Sunday, 31 May 2015

Passive Resistance


Professor Lorena A Barba is one of my academic heroes; her 12 Steps to Navier-Stokes changed the way I think about CFD, coding and teaching all at once. If you haven't seen it or its successors then finding out about them is more important than anything that follows in this blog post. Anyway, recently she tweeted something I disagreed with:
but I made a fairly bad job of explaining why on twitter - this post is an attempt to do better.

First I have to refer to another of my academic heroes, Professor Geoffrey K Pullum, whose writing has changed the way I think about language and grammar (and who's no slouch at computer science either), for a thorough explanation of what the passive voice is.  It's far from straightforward and GKP rightly contends that the PV is often misidentified, with both Type I and Type II Errors common (not that I'm suggesting LAB makes either).

So what's wrong with the PV? One complaint is that they obscure agency, as in "decisions were made". Obscuring agency is usually bad, though there are times when it can be done out of sensitivity rather than evasiveness and there are times when the actor is unknown or irrelevant. At one time teachers and editors alike insisted that scientific reports be written entirely in the PV because scientific writing was supposed to be dispassionate - all actions were taken to be the author's, but since procedures should be reproducible it shouldn't matter who performed them, they should be described in enough detail that anyone could do them. This produced plenty of dull writing and the anti-PV movement is, at least in part, a reaction to that.

But as GKP shows there are numerous ways to obscure agency without using the PV. Conversely the PV doesn't have to obscure agency:
Gentlemen, the autopsy reveals that Sir Edgar's face was eaten by zombies!
doesn't leave any doubt about who is being accused.

Another complaint about the PV is that by postponing the revelation of the actor it forces readers to hold images in their heads until that revelation makes sense of them. LAB tweeted a typical example:
The first visible-light snapshot of a planet circling another star has been taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
That sentence is doing quite a lot of work, as is the way with such journalistic announcements, and one could quibble that it's not clear whether the snapshot is the first ever taken of that phenomenon, or just the first that NASA's HSC has managed to take. But I'm just as happy to be told that

  1. There's a snapshot.
  2. It's of a planet.
  3. The planet is circling another star
  4. The snapshot's been taken (rather than, say, sold).
  5. It was taken by the HSC.
in that order as I am to be told that
  1. The HSC has done something.
  2. It's taken something.
  3. The thing was a snapshot.
  4. The snapshot was of a planet.
  5. The planet was circling another star.
by the active recasting:
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken the first visible light snapshot of a planet circling another star.
By the way, the ambiguity  about the firstness has gone, but now there's a possibility that the HSC is circling another star rather than, or as well as, the planet. But accepting that delayed revelation can be bad there are ways to do it without using the PV; see Kingsley Amis's 'gorged-snake construction':
'Looks like we're out of the woods for a bit', laughed the tall dark sun worshipper as he dubbined with his own hands the boots that...
My real concern about the anti-PV position is that it teaches a rule (don't use the PV) instead of a reason (obscuring agency can withhold useful information; delaying revelations can make reading hard work), and as academics we should be dealing in reasons rather than rule-following. Following the reason would probably result in less use of the PV, whereas following the rule would leave all the ways of achieving the same bad results without using the PV unexamined. There's an analogy with coding; my students often write bad code by using try and catch statements to enclose error-prone routines. Rather than impose a rule (don't use try and catch statements) I prefer to teach a reason (if your routine sometimes produces an error you probably aren't sure it's doing the right thing) as I'm sure most others would.

The problem is that because we have such a tradition of prescriptive, rather than descriptive, grammar we put up with rules far more than we would in other spheres, the most notorious example being the so-called split infinitive. Here the rule is "don't" and the reason is "because I say so" with various cod arguments about imagined derivation from Latin retrofitted. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy and generations learnt to do without this occasionally useful construction and to use alternatives, often clumsier, instead. Now they genuinely find SIs awkward and ugly because they've been conditioned to do so*.

Take coding again: if you don't declare all your variables before using them in a statically-compiled language like Fortran you'll get into trouble, so programmers were taught to always begin a program with declarations for all variables and lost marks when they didn't. When dynamically-typed languages like MATLAB and Python became popular the reason no longer applied but plenty of lecturers still insisted on the zombie rule. Indeed I remember being told that we shouldn't use MATLAB for teaching because it let students get away without writing 'proper' programs, i.e. ones that pre-declared variables. Of course there are other reasons to set up or list some variables at the start of a program (and reasons not to teach MATLAB**).

Now I'm starting to see the PV rule go the way of the SI rule, some people frown when they read a certain clause not because the PV has made it unclear or awkward, it's the passive construction itself that bothers them. And that in turn means that their students are avoiding them because their professors don't like them and for no other reason. It diminishes the language when parts of it are walled off, and it diminishes our students if we tell them to avoid things we don't like. Will the same people who winced or tutted at Star Trek's 'to boldly go' soon do the same when I sing 'These words were composed by Spencer the Rover'?




* I once hurriedly wrote something like "this University's internationally leading research..." to the dismay of a colleague. Had he said no more than that it was inelegant I wouldn't have disagreed, but he insisted that it was grammatically incorrect to separate a possessive from the thing possessed by both an adverb and an adjective, and made dark allusions to split infinitives and the poor state of teaching in my homeland. I assumed, since he was not without a sense of humour, that he was parodying the typical grammar buffoon so I composed a response in the same vein starting "my frightfully dear fellow" and finishing "your humbly obedient servant" with as many other examples of the dreaded construction as I could cram in between. It turned out that he was completely serious. I wish I'd offer to donate money to a charity of his choice if he could find any authority for his 'rule' as long as he reciprocated when he found he couldn't. I just hope his enjoyment of Charlie Brown wasn't spoiled too much when Frieda talked about "my naturally curly hair".


** Or, indeed, to not teach it. For what it's worth I invite you to imagine the content of two public information films, the first entitled "How Not To Paint Your House", the second "How To Not Paint Your House". The first would show an enthusiastic but inept person doing the job very badly; the second would show another snoozing in s hammock while the house in question peels and rots.

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