This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts: action stations!

I've been letting George Orwell write the Nuts and Bolts feature here in The Word Den for the last few weeks.

Well, why not go for a bit of class, that's what I say.

Here's his rule number four:

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The passive describes an occasion when someone is on the receiving end of an action instead of, as usual, performing it. Polly was hit by Sandra, for example.
Now, this is just a long and complicated way of saying Sandra hit Polly, of course. The passive tends to be weak, too: Big Brother is watching you is much punchier than You are being watched by Big Brother.

We mustn't get too carried away, though, because as it happens George Orwell used the passive voice rather a lot himself. 'Your name was removed from the registers, every record...was wiped were abolished, annihilated'.
That's from 1984.

In fact, the passive is used by everyone. Winston Churchill, Shakespeare...It's used all the time in describing scientific experiments: a test-tube was filled with spit...

The passive is jolly useful, for instance, when the receiver of the action is more important than the performer: George Clooney was cast as Adam in the film Garden of Eden*.

It's useful for hiding the performer of the action altogether, as well: the computer was dropped during its journey from the manufacturer.

So does Orwell's rule hold up? Never use the passive where you can use the active?

Well, I think I'd go along with that as long as it's Jane Austen's never, which means not very often.

And I'd do as Orwell did, rather than as he said, this time.

Word To Use Today: passive. this word comes from the Latin passīvus, meaning capable of suffering, from patī, meaning to undergo.

*Sorry, I'm afraid this is just wishful thinking on my part.

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