The Passive Voice & Nothingness
Nothing is the great killer of our time. This is not to say that there are no things causing death. But abuse of the English language by writers, lawyers, and journalists has negated attribution for actions—no one does anything to anything … things just happen. The harmful, the bad, the heinous things in the world transpire mysteriously, divorced from the actors who brought them about. In this way, nothing is the silent killer—we don’t even say its name. The result is a lack of understanding, a loss of responsibility, and an absence of accountability.
The ascendancy of the Notorious N.O.Thing is the result of the passive voice. Before defining it, I’ll use an example of the passive voice. Consider the following tweet by a reporter at an NBC affiliate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a few weeks ago.
What goes through a reader’s head following a tweet like the one above? Breaking news. Uh oh, I hope nothing bad happened. “Tear gas just deployed.” Oh wow, that’s a fraught situation—sounds quite serious. Tear gas deployed where? By whom? At whom? What happened? Why? What justifies the use of a chemical weapon against the targets? “... by law enforcement at the Kenosha Police station.” Okay, that answers the by whom and where part. “This is all in response to a man who police say was seriously injured in an officer-involved shooting…”
Did an officer’s gun gain sentience and independently and deliberately decide to shoot the man?
Wait, let me stop right there. This? I’m going to assume the deploying of the aforementioned tear gas. “...a man who … was seriously injured.” Again, by whom? By what? What happened??? Did an anvil fall on his head? Did lightning strike him? Did a negligent surgeon leave a sponge in his chest cavity? Did Andre the Giant squash his face? Did his appendix explode? Did a scorned lover stab him in the torso? What happened???
“... in an officer-involved shooting this afternoon.” OK, we got that the man was injured. Now we know that he was injured in an “officer-involved shooting.” What exactly is an “officer-involved shooting? How was the officer involved in the shooting? Did the man have a heart attack while walking past a police shootout with a crazed axe murderer? Did an officer’s gun gain sentience and independently and deliberately decide to shoot the man? Did the officer’s gun spontaneously discharge and hit the man with a bullet? Did the officer shoot a domino that knocked over a second domino which started a reaction knocking over another 1000 consecutive dominoes that activated a Rube Goldberg machine that launched a banana cream pie at the man’s face, causing the man to backpedal, trip, and sprain his ankle?
Or did an officer perhaps … aim his or her gun at the man, pull the trigger, and shoot the now-seriously injured man? That seems rather plausible—likely perhaps. But how long did it take for me, the humble reader, to arrive at this destination? It took guesswork, conjecture, and inference to arrive at the most probable explanation—and even after, I have no way of knowing if that inference was correct. I still don’t know what actually happened, or how much responsibility to assess the officer or officers involved in said “officer-involved shooting.”
The Passive Voice & How It Causes Confusion
The resulting confusion is the result of the passive voice—a form of sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence is not the actor, but the recipient of the action. Use of passive voice is an important and consequential stylistic choice that, while grammatically correct, writers should avoid in virtually all situations. It is also one of the most common and harmful writing sins committed by journalists and lawyers—harmful, that is, if the writer’s goal is to communicate understanding to a reader.
Use of passive voice—in particular the impotent "officer-involved" shooting—that the AP Stylebook felt the need to publicly condemn such terminology.
Teachers instruct young English students to construct sentences in subject-verb form: Lionel ran. Optionally, the verb can be transitive and the subject can act upon an object: Lionel kicked the ball. In traditional subject-verb construction using the active voice, the subject is the actor and performs the verb: Lionel scored. Lionel scored a goal. The diagram below illustrates use of the active voice using the sentence, Lionel kicked the ball.
Passive voice inverts this structure, where the subject is acted upon (that’s passive voice right there—it’s confusing, isn’t it?). The sentence need not even disclose the actor: The ball was kicked. This inability to identify the actor is illustrated below.
The problem with passive voice is that it confuses the reader (at best), and misleads the reader, obfuscates meaning, and distorts the truth (at worst). The ball was kicked by whom? Additionally, passive voice is almost always longer and requires unnecessary wording: from “kicked” to “was kicked by.”
Virtually all writing or grammar books (including those for lawyers) advise against use of the passive voice. Richard C. Wydick’s Plain English for Lawyers explains that writers can use the passive voice “to befog the matter totally.” The Legal Writing Handbook by Oates and Enquist says, “When writers inadvertently slip into the passive voice, they inevitably create a wordy sentence with a weak subject.” Hacker and Sommer’s Rules for Writers warns, “Sometimes … who or what is responsible for the action becomes unclear” in passive-voice sentences. Yet attentive attorneys and judges see and hear passive voice incessantly, and attentive news readers and viewers see and hear passive voice relentlessly.
Writers and lawyers can use passive voice properly and effectively—but these situations are rare exceptions to the rule, and invoking the passive voice is seldom necessary, so it’s better to pretend it’s never appropriate. When you can use passive voice effectively without muddying clarity, you’ll know (e.g., when the writer does not know who the actor was, or to emphasize the action). In Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault uttered one of the most famous uses of passive voice ever with, "Major Strasser has been shot." While his deceit accompanied a good intention—resistance to the German occupations and war effort—it was deceitful nonetheless, and seldom should be the motives of attorneys, journalists, and politicians (although it often is for many).
The Writer's Goal & Avoiding Passive Voice
Every writer's goal should be to communicate meaning clearly. But in fact, users often deploy passive voice with the intent of reducing clarity—clarity can imperil one’s argument, one’s job, one’s lack of culpability. Lawyers and journalists (who I’ve already blamed for misuse of passive voice) are some of the biggest offenders, but politicians, academics, administrators, executives, and public relations officials use passive voice flagrantly well. Passive voice, like nominalizations, is a hallmark of the bland, artless technobabble run rampant in our modern world.
The stakes are low when saying something like, “The milk was spilled.” The stakes are much higher when saying something like, “A man was killed in an officer-involved shooting,” or, “Poland was invaded today.”
The problem with passive voice is that it confuses the reader (at best), and misleads the reader, obfuscates meaning, and distorts the truth (at worst).
Why should attorneys care about use of the passive voice? In virtually all circumstances, attorneys are trying to communicate precisely to a reader or listener: a judge, a client, or a partner. An attorney’s goal should always be a just outcome. In order to effectuate justice, the communication must clearly identify and explain what happened, and ask for the desired outcome from the proper party. In order to ask for the solution, we must clearly know the problem. Don’t tell the court your client was harmed and ask for an injunction to be issued. Tell the court who harmed your client, and demand that the court grant relief.
The following examples show ways to transform sentences from the passive voice to the active voice and improve clarity.
Passive voice: Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back. →
Active voice: A Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back.
Passive voice: Climate change was exacerbated in the last decade, resulting in famine, rising temperatures, and accelerating melting of the polar ice caps. →
Active voice: Greenhouse gases from human activity exacerbated climate change in the last decade, resulting in famine, rising temperatures, and accelerating melting of the polar ice caps.
Passive voice: My client was harmed. A law was passed. An injunction is requested.
Active voice: The defendant harmed my client. Congress passed an unconstitutional law that damaged my client. We request an injunction to bar enforcement of the law.
Solutions follow from problems. The right solution for the right problem requires understanding. Understanding requires linguistic, rhetorical, and causal responsibility—and that requires the passive voice. If journalists want to tell an effective and truthful story, then they should use the active voice. Similarly, if attorneys want to bring about justice, then use the active voice as much as possible.