More awful advice from Oliver Kamm

I’ve written before about the terrible advice Times columnist Oliver Kamm dishes out on Twitter. Here’s another example:

To which his interlocutor says:

Now I have no idea whether use of the passive voice is a good idea or not, and couldn’t even define what the passive voice is. What I do know is that writing can be both good and bad, and styles vary depending on the format of the piece and the subject. Contracts, for example, ought to be written in a different style from a romance novel. Does the passive voice suit every format? I don’t know, but one would suppose the people involved in writing and reading scientific articles have some sort of basis for their preference other than pure grammatical snobbery.

Kamm dismisses it of course, and doesn’t actually respond to Mr Ludwick – as is his wont. However, someone else he asked does:

So whose advice does one take on how to write scientific articles? A Times columnist who probably wouldn’t understand three-quarters of the terms therein, or an editor of scientific articles?

That’s what I find so pompous about Kamm. He’s a good writer – but only in one or two particular formats. I’m certain he’s never written a scientific paper, yet here he is dispensing advice which would put anyone following it on the wrong side of their editor.  To my knowledge he’s never written a novel either, and I suspect if he tried it would contain leaden prose that would make Lloyds Law Reports read like a James Bond. Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness might think “Wait a minute, this guy is writing for a very different clientele than I am, and perhaps there are good reasons why they don’t like the passive voice,” but no, it’s an airy “they don’t know what they’re talking about and should be ignored”. Now I’d have thought writing as per your clients’ or readers’ stated preferences was quite important, but apparently not according to Kamm.

I think I know what’s happened here. Back in the mid-00s Kamm wrote some decent political and historical articles on his blog, written to a very high standard. He was quickly drafted into the Times despite having no experience in journalism, but if you consider his family connections it comes as no surprise how he pulled that off. Kamm was a loud proponent of Blair’s foreign policy, particularly the “ethical interventionism” used to justify the Iraq War, even writing a book called The Left-Wing Case for a Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy. One could see back then why a metropolitan paper might want to get him on board, but since then Blairism and the neo-con foreign policy has been utterly discredited. However, Kamm never repented, sticking to his guns in supporting Blair – which he does to this day. This probably gave his employer a bit of a headache: is there really a job for a columnist who drones on about how great Blair’s foreign policies were? Not really. But they couldn’t boot him because that’s not how things work, especially with his family connections. So instead he got shoved in a corner to write about grammar and writing styles. That’s how we get gems like this:

Basically, aspiring writers should ignore all advice except that dispensed by Oliver Kamm. Some humility wouldn’t go amiss, would it?

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33 thoughts on “More awful advice from Oliver Kamm

  1. Ironically Kamm is OK here. Many journals and publishing houses have a strange aversion to the passive voice. Their authority is generally a junk US textbook of grammar and style by Strunk and White or that essay by Orwell, which is, oddly enough, riddled with passives. Here is a primer if you are interested – jump to point 10 if it gets too heavy going
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922

  2. Oh the irony! There’s a Muphry’s law in this: “They should be ignored” is – wait for it – in the passive voice.

  3. Many journals and publishing houses have a strange aversion to the passive voice. Their authority is generally a junk US textbook of grammar and style by Strunk and White

    That maybe so, but if this is what they want from their authors then the reasons why are somewhat moot. My employer insists on doing things a certain way – Lord knows why – and so I’m expected to comply. In the world of publishing, which is extremely difficult to break into unless your parents get you in, complying with the “house style” is probably a better bet than arguing with the editors that their style is wrong-headed.

  4. That’s OK Tim if these people were able to identify a passive correctly in the majority of cases. But they aren’t. If you see a headline such as “New York wrecked by meteorite” and then you are told that the newspaper’s style manual bans passives, you realise that these people do not understand whereof they speak. Therefore it becomes a random exercise as to what types of passives they accept and which ones they will redline. It is ignorance acting as authority.

  5. I am with Kamm here. It’s a stupid non-rule invented by Americans who think their particular style is the only correct one (Graeme is spot on with Strunk and White, which represents peak “grammar”-prescription).

    Yes, scientific editors usually prefer the active voice, but it’s a problem in scientific writing which tends to frown on first person pronouns. And it’s amazing how much they won’t enforce it on otherwise well-written work.

    The passive (no subject): “The samples were centrifuged …”

    is thus preferred to the active with a subject that makes most scientific writers cringe (there are exceptions, including some prestigious medical journals):
    “We centrifuged the samples in a …”

    and also preffered to contorted constructions like:

    “An XYZ centrifuge was used to centrifuge the samples.”

    Because it’s bloody obvious from the verb what you are centrifuging the samples in.

    Most people who whinge about the passive are actually complaining about the use of a past participle (well, that really IS English grammar!), especially when no subject can be identified.

    “The contents of the bottle of rare malt whisky had been poured down the drain.”

  6. I am with Kamm here.

    So you think authors should ignore the instructions from the editor of the publication they’re submitting to?

  7. That’s OK Tim if these people were able to identify a passive correctly in the majority of cases. But they aren’t.

    Right, so if somebody comes and says “I’ve been told to not use the passive” and you have further information, your advice would be to ignore the request?

    I must say, I’m impressed by my readers’ rather maverick attitude here!

  8. Tim, the reviewers of scientific papers don’t have the time or inclination to check your grammar. The editors certainly don’t. Neither has any advice for dealing with sentences in which there is no subject, or it’s not possible to identify which of Bloggs or et al. (or more likely their technician or graduate student) is the subject. This happens all the time in scientific writing, therefore you see passive constructions in scientific writing all the time.

    It is in a lot of instructions to authors but it really isn’t going to get your work rejected.

  9. It is in a lot of instructions to authors but it really isn’t going to get your work rejected.

    Fair enough, I’ll take your word for it. Only I will say that getting your writing published seems to be a lot easier than people make out if you can ignore the style advice of the person you’re submitting it to.

  10. Orwell’s Politics & the English Language is required reading for writers. Any writer who hasn’t read and absorbed its lessons has neglected his apprenticeship. That is bad enough, but to actively dismiss it as Kamm does here merely reveals him to be a fraud.

    The other required reading for any journeyman writer is Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”. Let’s see what they have to say about the passive voice.

    “Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:

    I shall always remember my first trip to Boston.

    This is much better than:

    My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

    The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.”

    They expound for a further two pages on the subject.

    When I worked with my editor on my first book, one of his main points was that I used the passive voice far too often. It makes the prose unnecessarily convoluted for the reader. There are moments when the passive voice is superior, but it is superior precisely because of the rarity of its use.

  11. My general point, which I think is being missed, is not that the style guide telling you to avoid the passive voice is correct, nor that Kamm’s opinion of those style guides is wrong; it is that his advice to authors is poor.

    Something I hear a lot from foreigners is they don’t understand the British insistence on wearing a suit and tie and shaving for work. In France, they wear suits, occasionally a tie, and designer stubble. If one of my colleagues was going to an interview with a British company that is known for imposing a strict dress code on its staff, would I advise him to not bother wearing the tie because it’s some outdated notion of formality? No, of course not. I’d say, “Stupid though you may find it, this is what they’ve asked for.”

  12. “I’ve been told to not use the passive”

    Which is passive. And uses a split infinitive. ;-P
    Active would be “[Person x] told me not to use the passive”

  13. That proves thepoint about Strunk and White. The second Boston sentence isn’t passive either! It’s just a deliberately shot sentence

  14. The problem with the passive is that it’s too often ambiguous, or even evasive, about who did what. If, say, you’re writing a PhD dissertation you have to claim credit for what you did, not for what was done. Similarly the scientific “we” is sometimes too vague. The schoolmarmish reluctance to use “I” can be an enemy to clarity.

    Of course, if you write the opening sentence of a paragraph or section to make clear that what follows is a description of your own actions, fine. Have a bit of elegant variation in the rest of the para if you like.

  15. @The PG

    Oh the irony! There’s a Muphry’s law in this: “They should be ignored” is – wait for it – in the passive voice.

    I took that as a kind of joke. I’m near-certain it was deliberate. After all, Kamm is the one stating that the passive is acceptable.

  16. “therefore you see passive constructions in scientific writing all the time.” True.

    “It is in a lot of instructions to authors but it really isn’t going to get your work rejected.” As a referee I rejected stuff when it was unclear who was claiming credit for actions. Whether the editor would act on my advice varied. Some editors were so pathetic that they’d accept any old crap anyway. Some fields of science are polluted with rotten writing, rotten to the extent that I would find it hard to see what had been done, never mind by whom.

    The advice I was given (passive voice!) as a young referee was that it was my job to ensure that the paper was clear enough that the reader would be able to gauge its truth and its utility. If it ain’t clear it ain’t science. If it’s clear but wrong it is science, albeit bad science. Bad science is less harmful than shite.

  17. I agree with Orwell and dearime that use of the passive is inadvisable. “Evasive” is a good way of describing how it sounds.

    As always, go with what sounds best when you read it ‘out loud’.

    Tim – I totally agree with your point; if your client or employer says: “We need you to write this way” then that’s what you do.

    Your point also relates to Kamm’s (actually disgraceful) suggestion that people ignore generally accepted spelling and grammar, the use of which is central to his job. As I have said before, he is an absolute cock end.

  18. @dearieme

    My schoolteachers absolutely drilled it into us that we had to use the passive voice for writing up experiments, and as you say they particularly disliked the word “I”.

    I noticed that university tutors didn’t seem quite so intent on enforcing the passive, and though some clearly preferred it, I still don’t think any liked the “I”.

    I have a copy of the Open University’s “Sciences Good Study Guide” and its advice on the issue is:

    ‘Is it better to adopt the passive voice – “the seeds were placed on the windowsill” – or the active form – “I placed the seeds on the windowsill?” You remember from Chapter 2 that some authors favour the passive. Certainly it shifts attention away from the subject – I did such and such – to what is being done, be it placing, measuring or observing. But others argue that the passive voice is old fashioned and wastes words. As a student you’re likely to encounter tutors from both camps. My advice is to find out what your current tutor prefers and go along with it. Avoid the temptation to argue – what contact you do have with your tutor is better spent on matters of greater significance.’

    This discussion on passive versus active is part of a section on writing entitled “Write in proper sentences”; the next four sections are “Make each sentence convey a single and particular point”, “Write sentences that are concise”, “Write sentences that are precise” and “Report facts accurately”.

    Taken together those are five clearly useful broad guidelines, but do you think that the passive/active discussion is an accurate summary of the state of play in scientific academia? Are there really still “two camps” out there, or (judging from journals inveighing against the passive) do the “activists” so greatly outnumber the “passivists” that describing it as a two-camp situation is giving the passive proponents an undue weight?

  19. @MC

    I agree with Orwell and dearime that use of the passive is inadvisable. “Evasive” is a good way of describing how it sounds.

    It’s certainly abdicatory of responsibility. Far easier to say that “the clubhouse was accidentally burned down” than that “I accidentally burned the clubhouse down”. But I don’t think that rules out all uses of the passive. If the action, and the object that the action was done to, count as more important than the personage of the actor, for example; or if the actor or cause is composite or incorporeal or of an unknown nature; or merely if the writer wishes to exercises that grammatical right to authorial slipperiness that the existence of the English passive grants all of us (and may that right, like the 5th amendment, never be snatched away from us!)

  20. So your style manual says to avoid passives. You have to ask Winston Churchill to rewrite, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

    You are writing the headline the day JFK died, do you go with, “JFK assassinated today in Dallas” or “person or persons unknown assassinated JFK in Dallas today”?

    As for the alleged evasiveness of the passive, how about “the clubhouse was burned down by the owner for the insurance money.” It sounds just as forceful as any active construction

  21. A large company I worked for insisted that passives were bad. However, if I wrote a report using solely active verbs, I would routinely be told that my style was too aggressive and upfront. No one ever complained if I used passives, indeed no one even pointed it out. As I said earlier, most people are totally unaware of what a passive is. That goes for Orwell. He used passives in his writing more than most people

  22. “Are there really still “two camps” out there?” Very possibly. As I said I don’t mind the passive as long as it has already been made clear who did what. You often see “the author designed the apparatus as follows” and then the description can use passives for all I care, since the claim has been made. Or maybe “the author” is described as “the present writer” which I prefer, since otherwise there’s a danger of confusion with some other author who has just been cited.

    But if a PhD candidate says simply “the concentration was measured …” I would assume that the sample was passed to a lab technician who did the measurement – why should I assume otherwise?

    There are also problems with “we”. The PhD candidate who says “we” is inviting me to believe that he’s reporting the work of his research group rather than his own work. In some papers you tend to assume that “we” means some or all of the authors. Mathematicians, however, sometimes use “we” to refer to the writer and the reader: for example in “if we now replace blah by bleh then …” the author is inviting the reader to make the substitution on his scribble pad and check that he finds what the author found. The rule of thumb with mathematical manipulations is never give an account of more than two before showing the next result. If you were teaching beginners, never use more than one. That’d probably be a bit conservative: I suspect that at school we might have been told something like “we now equate imaginary parts, convert to polar co-ordinates, and integrate from A to B to find …”. In other words the teacher might have gambled that we could later check a three-step procedure on our own. The more advanced or unfamiliar the procedure is, the wiser the writer/teacher is to show lots of intermediate work. Anyhow, “we” implies that the writer/teacher is working together with his reader/pupil. What sweetie-pies mathematicians are.

    It’s all a matter of judgement, save to say that I would never recommend the award of a degree if the relevant dissertation left it unclear what the candidate did himself. The weaselling “we” and the preposterous passive can be the scoundrel’s get-out. Well, he can bloody well get out without a degree.

  23. Oh, my industrial experience was of an insistence on always claiming (or admitting to) who did what. The Division would not accept “it is recommended that ..”.

    “Development Section recommends that …” might be accepted if the writer spoke for that section. “We recommend that …” would be OK if the report was signed by two people.

  24. So your style manual says to avoid passives. You have to ask Winston Churchill to rewrite, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

    That is a bit silly. A recommendation to avoid the passive does not mean: “Never ever use the passive.”

    A ‘style manual’ is commonly called a ‘style guide’ and for good reason.

  25. Oh, my industrial experience was of an insistence on always claiming (or admitting to) who did what. The Division would not accept “it is recommended that ..”.

    I was once asked to do something rather silly by a manager somewhere, and I asked who decided it needed to be done: as it was it made no sense, and I wanted to submit a technical query. His response:

    “There was a meeting and it was decided, so just do it.”

    I didn’t, of course.

  26. Tim – I totally agree with your point; if your client or employer says: “We need you to write this way” then that’s what you do.

    At last somebody does!

  27. Yikes! My entire PhD dissertation (in Civil Engineering) does not have a single “I” in it (ok maybe in the Dedication), and I’m not sure there are any “we”s either. Then again, my project was not a lab experiment. I guess my committee assumed the computer model runs were done by me, and the analyses of the results were done by me, and they would be correct. Now the papers that came out of that thesis had multiple authors (my advisors!) and were all written in the so-called passive voice.

    I have rarely read a scientific paper in my field that uses “I”, although occasionally I’ll run across a “we”. Things get done in the Methodology section, results are reported in the Results section, and then discussed in the Discussions section. Conclusions get drawn, but are usually based on the paper, or the study, sometimes by the author group as a whole, but usually not by any one person. Technicians are acknowledged in the Acknowledgements section, but I guess the assumption is the first author did most of the work. Other people’s work is cited by the first author, et al, and it doesn’t seem to matter which of that bunch actually did the work. It’s the work as a whole that gets cited.

    In the Author Guides in the few journals in which I’ve published papers, I have not seen any specific request to not write in the passive voice (in fact my perception was that it was required!). Yes it’s boring and sucks the life out of even the most exciting scientific research, but it seems to be how it’s done. When I review papers, I’ve never dinged an author for passive voice.

    But that’s been my limited, practical experience in my field, which is mostly natural resources/civil engineering. In journals that The Real Peer Review Twitter account posts I see a LOT of “I”s, but I guess the whole point of an autoethnography is all about what “I” think and feel.

    Anyways, my two cents.

  28. There’s a story about an engineer who learned English by reading technical reports. He was waiting to be interviewed, but it was late. The interviewer said, “Sorry for the delay.”
    The engineer replied, “No matter. A cigarette was smoked and a magazine was read.”

  29. The engineer replied, “No matter. A cigarette was smoked and a magazine was read.”

    Is it bad that I laughed out loud at that joke, understood it, and sometimes find myself writing in the passive voice after having read too many papers and worked too long on the revisions to the paper I’m currently writing?

    Everything I learned in English class told me not to write in passive voice. Everything I read professionally is in passive voice.

    In English and Composition classes, I rarely used passive voice.
    Professionally, I nearly put myself to sleep writing in passive voice.

    When in Rome…

  30. The ill-judged instruction not to use “I” has presumably resulted in the ludicrous south-of-England posh habit of using “one” to mean I.

    One does so agree. That sort of thing. One does enjoy a mature claret.

    I wonder whether it also contributes to the modern habit of barely literate people misusing “me” or “myself”. If fewer people used “one” to mean “I” would more people use “one” instead of the common “you” when “one” – in the sense of the French ‘on’ – is meant? Deep waters, Holmes.

  31. I wonder whether it also contributes to the modern habit of barely literate people misusing “me” or “myself”.

    I can’t stand the misuse of “myself” and “yourself”. I suspect the latter comes from people thinking “you” is too direct. I must say, having a familiar and polite form of “you” is handy, you don’t need to dress up the word to make yourself sound less abrupt.

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