23 September 2013

'I was flattered' 'to be told' that my thoughts on the passive 'had been noticed'...

One thing I've noticed about unsolicited comments on one of my books is that I'm often surprised by what a reader had actually noticed, especially when it's a passage that you'd forgotten you'd ever written - which is what happened in this particular case: a short section on when speakers might find the passive tense useful and occasionally ignore the blanket recommendation against it by the designers of grammar checkers like the one that comes with Micosoft Word.

Twitter's response:
Another thing I've now learned is that Twitter can generate some interesting and unexpected interpretations of whatever it is that you've written.

About a week ago, Brad Phillips posted a blog asking 'Why passive language isn't as bad as you think'. In a later tweet, he asked "What did you think of @maxatkinson's arguments for strategic times to employ the passive voice?" which prompted Ned Barnett (@nedbarnett) , to whom thanks also, came back with the following series of tweets (with my reaction to each one in red):

"No offense to Mr Atkinson, but I thought his example of research was weak and straw-manish, deflecting... (reading it again, I didn't think what I wrote about its use to convey 'generality, objectivity and detachment' was too far off the mark). 

"There are uses for the passive voice, but not in PR, speechmaking or to the media - it's a responsibility dodge... (Agreed).

"his most telling examples were the bureaucratic ones, where responsibility must be avoided at all costs... (Agreed, but I thought that's more or less what I'd written)

"In the real world. there aren't many cases where passive voice statements can't be improved by active voice." (Maybe, but I'm less than fully convinced by this).

As I have no problem with most of what Mr Barnett said, I was a bit disappointed that there was very little for us to have an argument about.  I was also disappointed to realise that he (and presumably other readers) might have fewer grounds for complaint if only I'd been taken more care about how I had worded the original.

On the plus side:
But I'm still very grateful to Messrs. Philllips and Barnett, not only for spreading the word about my book to a much bigger English-speaking market than there is in the UK, but also for getting me to think more closely about two other speeches where detachment and neutrality definitely did matter or does matter.

I'm referring to Nelson Mandela's speech on release from prison and those of the annual Queen's speeches to the UK parliament. I hadn't inspected the texts of the speeches to see whether or not the passive features in them, but it's something that may now be well worth doing - as background to which, see The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler).

(Details of my next open course on Speechwriting & Presentation are HERE).