Which is more important: grammar or words?

passive voice

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.

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 (pictured above) 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.

Posted June 11th, 2018 in Writing about writing

  • KW

    Thank you for this discussion. This passive/active distinction is most interesting; I was not aware how the actor is buried in Western media, as the Economist points out. Thanks so much for this illuminating post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, KW! I don’t know how (or whether) the passive exists in other languages, but it performs in often-challenging ways in English!

  • Charissa

    I thought you would find this article interesting. Thank you for your excellent blog. I have learned a lot from you.

    • Am so glad you forwarded this piece to me, Charissa. The Economist pieces raises a fascinating issue!