Evil in the middle?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/07/03 03:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2006/07/03/654999.aspx

This last Thursday I was reading Mark Liberman's Diagnosing soup label syntax (and the Saturday follow-up post) on Language Log, and I admit it was cool to know that there was a bucket in which to place these phrases like soup that eats like a meal which do not really fit into either the active or the passive buckets.

But at the same time, I have been haunted by many years (from school to article writing to book writing and most recently to doc writing) where in each case the teacher/editor/writer has explained how the passive voice is weak an must be avoided -- that it was something best thought of as evil, and avoided.

So I wonder whether the middle voice is also a problem in these contexts?

It is really too late to go back and ask J. Todd King about this. And I probably wouldn't ask Mrs schultz or Mr. Fields. And it is too late to ask most of those formed editors. I could ask one of the doc writers but they are focused on technical documentation and I am not sure that the procedure that runs like the wind is the way that they would expect one to talk about a function's performance considerations (we're not trying to write poetry here -- it is supposed to be technical).

But the question remains -- is the middle voice evil, in the same contexts that its cousin the passive voice is?

And if so, is it evil for the same reasons? Or does it have reasons of its own?


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# CarlosT on 3 Jul 2006 2:19 PM:

The whole "passives are bad" thing is pretty overdone, in my opinion.  Yes, overuse of passives can be bad because passive constructions tend to get wordy and good writers strive to avoid wasting words.  Also, since the actor is optional in a passive construction, they can be weasely in the "mistakes were made" tradition.  However, there are situations where avoiding a passive construction makes a the meaning less and not more clear.  Steven Pinker had an example in one of his books that went something like this (not verbatim):

Black holes have such intense gravitational pull that not even light can escape.  The collapse of a massive star creates a black hole.

Black holes have such intense gravitational pull that not even light can escape.  Black holes are created when a massive star collapses.

The first pair of sentences don't tie together.  It's as if they're just random, unconnected facts.  Black holes are the subject of the first sentence but the second sentence is about the collapse of a star.  Our little mini-paragraph is all over the place, with a different subject for each sentence.

On the other hand, in the second pair of sentences black holes are the subject of both.  Now our mini-paragraph is about one topic, and the second sentence is just a further development of the theme.  Following the "avoid passives" rule should cause one to prefer the first pair, but readability and flow are definitely with the second pair and the choice is clear.

Instead of labeling entire grammatical voices as "evil" or making up some "rule", your teachers/editors/writers would have served you better by emphasizing that readability and clarity are the key.  If something doesn't sound right, recast it until it does.  If the result happens to be a passive or middle voice, so be it.

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