the active voice strikes back

Most people, including the ‘most people’ who don’t give a fig about grammar, have heard of the passive voice and know, vaguely, that it isn’t good.

A much smaller but still substantial group knows the passive voice is bad because it over-complicates and muddles sentences; it leaves out the actor, which forces you to back into your point.

A tiny group associates the passive voice with questions of morality: if you don’t say who did something in your sentences, how can you say who’s responsible?

The passive voice is the language of public relations. “Errors in judgment were made…” and “Mistaken evaluations resulted in…” and a host of other phrases that are empty to the core.

While some people understand passive voice is a problem, even this tiny group has long since given up really caring about the issue. The way something is phrased, is written, is an interesting abstraction, but…uhhh…there are bills to pay, work to do, and the press release – passively voiced – which evades the issue is soon swept away by the torrent of other lies coming in fast and furious.

All of which is the long windup for a short point: the New York Times has put journalist James B. Stewart to work. Stewart, who is a highly regarded reporter of business corruption, (though he has a much wider range) cuts through the passive voice with a dazzlingly simple weapon: he asks good questions.

Stewart’s first column for the paper (read it here) demonstrates the point. It concerns a multi-national company pleading guilty and being fined for wrong-doing. The people responsible in that company are never identified, either by the company or the weak federal investigation. No individual is ever charged, tried or punished. No one other that Stewart persists in asking “But who, specifically gave the order/made the statement/worked out the plan?”

Think of it this way: the other Stewart (Jon) is the best weapon the truth has for attacking the noise level of the Fox News/talk machine. James B.Stewart is the missile it fires after the lines have been breached. It seems weak, in the face of the bluster and rhetorical overkill of a Fox and the hidden evil of so much of public relations, but as long as people like Stewart are reporting, and the New York Times is publishing, one can hope that the truth has enough on its side to fight the passive voice and its allies to a draw.


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