“The passive voice must not be used”

Somebody called Marie Murray has written an opinion piece for the Irish Times in which she berates the passive voice (The passive voice is the penultimate weapon of denial, 31 July 2009). She basically says that the passive voice is bad because it lets people get away with not admitting responsibility for their actions. But while the moral side of her argument is true and laudable, the linguistics she uses to support it is, at best, shaky.

Marie comments on the way people in public office often speak in ways that deliberately hide agency. They say “it is regrettable that mistakes happened” when they really should be saying “I am sorry for the mistakes I made”. This is language being manipulated to background certain facts the speaker doesn’t want to draw attention to – namely, in this case, the fact that it is “I” who made mistakes and who is sorry. I couldn’t agree more in condemning this. The prevalence of such newspeak is irritating for those who are aware of it, deceptive for those who aren’t, and only makes Obama’s refreshingly honest “I screwed up” all the more brilliant.

But Marie is making the mistake of confusing syntax with semantics. The examples of passive voice she quotes are actually not in the passive at all. “It is regrettable” is a sentence in the active voice and so is “mistakes happened” (although “mistakes were made” would be in the passive voice). So, although these sentences are being used to hide agency semantically, they are in the active voice syntactically.

Marie also fails to mention that the passive voice is by far not the only device one can use to hide or de-emphasize agency. There are many others, including dummy subjects (“it has been suggested” – by whom? “it is well known that…” – by whom?), existential constructions (“there is a feeling of unease” – felt by whom?) and nominalization (“there has been a denial of responsibility” – who denied it?).

So it seems that poor Marie is barking up the wrong tree. The passive voice is not the culprit here. In fact, there are situations when the passive voice is perfectly appropriate for various reasons that have to do with pragmatics, stylistics and cohesion. For example, the passive voice is often used to establish cohesion between two sentences. Compare these two examples (which I’ve stolen from here):

Sue was a great student. Unfortunately, she was hit by a car and was unable to finish the quarter.

Sue was a great student. Unfortunately, a car hit her, and she was unable to finish the quarter.

I’m sure even Marie would agree that the first one scans more easily. There is nothing sinister going on here, nobody’s trying to hide any facts, the passive is being used just as a device to move the pronoun towards the beginning of the sentence so that the coreference of “Sue” and “she” becomes more obvious.

Marie would have served her cause better if she had written about what she actually wanted to write about: the deliberate manipulation of language to hide agency. But unfortunately she is linguistically so uninformed that she’s lumped it all under the inaccurate label of “passive voice” and thereby undermined her own otherwise praiseworthy argument.

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3 thoughts on ““The passive voice must not be used”

  1. If it’s the “penultimate weapon”, what is the ultimate weapon of denial? Since newspapers generally have headline writers, we probably shouldn’t blame Marie for that bit of stupidity.

  2. Yes, there’s that, too. The sentence is probably hers own because it appears further down in the article.

    I doubt that she meant it the way she wrote it (“there is one even worse weapon which I’m not telling you about”). I think she isn’t aware of the precise meaning of penultimate (“second-last”) and is using it as a fancy synonym for “worst”.

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