Using the Passive Voice To Create Coherence

By Steve Hoenisch

Joseph M. Williams, the author of two influential books on academic and professional writing, advocates the use of sequential progression to manage the flow of information across sentences. For Williams, sequential progression is not only about developing individual topics by adding details to an idea but also about tightly fusing sentences into a coherent whole and placing new information in a syntactic slot that emphasizes it—the end of the sentence.

Book: Style: Toward Clarity and GraceIn Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (1990: 47-48), Williams provides a compelling example that demonstrates how sequential progression binds sentences together to create coherence. Williams begins his demonstration with two example sentences that contain the same information, the first (a) written in the passive voice, the second (b) in the active:

a. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble.

b. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole.

Then Williams presents the following context and wonders whether our sense of coherence suggests that we use (a) or (b) for sentence (2):

(1) Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. (2a/b) -- (3) So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in profoundly puzzling ways.

Williams lays out his answer and his argument thus:

Our sense of coherence should tell us that this context calls not for the active sentence, but for the passive. And the reasons are not far to seek: The last part of sentence (1) introduces one of the important characters in the story: black holes in space. If we write sentence (2) in the active voice, we cannot mention black holes again until its end, as the object of an active verb:

(2b) The collapse of a dead star … creates a black hole.

We can improve the flow between sentences (1) and (2) if we shift that object in sentence (2) – a black hole – to the beginning of its own sentence, where it will echo the last few words of sentence (1). We can do that by making black hole the subject of a passive verb:

the nature of back holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead start (or … when a dead star collapses).

By doing that, we also move to the end of sentence (2) the concept that will open sentence (3), and thereby create a tight conceptual link between those two sentences:

the nature of black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space....

When a writer must make a choice between the active and passive voice, Williams argues, writers should give priority to the construction that helps the reader fuse the separate sentences into a unified whole. Williams goes on to present two complementary principles that coincide with Schneider and Connor’s view: Put given information at the beginning of a sentence, and put new information, or information that you want to emphasize, at the end—"perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence" (Williams 1990: 48).

As Williams makes clear, the imperative to use sequential progression to build coherence stands in contrast to a widely repeated prescription of writing teachers: Use the active, not the passive, voice. Williams argues that the use of sequential progression to foster coherence supersedes the exhortations of traditional writing teachers to write in the active voice. In this way, topical structure analysis helps move composition instructors past prescriptive rules, focusing instead on descriptive rules about the properties of written texts and how to teach the descriptive rules to improve the flow of sentences within a text, develop ideas with details, and create tighter conceptual bonds between sentences.

Related

pdf Topical Structure Analysis of Accomplished English Prose

doc icon  Can Research into Coherence Affect How Writing Is Taught?

doc icon  How to Diagram Topical Progressions

external link icon Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams, at Amazon.com.

Bookmark and ShareTop