Mock the passive voice at your own risk

I see that I have my work cut out for me. 

Yesterday, as I was going over a little diagnostic exercise in my copy editing class, a student volunteered to identify an error in one sentence. "Passive voice," she said confidently. The sentence in question did not have a passive construction; the verb was in the present perfect tense: "has served."  

So I am going to surmise, as it is usually safe to do, that my students have been instructed along the way, that the passive voice is a wicked thing that, like Communism in the 1950s, can be lurking anywhere, in compound verbs, in there is/there are sentences, in any clause that contains a form of to be

This misinformation is hardly limited to undergraduates. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum has made a virtual cottage industry on Language Log of exposing the ignorance of people who vapor on in print about the passive voice without realizing that the constructions they object to are often not passive at all.* And who frequently conflate grammatical passivity with psychological passivity.**

The passive voice's bad reputation comes from the contemptible tendency of people in business and government to use it to conceal responsibility. "Mistakes were made. Really, things just happen somehow, like the weather. Let's not play the blame game." 

But there are many occasions on which the passive voice is not only innocuous but preferable, such as when the agent of action is unknown or relatively unimportant. Take an example: A Baltimore man who drove the wrong way at high speed for five miles on Interstate 695, damaging several cars before crashing into an abutment, was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. 

The passive construction doesn't identify who arrested the driver. Well, who d'you think arrested him, a scoutmaster? You assume that police arrested him. That police arrested and charged him is the least interesting piece of information in the sentence. The drunk drove at high speed the wrong way on an interstate highway for five miles. That's the information of most interest to you, and that's why it makes sense to put it up front in the sentence, even though it's in a subordinate clause. 

And this is just one point of grammar and usage, It's going to be a long semester. 


*To spare you the embarrassment of coming forward, blushing and sweating, to ask me what the passive voice actually is, I am providing a link to an explanation by Professor Pullum. No one except the National Security Agency need ever know that you clicked on that link. 

**I suppose that in a country in which people turn to Jenny McCarthy for medical advice, there is no limit to the quantity of claptrap that people will credulously swallow. If, however, you are concerned about autism, information is to be had from the Wendy Klag Center of the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, where, despite not having taken off their clothes for Playboy, researchers are nevertheless building up credibility on the subject. 

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