Perversely in praise of the passive voice

Yes, it's wordy, weaselly, and wimpy – but sometimes useful, the Monitor's language columnist finds.

After several days of glorious blossoming spring, I've just heard a weather forecast warning that we might have some snow showers this weekend.

Can you tell that I live in New England?

It's put me in a mood just contrarian enough to make me do something an editor usually doesn't: say a few words in defense of the passive voice.

This grammar term refers to verbs whose subjects are acted upon, rather than acting. "The book was read by John," rather than "John read the book." Both sentences describe the same action; both feature the same cast of characters, so to speak. But the passive verb makes the book the focus. (Some people use the term "passive" to describe writing that's weak or lacking in action verbs. But it's entirely possible to have an action verb in the passive voice: "The audience was electrified by the sounds pouring from the stage last night.")

Most of what you've heard about the passive voice is true: It's wordy, weaselly, and wimpy. Much academic writing, in particular, would benefit from recasting into the active voice. Some scholars are evidently fearful of sounding too lively and perhaps actually being read.

But occasionally the passive voice can be useful.

In a recent newsletter, a colleague reminded me of some advice from Strunk & White: "Many a tame sentence ... can be made lively and emphatic by substituting ... the active voice...."

"Can be made?" Were Strunk & White pulling my leg? But "Many a tame sentence" is more important than the unknown "doer" of the verb.

"The Oscars are awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences." To most of us, the Oscars are more important than the academy.

And sometimes the desire to eliminate passive verbs leads us to substitutes that are even worse. "He won the race for city council" does have more energy than "he was elected to the city council." But "She was appointed chief of staff" is better than simply "she became chief of staff."

As anyone who has ever written editorials knows, the passive voice is sometimes the best you can do to move the discussion of a particular political or organizational issue forward.

One of the classic formulations of this concept, "Mistakes were made," has such a long history in American politics that it has its own page on Wikipedia. The list of highlights runs from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876, acknowledging to Congress the scandals within his administration, to Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, acknowledging "mistakes" in the payment of bonuses to executives of banks bailed out by the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Not every admission of wrongdoing and short-falling is as straightforward as, say, President Bill Clinton's acknowledgment at the 1998 White House Prayer Breakfast, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "I have sinned." (And even so, sticklers might quibble that the acknowledgment came in a dependent clause: "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned."

"Mistakes were made" doesn't provide the satisfaction that can come from affixing blame. But it can still be useful, at least as an interim statement. It lets the one on whose watch the mistakes were made acknowledge a problem, however incompletely. And that can be a step toward resolution.

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