was killed v died

Last week two of my relatives were travelling in a group which was involved in a road accident. One was unharmed and the other was slightly injured, but several members of the group were more seriously injured and one was killed. I told my wife this, emphasising that my relatives were safe before concluding “One of their friends was killed”. She asked “Someone killed him?”

Passive voice he was killed (by someone or something) has the active voice equivalent (someone or something) killed him. But we can’t say The accident killed him or even He was killed by the accident (or we can, but they sound really strange), but might say He was killed in the accident and certainly later say He was killed in an accident.

I might have avoided the confusion by saying One of their friends died.


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

“Passive voice is avoided in English”

And sarcasm is avoided in blog posts.

Theories and practices in teaching English as a first language have changed and changed back over the years.  A draft new syllabus for New South Wales has just been released, and the Sydney Morning Herald website has an article about it. Among other things, English teachers will be chiefly responsible for teaching the ‘nuts and bolts’ of English. 

The English Teachers Association opposes the changes, partly because they “would hand them an unnecessary burden because literacy skills differed from subject to subject” (possibly the journalist’s paraphrase; at least not presented as a direct quotation). “Science, for example, used the passive voice, which was avoided in English” (also possibly the journalist’s paraphrase, but s/he indirectly quotes the association’s executive officer in the sentence before, and directly quotes her in the sentence after). 


which was avoided in English


It is almost impossible to write about avoiding passive voice without actually failing to avoid using it.


Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.

“Things were said”

mistakes were made
things were said

One of the most common criticisms of passive voice is that it is “vague on agency” – that is, it doesn’t tell us who did the action we are speaking about; indeed, it is often used to deliberately hide who did it. To a certain extent, this is true.

“Mistakes were made” was most famously said by Ronald Reagan (<see what I did there?) during the Iran/Contra scandal, but Wikipedia shows that it’s been used by many others before and since. 

Less famously, yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison criticised the “things that were said” to incite the – let’s be as neutral as possible and call them protests – in Washington on 6 January, without directly naming Donald Trump. (But we all know who he’s talking about!) (The Australian Liberal Party is generally analogous to the US Republican Party.) (I can’t find the complete quotation, and have to rely on a summary on a news website.)

Probably the protests would have happened (<not passive voice, by the way) if Trump hadn’t said anything, and possibly would have happened even if he’d spoken strongly against any action. But things were said.

(PS this is a language blog and not a political one.)

you are taken to have received this letter

(I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. It is a discussion of a linguistic issue arising from one Australian government department procedure.)

A government department which changes name every few years is responsible for granting or refusing Australian migrant and refugee visas. Unsuccessful applicants in specified visa classes can apply to an independent body called the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for a review of the department’s decision, but they must do so within 28 days of receiving notification of their unsuccessful application.

The department’s letter to unsuccessful applicants is not helpful. Notably, it doesn’t state the date by which unsuccessful applicants must apply; they are expected to figure it out for themselves (though many are represented by an agent or lawyer). Some unsuccessful applicants lose their chance for a review by applying too late.

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Further thoughts about passive voice

Many explanations of active and passive voice state that in active voice, the subject does the action, and in passive, it receives it. This explanation is inadequate, because there are many transitive verbs (that is, verbs requiring a direct object) in which there is no action, or if there is, the receiver of the action is not the direct object. There are several groups of these.

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Grammar in pop songs – “American Pie” (modal verbs and passive voice)

Modal verbs
English has nine basic modal verbs – can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would – which have meanings relating to ability, possibility, probability, necessity, permission and prohibition. Will is often called ‘future tense’, but it really has more in common with the other modal verbs. Can, may, must, shall and will refer to now, the future and always, and might be called ‘non-past’. In their most basic, original meanings, could, might, should and would refer to the past, but in other meanings, they have non-past interpretations.

Modal verbs have three main groups of meanings (a topic for a future post). Some are more common in some meanings, and less common (or not possible) in others. Sometimes one sentence can have two or even three meanings. Don can play the guitar might refer to ability: Don is able to play the guitar. Or it might refer to possibility: There’s a guitar here. It is possible for Don to play the guitar. Or it might refer to permission: Don has my permission to play the guitar.

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Passively accepting grammar check suggestions

I don’t use the grammar check on Pages for Mac at home, but I do on Word for Windows and Mac at two workplaces. Even if I ignore it nine times out of ten, it saves my backside the tenth time, with all the copying/cutting, pasting, adding and deleting of text I do. A few weeks ago it flagged three instances of passive voice. It correctly identified passive voice, but its suggestions for change were wrong. (It actually flagged more than that. I took photos of three then gave up.)

Firstly, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice such that it needs to be flagged every time, in the same way as, say, subject-verb number disagreement, which is always wrong. Even the most anti-passive style advisers, such as Strunkandwhite and George Orwell, use passive voice  perfectly when appropriate. Secondly, if you’re going to suggest changing it, then make absolutely sure that your suggestion is right.

But that is not easy for a computer to do, as these three (slightly adapted) examples show. 

1) Protection is provided by defining a safety area, whose shape and dimensions must be specified according to a risk assessment.

Suggestion: Defining a safety area, whose shape, provides protection [plain wrong]

2) Alerts and reports are provided by [this software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format.

Suggestion: [This software] displaying information in an intuitive and easy-to-read format provides alerts and reports [mostly wrong]

3) Areas of the multi-purpose centre have already been made available for use by community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers.

Suggestion: Community groups offering support and services to [this organisation’s] customers have already made areas of the multi-purpose centre available for use [possibly right, but not]

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Another rabbit hole confounds me

Another day, another linguistic rabbit-hole.

On Sunday, we sang Universi qui te expectant by Michael Haydn, which I had not previously known. The Latin of the two verses (Psalm 25:3-4) is:

Universi qui te expectant non confundentur, Domine
Vias tuas Domine notas fac mihi et semitas tuas edoce me.

No English translation is given in the score, but at the rehearsal one of the choir members quickly found:

Let none that wait on thee be ashamed
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. [KJV]

Hang on, though. A little bit of Latin shows that Universi is everyone/all, and that non confundentur is will not be confounded, so the verse should be translated:

Everyone who waits for you will not be confounded.

(The more common Latin word for everyone/all is omnes, which can be followed by a noun: omnes gentes or omnes generationes.) Continue reading