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I was reading a document and there was a sentence as this one:

"It is aimed mainly at cutting costs, reducing complexity ..".

Microsoft word spell checker proposed rephrasing because of the passive voice. I wonder why. This sentence looks fine for me as a foreigner.

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    The passive voice isn't bad. – snailcar Sep 15 '14 at 6:39
  • If it is equal why does Word ask to rephrase? is it bug in software? Or is it common practise in English not to use passive voice? PS I will change title of the question – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 6:43
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    I would write "[The proposal] aims to cut costs and reduce complexity". Using "aim" in this active form is somewhat modern, but unambiguous in context. I've dropped the "mainly" because "aim" in this sense already implies it. – MSalters Sep 15 '14 at 11:23
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    Isn't taking grammar advice from MSWord's spell checker a bit like taking translation advice from Google Translate? – Matti Virkkunen Sep 15 '14 at 15:11
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Once upon a time, a fellow named Strunk wrote a little style-guide, and a student of his, mister White, made it a world hit.

Because of that, the style rules in that little booklet have becomes something of a holy writ in English classrooms and beyond.

One of those rules was that you should avoid the passive voice. Ironically, the authors of the rule seem to have misunderstood what the passive voice actually is, as is described in this nice column by Geoffrey K. Pullum (co-author of CGEL) on chronicle.com:

Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.
After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word's grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done.

So there you have the short and the long of it: a well-mean advice was oversimplified, and very badly explained, and as a result, some people are still on a crusade against everything that looks like a passive voice.

The sentence that you quote in your question can easily be interpreted as being active, with the past participle aimed being used as attributive to it. Is is simply a copulative in that case.

  • I will have to find some dictionary to understand your two sentences :-) – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 6:53
  • Btw how can I rephrase such sentence to active voice: "Payments are processed on different range of terminals"? If I write: "Different range of terminals processes payments" it sounds strange to me. And it looses emphasis on "payments". – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 6:59
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    Payments are processed is absolutely fine. Trying to force that into an active form makes it more difficult to read, because we do not usually bother with who or what is actually processing the payments! The terminals do not process the payments, people do, or software. There you see the problem. We don't care who process the payments if we just want to share the information that they are processed or where that happens. – oerkelens Sep 15 '14 at 7:04
  • So the sentence is fine and Word is wrong, thanks. – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 7:06
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    If Geoffrey Pullum says Word is wrong, I will believe Word is wrong. Contrary to Strunk, Pullum does know a thing or two about English grammar. – oerkelens Sep 15 '14 at 7:09
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When something is frequently used incorrectly, there is a tendency to simply advise people not to use it at all. There is a certain logic to this. If it is too hard to get people to do something correctly, the lesser of two evils may be that they don't do it at all.

Passive voice is frequently used incorrectly, and so the advice is often to avoid its use altogether. This does not mean that there are not places where its use is correct and appropriate. It just means that many who give advice on writing have given up trying to teach people to tell the difference.

The problem is, of course, that the people who can't tell the difference between using passive voice correctly and using it incorrectly also can't tell the difference between passive voice and active voice. Thus we can excuse Word's overzealous grammar checker for pointing out all cases of passive. They are not all incorrect, but at least the writer can now see were passive is used, and deal with it as their ability allows.

We should also note that the war on passive has a lot to do with where most of the current writing advice came from. A great deal of it originated with books like Ernest Gowers Plain Words, which were written specifically for civil servants, to try to get them to write in a way the general public could understand.

The besetting sin of civil servants and politicians it the desire to avoid assigning responsibility. This gives them a particular love for the passive voice, since passive voice can conceal the actor.

In the active voice, you can't avoid naming the actor: "John kicked the ball through the window". In the passive voice, you can avoid naming the actor: "The ball was kicked through the window". We often choose passive specifically to avoid naming the person responsible for the action we are reporting.

The advice to civil servants to avoid passive voice was therefore more than mere stylistic advice. It was an attempt to get them to name the actor. It thus had a measure of political force behind it. It was not just about style, but about courage and honesty. Thus the avoidance of the passive has come to have a higher status among language laws that it really merits on purely stylistic grounds.

There is nothing wrong with the passive voice when used correctly. "Don't conceal the actor" would actually be a far better piece of stylistic advice to give to civil servants and to writers generally.

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    In active voice you can avoid naming the actor: 'The bus blew up' v 'The bus was blown up'. Of course in the former case, the bus might have blown up spontaneously, or as the result of an action by someone unidentified; in the latter, it is clearly as the result of an action by someone unidentified. – Sydney Sep 15 '14 at 13:20
  • Well, technically, "The bus blew up" makes "The bus" the actor, so it is more a case of lying about the actor rather than concealing it. But yes, you can obfuscate in any voice. The passive just makes it less overt. – user10365 Sep 15 '14 at 18:35
  • When many individuals are writing things on behalf of another entity, it is useful to have such individuals follow a single style guide, so as to allow the entity to "speak with a consistent voice". Unfortunately, I perceive a tendency for any grammarians to suggest that style guides are the be-all and end-all of grammatical or semantic correctness, when nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of such guides is to reduce the art of writing to the lowest common denominator, so that the least talented writer in a pool will be indistinguishable from the most talented. – supercat Sep 15 '14 at 20:01
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Usually, active voice presents the same information in a shorter and more clear sentence. There is nothing inherently bad about passive voice. However, people generally appreciate brevity and clarity. Spend some time looking up examples and see if you can determine a difference.

  • It is hard to me because passive voice is little preferred in my native Czech. – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 6:55
  • That's interesting. When do you tend to use passive voice in Czech? Or is it so dis-preferred that it is never used? – John Kraemer Sep 15 '14 at 7:03
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    It's true that using a passive when an active is better is undesirable. And likewise, using an active when a passive is better is undesirable. Unfortunately, that leaves us at square one―how do we know when passives or actives are better? – snailcar Sep 15 '14 at 7:03
  • @snailboat: one case where passive is always better is when the agent is unknown or irrelevant, as in the payments are processed example from OP's other comment. If I want to tell you that "X was decided yesterday", it is nonsense to think I should change that to "Y decided X yesterday". Of course, these examples can be interpreted as being active (noun-copula-attributive) anyway... – oerkelens Sep 15 '14 at 7:08
  • @snailboat That is question for language scientists. I think that when we describe something, we use passive voice in form "It is .." often. – Leos Literak Sep 15 '14 at 7:09
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I bet it's the Word's grammar checker, not the spell checker, that is trying to correct you. However, aside from correcting the occasional typos (where mistyped words can be different words with correct spelling that don't fit into the context), it tends to be dumb. Do not rephrase anything without good reason - Word can sometimes hint at a problem, but it can easily be a false positive.

Both "It is aimed mainly at cutting costs and reducing complexity" and "Payments are processed on a range of terminals" seem perfectly fine to me - only the "different" seems weird in that position, though - perhaps "a range of different terminals" or "a wide range of terminals"?

In the latter case, you rightly point out that rephrasing it would break topic–focus articulation ("aktuální členění větné"), which is something you don't want in a cohesive piece of text. In this particular case, your instinct from Czech seems to translate well into English.

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Reasons vary, but I think the two main ones are:

  1. circumlocution. Your example doesn't fall into this, but sometimes the active equivalent is shorter and clearer. "A good time was had by all" is an English idiom, but if not for that "We/They all had a good time" would almost always be better.
  2. "by whom"? Unless you're intentionally using the passive voice because the missing subject of the sentence is secret or unknown, you could say "BlahCorp aim it to cut costs, reduce complexity, ..."

In my opinion the most insidious form of (2) is using the passive voice an an "appeal to anonymous authority". For example, when someone says, "it is considered bad style to use the passive voice", they're using the passive voice specifically to weasel out of saying who considers it bad style, and (by implication) whether their rule is any good at all.

As with any style guideline, once the main reasons for it have been dismissed you can break it.

As with any style guideline, you can break it once you have dismissed the main reasons for it.

Your example isn't a problem, since "aimed at X" is a clear and descriptive adjectival phrase. Presumably "aimed" isn't in the dictionary as an adjective, though, so we must classify it as passive voice. Microsoft's grammar checker isn't smart enough to figure out how clear it is, though, so it panics ;-)

The reader presumes that the absent subject is whoever invented or chose "it" for that purpose, so if there's no reason to say who that is then go right ahead. On the other hand, if your sentence would in context benefit, then change it.

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    Sometimes, mentioning the subject of a sentence may change its meaning. Compare the meaning of the infinitive phrases in "The Widgicator was designed to reduce power consumption," versus "Larry designed the Widgicator to reduce power consumption." The former suggests power reduction as a reason why the Widgicator's particular design would have been chosen over other possible alternatives; the latter suggests power reduction as the reason Larry designed the Widgicator rather than spending his time on something else. – supercat Sep 15 '14 at 20:19
  • @supercat: I don't see much difference, although maybe in some contexts I would. Both sentences are ambiguous, and both IMO are a perfectly valid (albeit slightly wordy) answer either to the question "what was the Widgicator's design goal?" or "what was done to reduce power consumption?". – Steve Jessop Sep 15 '14 at 20:25
  • Both could answer either of those questions, but they're not synonymous in all cases. Consider: "If power consumption was supposed to be reduced, why has it instead gone up tenfold?" The answer being "Larry designed the Widgicator to reduce power consumption. Unfortunately, Larry is rather inept at such things." I don't think the passive voice would work in the latter sentence without adding some qualifiers like "with the intention of" to the first sentence. – supercat Sep 15 '14 at 21:00
  • You can definitely use the passive to be vague about agency. However, you can also use it to emphasize the actor, as in the following example: The patient was murdered by his own doctor! (This is example is borrowed from Geoff Pullum's description of the passive on Language Log.) – snailcar Sep 16 '14 at 7:08
  • @snailboat: yes, the passive voice with "by" clearly cannot be accused of the "by whom?" problem. – Steve Jessop Sep 16 '14 at 9:29

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