Posted May 5th 2010 at 4:26 pm by
in Media Mindfulness

Urban Planning and the Sin of the Passive Voice

I agreed to copy edit four Urban Planning masters theses this year, and looked at early versions of several more. This is a way I can help students who have contributed fantastic work to CoLab. Plus, I wrote my own thesis a few years ago, and I know how the words start to swim around on the page after four months of trying to say the perfect thing.

I found similar mistakes across the drafts: word repetitions; inconsistent verb tenses; pronoun and antecedent issues; reliance on unfortunate sentence structures, such as “Not only _________, but also ___________.”; and, most common, an onslaught of passive voice.

Passive voice is problematic for urban planners for two reasons. First, it sounds bad. This sentence:

A new transit stop was demanded by the neighborhood council.

would obviously sound better in the active voice:

The neighborhood council demanded a new transit stop.

But second — and this is where the passive voice moves from grammatical tragedy to societal tragedy — writing in passive voice excuses the actors that make things happen in communities. The most prevalent form I found followed this structure:

A new transit stop was demanded.

Who demanded it? This kind of sentence rejects the fact that real individuals and organizations take actions to change communities. Councils, elected officials, neighborhood associations, citizen groups, businesses, developers and the like do things that impact places.

This sentence makes it seem like a little cartoon thought-bubble labeled ‘transit demand’ floated up and out of some neighborhood and hovered there until a transit stop appeared. That’s not what happened. We all know that some people wanted the stop and some didn’t. Those who cared about it had arguments. Racism, ageism, and gentrification may have been involved in the history of the stop location. Ultimately, a specific and identifiable group made the demand.

Writers: you have done enough research to know who demanded the transit stop. Just remember to tell us. Writers are responsible for using language that assigns actions to the individuals and entities who took them.

Post by Alexa Mills.

4 responses to “Urban Planning and the Sin of the Passive Voice”

  1. First off, I can attest and thank the powers above that Alexa is an amazing copy editor, especially in an environment where not many people read a piece of work so closely that you slave so hard over.

    And I totally agree that the passive voice takes out the ACTION that we desperately need more of in urban planning education.

    However, I will defend the inclination a bit, and here’s why:

    #1 It gets REALLY boring to keep saying “The citizens demanded X” and “The planner did y” over and over.

    #2 Sometime we don’t know the who – not because we didn’t take good notes, but because we’re doing case studies or research based on others’ documentation or memories. OR because things happen in community situations, especially politically charged ones, behind closed doors or in town meetings that no one attends or documents. We still want to include the event as part of larger narrative or argument, but we don’t have the info or space to introduce every character.

    #3 Unfortunately, because we live in a world of stereotypes, naming the who sometimes makes it more about the subject and not about the action or the output of the action, because it comes first in the sentence.

    And finally

    #4 A masters student, especially one in a place like MIT just spent a considerable amount of hours immersed in hundreds of pages of passive voice. It is a lofty and generalizable tense of authority. And while I agree it makes the language less clear, we also have to acknowledge when a tense or a tool has POWER and try to use that power for our own ends. If using a passive voice gets me audience with decision makers and people with legitimized power, I’m going to use it. Just like I would use a voice of experience and action-orientation to gain credibility in a room of community organizers. Knowing your audience and writing in their style is valuable communication skill.

    But all this begs the question, who is the final written thesis really for? How many people actually will read it? Or is it about the PROCESS of writing the thesis for the student? Are there outputs, passive or active, that can come out of a thesis that are usual to more than a shelf at the library?

  2. Christina says:

    Alexa, thank you for this much needed post! I have noticed that a passive voice is pervasive with the planning students in verbal exchanges as well. Not in sentence structure, but in their tone and inflection. They end every sentence as if they were asking a question, not stating a fact or opinion! After you start to listen for it, you’ll see how everyone is sending a subconscious verbal cue that their words don’t matter. I’ve also noticed that this verbal tick is not confined to any particular group of planning students (defined by age, gender, race, sexual orientation, et cetera). Anyways, your post begs a very important facet of planning: there are a lot of unknowns in the world, and planning issues are complex, but it’s going to take strong conviction to overcome the issues that these students are going to have to tackle.

  3. Annis Sengupta says:

    I agree that it is important to speak to your audience, as Danielle suggested, but I can’t agree that using passive voice is a requirement for getting the ear of decision-makers for the simple reason that passive-voice is a much less engaging writing style. I think that often passive voice is used to suggest certainty while masking uncertainty. Perhaps the student heard from one person that group X demanded the transit stop but from another person that group X just wanted to claim credit for a long-standing community advocacy effort… saying “the transit stop was demanded” captures the truth without revealing the student’s uncertainty about it or the conflicting stories about that truth within the community.

    However, I still agree with Alexa that the active voice is a better choice because it forces writers to be more precise about what they mean and to find ways to communicate the complexity of planning contexts without alienating their audience. If that audience is trying to accomplish something within a complex community, don’t its members need to understand the tensions and conflicts within the community in order to be effective? Is it responsible to hide the messiness of planning under grammar?

  4. Nancy Bloom says:

    What an elegant idea. Urban planners, craft your predicates with care.

    Syntax and grammar are beautiful. Powerful.

    Ideas, for example urban planning ideas, should and must have a profound affect on sentence structure. And it is especially important to express urban planning ideas in the active voice. Active voice gets at the essence of urban planning.

    I am sure there are other ideas that are best described in the passive voice.