Tag Archives: passive voice

Dead Leaves Become a News Story

My friend Mary Dague told me about this headline from last Sunday’s newspaper: “Couple found dead leaves behind young boys.” Sadly, the story isn’t about dead leaves that were found behind some young boys. It’s about three small boys who lost their parents to an opioid overdose.

The obvious problem is the nature of headlines, which often omit words to save space and catch readers’ attention. The expanded sentence is perfectly clear:

A couple that was found dead has left behind young boys.

There are two points worth making today:

  1.  If you’re writing for anyone but yourself (a diary, for example), always have another person check what you’ve written.
  2. The postmodernists are right: language is a slippery business, full of booby traps for unsuspecting writers.

And I’m going to make an additional point: Today’s sentence might benefit from passive voice. It’s clear that the real concern is the young boys who have lost their parents. Passive voice allows you to put the boys in the position of importance: the front of the sentence.

Young boys were left behind when their parents were found dead.  PASSIVE VOICE

I sometimes encounter self-proclaimed language experts who insist that passive voice is always wrong. Don’t believe them!

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Carolyn Hax and Passive Voice

A few days ago I discussed a New York Times article that linked grammatical choices to morality. Today’s Carolyn Hax column makes a similar point. (Hax is the advice columnist for the Washington Post.)

In today’s column a woman asked how to get an old friendship back on its former footing. Problems erupted during a stressful time when she made an unfortunate remark to a friend. Things got worse when the woman repeated that mistake, and now she feared that she’d lost a friend permanently.

Hax (a columnist who impresses me) pointed out that the woman’s own description of the events hinted at an underlying problem: “it happened again,” passive voice vs. the more accurate “I did it again” (from Hax’s column).

I would label “it happened again” active voice, not passive. (It is the subject, and happened is the verb.) But Hax’s larger point is spot on: The woman’s sentence structure was an attempt to distance herself from her own behavior.

This example underlines what postmodern language theorists have been telling us: Language isn’t neutral. Unintended messages often lie hidden within the choices we make when we write and speak.

The Washington Post building

           

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More about Passive Voice

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!

Magic Wand Pixabay ok

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Passive Voice

Last week I had two reminders that passive voice is a controversial topic. A friend gently chided me about a passive voice sentence I’d included in a law enforcement newsletter I’d just sent out. Here’s what he wrote:

Had I been the officer’s supervisor, I would have suggested active voice, from “Richard is enjoying his new job as a school resource officer ” to “Richard enjoys his new job as a school resource officer.”

A few days later, passive voice was the subject of a Grammarly quiz question honoring National Grammar Day. The quiz was designed to determined how fanatical you are about grammar (I scored high). One of the questions asked whether I considered passive voice a) outdated b) acceptable sometimes c) incorrect or d) confusing. I chose b, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Twice in one week…hmmm. Seems the grammar gods want me to weigh in on passive voice.

So, what is passive voice – and why do writers argue about it?

Whenever you’re writing, you can choose to write in active voice or passive voice. Active voice is much more popular, but passive voice is equally correct.

Passive voice is a grammatical construction that emphasizes the receiver of the action, not the doer. In simple English, passive voice flips sentences around. Take a look at these examples:

Joe threw the ball.  ACTIVE

The ball was thrown by Joe.  PASSIVE

Pam drove me to the mall.  ACTIVE

I was driven to the mall by Pam.  PASSIVE

The first point I need to make is that my friend was wrong: “Richard is enjoying” is still active voice. (Technically it’s called progressive present tense.) Passive voice would be “The new job as school resource officer is enjoyed by Richard.”

Now we’re going to turn to another, more problematic aspect of passive voice. Often it omits the doer completely:

The ball was thrown.  PASSIVE

I was driven to the mall.  PASSIVE

Who threw the ball, and who drove me to the mall? The sentences don’t tell you.

And that’s where today’s topic starts to get interesting – and complicated. Passive voice tends to be impersonal, clumsy, and unnatural – pompous, even. Writing experts generally recommend avoiding it. I’ve run into people who believe that passive voice is always wrong. If you use the grammar checker for Microsoft Word, you’ll receive a warning every time you write a sentence in passive voice.

Passive Voice Is Impersonal

But the impersonality of passive voice can be useful – and that’s why I chose b (“acceptable sometimes”) as my answer for the Grammarly quiz.

Suppose, for example, someone has been leaving dirty dishes in the sink in the break room at work. You’re the supervisor, and you don’t want to name the person – you just want the problem to stop. So you post a sign in the break room that uses passive voice:

Dirty dishes have been left in the sink three times this week.  PASSIVE VOICE

You haven’t accused anyone. Passive voice solves the problem nicely!

But that impersonality can create problems – huge ones. Last October the New York Times published an article about the weak portrayal of slavery in Texas textbooks. Take a look at this sentence:

Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner.  PASSIVE VOICE

Who conducted the sales and broke apart the families? There’s no subject in this passive-voice sentence. That impersonality sucks energy out of the sentence. By contrast, notice the power you feel if the same sentence is written in active voice:

Slaveholders often broke families apart by selling a family member to another owner.  ACTIVE VOICE

Here’s what the Times writer said about the way the Texas textbooks presented slavery:

Though we don’t always recognize it, grammatical choices can be moral choices, and these publishers made the wrong ones.

Are you as astounded as I was? When was the last time you heard someone talk about grammar as a moral issue?

Bottom line: If you choose to write a sentence in passive voice, be sure you have a good reason.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.

Grammatical choices can be moral choices.

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