Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Past Exonerative

If you aren't a person with a degree in linguistics, the uses of the passive and active voice probably aren't something you spend too much time thinking about. But that's why you have me.

The difference between the active and passive voices involves the identification of who or what performs the action being described, as in this simple example:

"Mary won the Nobel Prize for Physics" is a sentence in the active voice. It's clear that Mary won something, and what that something was. On the other hand, "The Nobel Prize for Physics was won by Mary" is a sentence in the passive voice. In this version of the sentence, we're stressing the importance of the prize by putting it up front, before mention of Mary.

Most of the time, the active voice is preferable, because it clearly denotes who took what action. But sometimes, particularly in the worlds of politics, news reporting, and the avoidance of lawsuits, we don't always want to specify who did what. Consider this example:

I made a mistake (active voice).
Mistakes were made (passive voice).

In the second sentence above, who was responsible for the mistake? We don't know. Use of the passive voice in this case allows the speaker to admit that something went wrong without admitting who was responsible. For this reason, use of the passive voice in admitting wrongdoing has been called the "past exonerative tense," and is much beloved of politicians and celebrities who find it necessary to sort of apologize for something without actually doing so.

I thought about the whole passive voice thing yesterday when I read this article in the Washington Post: The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings. The article, by Washington Post blogger Radley Balko, looks at the way in which police departments report incidents in which their officers shot people - whether on purpose or by accident. It's fascinating.

First of all, Mr Balko points out that in police news releases, police officers never actually shoot anyone. There is, instead, an "officer-involved shooting." He notes that in many reports, the actions of the alleged criminal are presented in the active voice, while those of the police officers involved are presented in the passive ("When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting occurred"). 

The best (if I can use that adjective in this context) example Mr Balko cites is this one, taken from the description of an incident in Georgia by a local television station:

"... a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy."

As Mr Balko points out, guns don't usually go off without someone pulling a trigger. And note the use of the passive voice:

"It was not clear if the gun was actually fired by the deputy" says more or less the same thing as "It was not clear if the deputy actually fired the gun," but it doesn't sound as if the deputy actually did anything wrong.

The point here isn't to cast aspersions on police officers, but to point out how the language can be used obscure the truth and blur responsibility for one's actions. 

The past exonerative ... the official tense of Congress and the media.

You are passively wished by me a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

Very interesting -- using the passive voice to distance the speaker or writer from responsibility. "I made a mistake" makes the agent quite clear; "Mistakes were made" leaves it quite nebulous.

A great essay, Bilbo.

Linda Kay Christensen said...

Great observations. We have always known that the news media has the talent of presenting information in whatever light they choose to use. This is a great example. Thanks for sharing.

Mike said...

This blog post may or may not have been read by this readers eyes.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

How to be sometimes works if people don't read too carefully.

Banana Oil said...

The passive voice is somewhat harder to understand.

Duckbutt said...

An 'officer-involved shooting' is clearly opaque. The officer could have done the shooting, gotten shot, gotten shot at with no result, or viewed the shooting.