorantly and without careful attention to context and circumstance. Pinker fastens on this in promoting the cliché that it’s the grammarians who are the real elitists, and that their “bogus rules … serve as a tactic for one-upmanship.” And although he eventually exhibits a degree of nuance about the issue, the article title goes out of its way to cite the push against the passive voice as a classic example of this unscientific, elitist rule-mongering.

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Topics: technical editing, technical writing, passive voice, Steven Pinker, Richard Lanham, active voice, descriptivists, prescriptivists, SEO

Pinker and the passive voice: what does science have to do with it? (Part A)

Posted by Richard Howard on Dec 3, 2014 7:18:00 AM

A long-time Microsoft editor recently posted the following link to the company’s main distribution list for editors:

Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and Use the Passive Voice

What initially caught my eye was the Steven Pinker reference in the URL. Pinker, a one-time Noam Chomsky acolyte, is well-regarded across a wide range of language-studies schools of thought, and I’ve had a generally positive impression of him. So, that headline gave me pause—could Pinker really be taking issue with Richard Lanham’s advocacy of the active voice as a way of cutting through the gibberish of The Official Style, the self-serving spin of the government or corporate bureaucrat? (Example: “Mistakes were made.”)

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Topics: technical writing, writing, writing style, Noam Chomsky, passive voice, Microsoft, Steven Pinker, Richard Lanham, active voice