Non-linguist commentators on language heap scorn on “passive writing,” but are curiously poor at identifying passive constructions. The passive is not, as sometimes understood, any sentence that omits the instigator of the action, or a sentence that “just doesn’t sound very active”; rather, it is a specific grammatical construction. This is a passive sentence:

The dog was kicked by Mary.

And so is this:

The dog was kicked.

But this is not:

Someone kicked the dog.

I agree that in, for example, journalism, actors should not get a pass for their behavior; the writer should not conceal Mary’s active participation in this craven act. However, simply eliminating passive sentences won’t accomplish that goal. The identification of actors doesn’t actually covary very reliably with use of the passive. By Mary in the passive sentence above clearly identifies the culprit, while someone in the active sentence does not.

In fact, some of the most common and egregious examples of obscuring responsibility via linguistic choices are accomplished with active constructions. Compare these examples:

The suspect was shot.

The suspect suffered a gunshot wound.

Although the sentence with was shot is a passive, and omits the shooter, it retains the implication of a shooter. The sentence with suffered leaves the idea of a finger on the trigger out of the story entirely. Look what happens when we introduce the idea of intentionality into the two sentences:

The suspect was intentionally shot.

The suspect intentionally suffered a gunshot wound.

In the passive sentence with was shot, blame is placed on an implied shooter; in the active sentence with suffered, we find that, grammatically, we are blaming the victim.

Now, I’m not defending frequent use of passives. I agree that passives have earned their place in the rogue’s gallery of language used to obfuscate, exonerate, or conceal, or to provide a veneer of intimidating prestige. But let’s place the blame where it belongs: on the writer, not the words.

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