I am thinking of banning the passive voice in all writing assignments for all my courses next semester. As it is I end up correcting verbs in the passive voice almost every time they occur, so I might as well ban them. My colleague Eric had the brilliant idea of banning "they" and other such pronouns in his classes this semester. He thus avoided writing the many, many notes I have had to write on student work saying "To what or to whom does this 'they' refer? Antecedent unclear." Of course many of the students don't know what an antecedent is. Sigh. For this I went to school for a dozen years to get a Ph.D. in theology and over $100,000 in debt?! I love my students, I really do, but I do not like correcting people's English. ****************************
(Yes, the students have taken English 102 by the time they get to my classes. No, I have no idea what high schools are teaching students these days. Or middle schools. Or elementary schools, for crying out loud. Some of my students write in perfectly grammatical sentences and others seem as if they haven't passed 7th-grade English. But 7th grade has changed, from what I gather.)
So what does this have to do with the Episcopal House of Bishops and its statements? (I also have many students who don't know the difference between its and it's, and why should they if even newspapers and department store signs are failing to make the proper distinction these days? Harrumph. Say amen, someone.)
Have a look at this statement, which responds to the Lambeth non-invitation, and see how it might have read if the House of Bishops had banned passive verb forms. With the active voice, you have to name who is responsible.
It's not a bad statement at first glance, and it doesn't contain many passive verbs. There are just one or two (depending how you count what qualifies as the passive voice.) The statement is mostly in the active voice, but take this, for example:
....hurt that is being experienced by so many in our own Episcopal Church...
Right. True. "Hurt that is being experienced." Yes. The focus is on the feelings of those who are in pain.
But hurt by whom and by what? Isn't there also the issue of who is causing the hurt to whom? (Yes, to whom. I am so peeved at The Nation for its current cover story headline "Who Would Jesus Vote For?" that I may just write them a grammatical rant. That's "whom," boys and girls. Not "who." You're not helping me in my job here. )
I understand that the bishops phrased their statement very carefully. I understand that they do not want to blame. I understand that people are hurting on the left, right, and center, and that we need to focus on the people first. The pain is what matters, and saying who hurt whom won't help. So this was a justifiable use of the passive voice.
I say we should screen all statements for the passive voice, or at least notice the syntax in statements and ask ourselves what it says or connotes.
This statement isn't an egregious case of bad syntax or style. It's not in total passive-voice bureaucratese. The commitments and observations are largely in the active voice.
And the HoB did 1) remind people that Bishop Robinson was duly elected by the Diocese of New Hampshire and 2) ask for the kind of forbearance, charity, and faith we all continue to need.
But I am a grammar nut (even though I do things like starting sentences with "but") and a style freak and I just had to comment.
Here endeth the partial rant.