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We’re done in by the passive voice

It’s nothing new for editors and journalism teachers to inveigh against the use of the passive voice in newswriting. In fact, that’s an understatement. Such exhortations are commonplace, trite, and boring; they’re the first chapter in every writing guide. And still, the passive voice is everywhere in news copy. I fix a dozen passive voice sentences a day in copy from our stringers, writers and wire services, and still some get by me. So here is my brief harangue on the subject.

First, a definition. The passive voice is a verb form in which the subject of the sentence is the thing being acted upon, instead of the thing doing the acting.

John’s ice cream is being eaten.

…instead of…

Sally is eating John’s ice cream.

As these examples demonstrate, there are two basic problems with the passive voice in newswriting (or really, in any kind of writing).

  1. The first is simply the stylistic fact that the passive voice makes for a less, well, active sentence. Passive voice sentences are just boring and flat, especially in constructions longer than the examples above. In large part, that’s because the action described is hard to visualize. Why? That brings us to the second point.
  2. The passive voice often disguises who is performing the action described. In the passive voice example above, we have no idea who is eating John’s ice cream. We can’t visualize the sentence except with a kind of blank space where “Sally” goes. (One could add that information: “John’s ice cream is being eaten by Sally.” But that’s just a longer and more awkward way of saying what would be brief and to-the-point in the active voice).

This is the journalistic problem with the passive voice. Deliberately or accidentally, it hides who is doing what to whom, and that’s bad journalism.

Sometimes (rarely) the passive voice is a necessary evil, when the ‘actor’ in the sentence is unknown or totally irrelevant.

Forty women and children were found dead in a remote Nigerian village this morning.

If this came to me from my wire service and I didn’t know who found them, I’d be kind of stuck with the lede. But oftentimes, the passive voice can be fixed with a resort to one of the all-purpose ‘actors.’ Thus,

Residents of the Shaw neighborhood are being urged to boil their water until further notice.

…can easily be made active voice.

City officials are urging Shaw residents to boil their water until further notice.

“Officials” are, by far, the most beloved generic ‘actors.’ “A spokesman,” “police,” and “the administration” (as appropriate) are also very popular. (Comment if you can think of any others. I’m momentarily stumped.)

As I implied earlier, beginning newswriters seem to crank out passive voice sentences left and right. But with practice (or enough negative feedback from your editor), it’s possible to develop very sensitive antennae that will ring an alarm every time you write or read something in the passive voice. And when that alarm rings, it’s time to ask “Why is that line in the passive voice? Is it because who did what to whom is being hidden?” (Catch the hidden passive voice sentence in the forgoing paragraph and win a prize.)


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