Passive Voice Shenanigans

In the wake of Kathleen Parker’s absurd column on Obama’s use of the passive voice in his speech on the Gulf oil crisis, Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log has been doing blog posts on this much maligned grammatical construction.  His dismaying finding is that many of the people clutching their pearls over the passive voice are completely incapable of correctly identifying it.  The subject of today’s post seems to be completely unaware that the passive voice is a verb construction.

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we’ve been taught to write “formally” in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying “Responsible for management of three direct reports” change it up to “Managed 3 direct reports.” It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve seen or heard people in business combine irritating grammar snobbery with ignorance, and the consequences for students and college graduates entering the professions is disheartening.  As Pullum says:

This is serious business for America’s economy. It does nothing for getting Americans to get into employment, realize their talents, and contribute to tax revenues, if we simply extend into resumé-writing the promotion of nervous cluelessness that seems to be the main strand in English language instruction in the USA. It is so easy to get sensible and intelligent native speakers terrified that their language isn’t good enough. And the business of getting people into that state is being managed by teachers and tutors and advisers and columnists whose lofty opinion of their own expertise is matched only by their utter failure to grasp even the rudiments of sentence structure.

Awesome.  But hold on a sec.  Pullum here picks on “English language instruction in the USA” as if it’s some sort of monolith.  In fact, there’s a substantial body of pedagogical theory on composition, pedagogical theory with real, immediate implications for practice in freshman English classrooms and writing centers.  Many teachers staffing freshman composition classes in Rhetoric and Writing departments are trained to help cultivate fluency, not simply pick apart sentence structures until students become so nervous about their comma placement that they forget about the need to write an arguable thesis.

The problem is that there isn’t much cooperation, from what I can tell, between academic departments that specialize in composition and other parts of the university–including career development services.  Writing Across the Curriculum programs tend to be organized around the principle of getting students to produce a certain volume of writing throughout the semester, without much attention to what kind of writing instruction is being advanced in those classes.

So, you know, the utopian solution to that would be better funding for departments that staff comp classes and more outreach to other parts of the university.  But our department just got cut back by about half while the college that houses and funds it builds a new building.  It also wouldn’t hurt to get all the university faculty that deals with writing in a room and allow some Comp people to box them about the ears with the Clue Stick.  Too far?  Maybe.


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