Friday, March 16, 2007

Hiding Behind the Passive

"Mistakes were made." That's what our Fearless Leader has to say about the U.S. attorney mess. Let's set aside the implications of the Attorney General of the United States firing U.S. attorneys because they were insufficiently politically pure and zealous. That's too obvious to bother with.

The point here is the appalling obfuscation caused by - the passive voice. Anyone who has stayed awake in English class knows the difference between the passive and the active voice, but for those of you who slept through it, here are examples:

Active: I hit the ball.
Passive: The ball was hit by me.

A little thought will tell you that you can't write a sentence in the active voice without making it crystal clear who is doing what to whom. I hit the ball.

When you write in the passive voice, though, you can obliterate responsibility entirely, merely by leaving off those last two words, "by me". The ball was hit. Who hit the ball? We don't know. A man was killed. Who killed him? We don't know, unlike when Bob Marley sings, "I shot the sherriff."

This is why politicians adore the passive voice. It's very rare that you'll find one speaking - and certainly not writing - in the active voice. You'll know when you do find one because ... they will be more interesting to listen to. Writing or speaking in the active voice, you tell a story. Writing in the passive voice, you produce a government report, or a political speech, in which no one is responsible for anything. This is why you'll never see Alberto Gonzalez stand up on his hind legs in front of cameras and say, "I blew it."

And of course, if you never have to admit responsibility, you also never have to repent for any errors that "may have been made". You never have to look inside your soul, or your karma, or whatever you have, and consider that you might possibly not have handled that last incident in the best possible way. Because you didn't make the errors: they "were made."

The other two groups who dote on the passive voice, and use it almost exclusively, are academics, and business management types. The business management types, of course, operate under the same imperatives as the politicians. No business executive ever wants to come out and admit that he screwed up, big time; "mistakes were made." Also, neither business executives nor politicians (two groups which interbreed regularly) ever ever want to report bad news up to the next level. The boss must only hear good news. The boss wants to know that the situation is completely under control; so that's what his juniors tell him. In the passive voice. Regardless of the actual facts on the ground.

It's that nearly universal business practice that makes me almost willing to believe that the board members at Hewlett-Packard genuinely did not know what their underlings had commissioned the private investigators to do. Nobody wanted to tell the boss anything but what s/he expected to hear. (Almost willing to believe...)

I haven't been around academics enough to know why they use the passive voice. Maybe they want to sound like people in power. But it seems very odd to me that the most powerful people in both business and politics, deliberately express themselves in a way that makes it impossible to tell what they actually do, or whether they ever do anything. Maybe they don't, and that's the whole point.

This is a selective phenomenon, by the way. Not all politicians do this. Read the Gettysburg Address. Or any of FDR's fireside chats. Or Winston Churchill's speeches.


  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Academic administrators, including department chairs, do it for the same reason as businessmen and the politicians who [sadly] win far too many elections

  2. Anonymous11:21 AM

    I think, (me, myself, and I that is), academics often use passive voice because they have read so much academic writing in the passive voice. Okay, that is a we did it because they did it, and they did it because we did it closed loop argument.

    Eons ago, when I was a tad more innocent than I am at present, it appeared to me that to earn kudos from my instructors it was necessary to write “esoterically.” That is, I wrote in the passive voice as if standing back and observing whatever the topic was from an “educated and intellectual” distance. Yeah, I was a young idiot, but it worked.

    Then, when I went for a graduate degree, the world of academic writing was undergoing a change. I got my first paper back with the gentle instruction to “rewrite in the active voice and re-submit.” For years, I spent time Sherlock Holmesing my writing. Breaking a once successful habit is difficult. I still lapse into that unattached, stand back written attitude if I’m not careful. Trying to teach other people to write clearly somewhat tends to keep my writing in focus.

    I have also noticed, my colleagues tend to lapse into passive voice depending on the importance of the item they are writing. I was an editor for our recent accreditation report, which goes to show no good deed goes unpunished. Anyway, folks that I knew usually wrote in the active voice, lapsed into pontificated passive voice in many committee reports. This tends to reinforce my thinking, that passive voice somehow makes what is written sound important to the writer.

    I now wonder, was there a period where passive voice indicated the writer was intelligent and educated? During this time was active voice writing used for more immediate, mundane communication? However, I agree that passive voice can do a great job of indicating the writer is not responsible for the topic, the plot, or the results of the event. The writer is merely an observer off at the side, a reporter invoking the sacred law of, “Don’t kill the messenger.” It is the ultimate teflon raincoat.

  3. It would be an interesting subject for a dissertation, wouldn't it? Why we use the passive so much, and when we decided to do that. Certainly when everything you read in your profession is written in the passive, the urge to be like everyone else and write in the passive becomes overwhelming. I know a guy at work whom I truly believe is not capable of producing a simple declarative sentence in the active voice. He thinks in the passive. (He's a nice guy, too; I like him.)

    I personally have to fight constantly to keep the documents I write at work in the active voice; but then, I gave up on being "like everybody else" years ago, and I respect clean readable prose. Nothing written in the passive is ever clean or readable.

    I hadn't thought about the Teflon overcoat; maybe it's no more than that.

  4. Anonymous6:27 PM


    I also experienced some of that. And I had my battles at times with the formal third person, the value of which I do understand, but there were times the first person just made more sense, probably because I was fed up with the aura of pretentiousness I too often found myself surrounded by (ooh, I love ending with preposition - thank you, Winston Churchill, even if you were a racist pig regarding Middle Easterners)

    Basically I'm with hedera: clean, active prose that says what needs to be said as clearly as possible. One of my favorite comments on the issue of writing clear prose is that any clear idea can be expressed clearly. If one cannot express it clearly, it probably isn't a clear idea.

    I also favor some form of torture for the use of the passive voice unless the actor really is unknown - gentle torture, of course, for basically decent souls trapped in that awful habit.

    Anonymous David