Passive voice vs. word choice

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article from the Economist on the passive voice….

When I work with many writers — particularly academic ones — I usually spend a fair bit of time persuading them to use the passive voice less often. Why? Because it so often makes writing hard to understand.

Passive voice — e.g.: Mistakes were made — hides the actor of the sentence. You don’t know who was making those mistakes. (U.S. President Ronald Reagan used the “mistakes” sentence in his 1987 State of the Union Address.)

Even if you want to hide the actor for, say, political reasons, however, it’s often a bad idea. This is because an actor-less sentence is hard for readers to visualize. And visualization is what encourages people to read more. (In fact, to visualize the concept of passivity, I had to use the somewhat tangential photo of a sleeping cat, above.)

My topic today, however, is how often readers misidentify the passive. They don’t like someting they read — sometimes for perfectly valid reasons — and then they attach the label “passive” to it. This happened recently in May, with a New York Times tweet reading: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.”

Journalist Glenn Greenwald responded by tweeting that, “Most Western media outlets have become quite skilled—through years of practice—at writing headlines and describing Israeli massacres using the passive tense so as to hide the culprit.”

The trouble is, the tweet wasn’t passive. It was simply written in the past tense.

I read the New York Times daily but because I ignore their Twitter feed, I was unaware of the controversy. My thanks to reader Charissa for bringing it to my attention via an Economist story headlined: “The Weasel Voice in Journalism.”

Essentially, I agree with the Economist writer who argues:

Both active and passive forms can give the victims’ perspective, with active verbs like “Soldiers massacre protesters” or passive formulations such as “Protesters gunned down by army”. The same goes for the other side: “Soldiers shoot rioters”, say, or “Rampaging mob turned back from border”.

The problem was not the passive, no matter how much I dislike it. It was the choice of words. In this case, words do trump grammar.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 11/18.

Scroll to Top