Passive voice is not used by Churchill (in this example)

Writing about passive voice yesterday reminded me of another instance of dodgy advice about it, which I encountered several years ago but didn’t write about here at the time. I was able to retrieve it from a series of emails I exchanged with an eminent linguist. 

To be fair, this writer doesn’t actually state that his example is passive voice, but he certainly implies it:

“As a rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive – e.g. ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ is active and more effective than ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer’.” 

This example comes from English writer/broadcaster/Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth’s book Have You Eaten Grandma? (which I won’t link to). For my thoughts about a similar example, see this post).

When a writer advises against passive voice, check three things: 1) the sentence they use as an example, 2) why they say we should avoid it and 3) how they use passive voice in their writing elsewhere. 

1) Blood, toil, tears and sweat are what’s on offer isn’t passive voice. The only verb is are. The passive equivalent of Churchill’s famous sentence is Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat is had by me (or Nothing to offer is had by me … or Nothing is had by me …). No-one, least of all Churchill, needs to be to told to avoid writing sentences like that because no-one, least of all Churchill, ever writes sentences like that. (Note that have can be used in passive voice, for example the mostly jocular A good time was had by everyone (or all), rather than Everyone had a good time or All had a good time.)

2) If he’d written “As a general rule, the active voice is more effective than the passive” I might just have agreed with him, but it it easy to find sentences where the passive is just as effective, if not more. Vladimir Putin’s been assassinated! is more effective than Someone’s assassinated Vladimir Putin! because it focuses on Putin (who we know about) rather than someone (who we don’t, at least initially).

3) On page 1 of the same book, Brandreth writes: “I was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it”. Not “Teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it educated me”, because the whole introduction is about I

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2 thoughts on “Passive voice is not used by Churchill (in this example)

  1. 3) sounds awkward to me; wouldn’t it be better to write “I was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and its value”? Then you could have a lesson about the correct spelling of “its.”

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  2. Thanks. I didn’t notice that, but yes, it sounds awkward. Maybe one of the teachers’ rules (or “one of one the teacher’s rules”) was ‘don’t use “its N” when you can use “the N of it”‘. Is there a possible justification that concepts such as grammar cannot *possess* something? Probably not, because ‘the value of it’ is just as possessive as ‘its value’.
    Google Ngrams shows that ‘the value of it’ is used about 1% as often as ‘its value’.

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