Dynamic passives and the 'exonerative past'

A look at the language of responsibility in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

There's always more to know about verbs. Or, I should say: "We can always learn more about verbs."

As I continue dipping into Constance Hale's new book on the power of verbs, "Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch," touched on here last week, I'm reminded that "there is" can be a wimpy way to start a sentence.

So can the use of the passive voice, and Ms. Hale rightly inveighs against its overuse. But before she gets too deep into the weeds of "voice," in a grammatical sense, she introduces other important distinctions.

The metaphor she chooses is bread. The first distinction she draws is between dynamic and static verbs. Dynamic verbs – action verbs – are of the crunchy, hearty, whole-grain variety. Static verbs – to be in all its forms; other linking verbs (appear, become, seem); and auxiliary and causative verbs ("Don't make me yell") – are the white bread. White bread can be pretty bland, even a lovely baguette. But a baguette makes a great support medium for raspberry jam. And so even bland white-bread verbs have their purpose: to hold delicious nouns, adjectives, and adverbs in interesting sentences.

Good writing balances these two broad types of verbs, and doesn't hesitate to use the passive voice when it's called for – as when it's important to keep the focus on the subject of the sentence, even when it's not the doer of the action: "Long-sought murder suspect finally arrested."

The passive voice that right-thinking people everywhere love to hate is the I'm-apologizing-but-not-really language that is too often part of political discourse.

"Serious mistakes were made," Ronald Reagan acknowledged in his 1987 State of the Union message, referring to missteps during the Iran-contra affair. Demonstrating that weasel language is bipartisan, Bill Clinton used the "mistakes were made" formula after it was found that the White House had brought the nation's top banking regulator into a meeting with the president and top Democratic Party fundraisers.

Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush's attorney general, told a 2007 press conference, "I acknowledge that mistakes were made," in an affair involving the politicization of United States attorney positions in the Justice Department. (He should at least get some credit for the "I acknowledge" part, a first-person singular active verb.)

Back in 1991, political analyst William Schneider called this the "exonerative past."

Political speech doesn't have to be like this. And it doesn't even have to avoid the passive voice.

To make her case that passive voice constructions can be dynamic, Hale draws on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Part of the address's enduring eloquence rests with its verbs. Lincoln reaches back into the past, reaches out to his audience in the present, and reaches forward with both hope and resolve. His passive constructions (we are engaged, a nation so conceived and so dedicated, and we are met) must have given his nineteenth-century listeners a sense of agency. They sweep his modern-day readers up in our own history. His active constructions take responsibility, but they also share it (in a way that cannot even imagine formulations like 'mistakes were made')."

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