In a recent post, I noted that writers disagree – sometimes fiercely! – about passive voice.
I came out sort of in the middle – passive voice can be useful, but there are risks.
One troublesome feature I mentioned was that passive voice tends to omit the subject of the sentence. Compare these two sentences:
Joe threw the ball. ACTIVE VOICE
The ball was thrown. PASSIVE VOICE
Both sentences are perfectly grammatical – but the second one doesn’t explain that Joe did the throwing.
Today I want to look more closely at this feature of passive voice, and I want to focus on something that might surprise you: Magical thinking.
Language, we think, is a pretty straightforward affair. We talk about everyday life: I went to the movies. Larry and Susan split up. A cold front is coming. Where’s the magic?
Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see that we often attribute magical properties to language. Here’s something that happens to my husband and me all the time: We want to know what kind of weather we’ll encounter on an upcoming trip. A weather forecast predicts mild temperatures and sunny weather. I turn to my husband and say, “Great! No rain!” And then gloom descends. “Uh-oh – I shouldn’t have said that.”
I’ve called up the jinx, and he and I know there will be a deluge during our whole vacation.
Another example: During the trip he comments that our car has been wonderful – not a speck of trouble since we drove it out of the dealership. Uh-oh: Before we’ve driven another 100 miles, the transmission will fail, or the radiator will overflow, or the serpentine belt will break.
If you’re a baseball fan, you’re familiar with the jinx. Many sportscasters won’t mention that there’s a no-hitter in the works for fear of spoiling the pitcher’s chance for a perfect game.
What does this have to do with passive voice? Criminal justice experts used to believe that you could magically ensure an officer’s honesty by banning the words “I” and “me.” If a police report said “I saw a bulge in the suspect’s right pocket,” the officer might be lying. The remedy was passive voice: “A bulge was seen in the suspect’s right pocket.”
If you spend even a minute thinking about this, you’ll see how ridiculous it is. Honesty and integrity are hard-won character traits. You can’t instill them with verbal tricks.
But generations of police officers were taught to write reports this way, and the tradition has stuck. Police trainers are still struggling to reverse course and persuade officers that it’s ok to write in active voice.
Because I have a report-writing blog, I read many police reports. I’ve found that the effort to undo the passive-voice habit has been only partially successful. Many reports start out in active voice (“I interviewed MacKay”). But near the end, passive voice invariably finds its way back in, with sentences like these:
The suspect was handcuffed.
The evidence was logged into the Evidence Room.
Barton was transported to jail.
An essential piece of information is missing in each sentence: Who handcuffed the suspect, logged the evidence, drove Barton to jail?
Imagine that you’re an officer testifying in court about a crime you investigated. The defense attorney has some questions about an injury related to the way handcuffs were used on her client. You gulp and realize that you weren’t the one who did the handcuffing – another officer at the scene did it
Your mind races. Who was it? Everyone in the courtroom is staring at you. You look hopefully down at your report, and here’s what you find: The suspect was handcuffed. No name.
Finally you remember that it was Officer Peterson. You look desperately around the courtroom, and then you sigh. No, he’s not here. The trial has to be postponed, and you’ve embarrassed yourself and your agency.
Recently I came across a report that used active voice the whole time, and I was so stunned that I wrote an entire post about it. The topic was the arrest of NFL free agent Montee Ball, and here’s a sentence that especially impressed me:
I transported Ball in the rear of my patrol car to the Dane County Jail. ACTIVE VOICE
Let’s review what we learned today:
- Passive voice is grammatical but risky
- It sometimes omits the person who performed the action
- Magical thinking about language is very common
It’s a fascinating topic, this language of ours!