Passive History

In general, I think I have a laid back attitude to grammar. I believe good writing can break rules, as long as it respects the basics: spelling, making sense, clarity. I enjoy writing in a more informal style for my blog. I love me a fragment.

But if there’s one thing that gets me going, it’s the passive voice.

This is my chance to apologise to anyone who I’ve ever taught or helped with articles, chapters, or other pieces. I’m sorry. I just can’t stand passive constructions.

There are many reasons to hate sentences written in the passive voice. They are ugly, they obscure meaning, they are tortuous and… well, academic.

But above all, I find them incompatible with how I conceive of history. They make for bad history (and I don’t mean that in a good way this time: For instance: it might be true to say that ‘An agreement was drafted’, but good historians ask: who drafted it?

Passive history is a story where things just happen.

And I tend to suspect the passive voice acts as a cover for problematic agents, such as conglomerations of agency. Do governments draft agreements? Of course they do… in a sense. But is this agency really unitary? Which men and women were involved in negotiating it? Writing in the active voice forces me as a historian to make claims about who exerted choices, and it encourages me to think about why they made the choices they did, and how they came to that position.

And yet, going down this line does not have to lead to some kind of cult of intentionality (Bismarck caused the Third Reich! If it wasn’t for Robespierre..!).  Sometimes there is no other way to express ourselves than saying ‘The government decided’ or the ‘River blocked the way’. Using the active voice in these situations can help me to reflect on how agency is distributed through groups and conglomerates, or how things (in a sense) act in interaction with people. It reminds me that agency is never unproblematic, but it forces me to pin my colours to the mast. Which agencies mattered most?

It steers me away, then, from abstractions. The more I think about it, the more I realise that ‘modernisation’, for instance, does not do anything: it is a helpful figure of speech. Once it takes on a life of its own, becoming the protagonist of our narratives, it is time to find better actors, real men and women, or associations, or technologies, or ecologies, whatever you prefer. (That’s a summary of many of the ideas in my thesis:

And it is not as if there is a shortage of actors to chose from. History writing of the last sixty years could almost be called the story of the proliferation of agencies. Rather than simply white, heterosexual, rich men, other actors stepped out of the shadows: workers, women, colonized peoples, racial minorities, and children. More recently historians have added animals, even plants, inanimate objects, tidal flows, rivers, and ecologies to the cast of characters that act. To choose different actors is to choose a different history.

Don’t let your history be ‘done’, then. Be an active historian.

5 thoughts on “Passive History

  1. Yes, I think the passive voice can often be a get out clause for not attributing blame… But then neither am I very keen on the ‘blame game’ as historical practice, as I explained in a previous post ( I think the middle ground here is a place where historians respect how and why people (and other agents?) do things, and what their effects are, without feeling that our primary responsibility is to explicitly judge whether those things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.


  2. Not sure I agree this time (at least, not as unreservedly as usual). I see overconfidence regarding agency as a hallmark of unreflective history (in, e.g., the Starkey mode). Active voice might force us to consider agency, but there are many instances in day-to-day writing where untangling the agencies would be a lifetime’s work. Passive voice in that situation can be a gesture of humility and recognition of limits to knowledge. Like the split infinitive I think it’s a device that has its place. One I use more than I used to. No point breaking a rhythm to avoid splitting, or making false knowledge claims just to be ‘active’.


    1. Hmm. When I don’t know who is doing something or why it happens, I think I prefer to be explicit about that. What troubles me is that passive voice hides a multitude of sins, deflects the important questions… and most importantly just annoys my normally well-restrained pedantry!


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