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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