The supposed sins of the passive voice (part 1 — misidentification)

The “more on libel by implication” post dealt with a newspaper story that read:

WOMAN HURT BY GUNSHOT

Mrs. Ruth A. Nichols, 164 Eastview, was treated at St. Joseph Hospital for a bullet wound in her arm after a shooting at her home, police said.

A 40-year-old woman was held by police in connection with the shooting with a .22 rifle. Police said a shot was also fired at the suspect’s husband.

Officers said the incident took place Thursday night after the suspect arrived at the Nichols home and found her husband there with Mrs. Nichols.

Witnesses said the suspect first fired a shot at her husband and then at Mrs. Nichols, striking her in the arm, police reported.

No charges had been placed.

This led to a libel lawsuit —  which the Tennessee Supreme Court allowed to go forward — on the grounds that the article implied that Ruth Nichols had been caught alone, in a compromising situation, by the shooter. It turns out that, though each statement in the story was literally true, Mrs. Nichols was at the Nichols home together with the shooter’s husband, Mr. Nichols, and two neighbors. They were apparently all sitting in the living room, talking. Libel by implication, said the court.

But this is not a post about libel; rather it’s about the much-maligned passive voice, and a comment on the thread that read,

That’s just an example of crappy writing. Eliminating the use of the passive voice would have cleared up a lot of problems.

I don’t think so (at least as to the passive voice part). “Ruth Nichols was treated at St. Joseph Hospital” is passive voice; but there’s nothing wrong with that, since it makes sense to focus the sentence on Nichols — the star of the story — rather than on the doctors. “Doctors treated Ruth Nichols at St. Joseph Hospital” would have been active, but it would have probably been worse writing, since it shifts the focus to someone who isn’t really relevant (doctors) and whose presence is obvious in any event.

“A 40-year-old woman was held by police” is passive, but “police held a 40-year-old woman” wouldn’t have been any better. “A shot was also fired at the suspect’s husband” is passive, but probably better than the active, since the shooter hadn’t been conclusively identified. “Police also believe that the suspect fired a shot at her husband” would have been as accurate, but clumsier.

And the key potentially misleading clause, “the suspect arrived at the Nichols home and found her husband there with Mrs. Nichols,” is actually in the active voice. The suspect arrived. The suspect found her husband with Mrs. Nichols. What’s misleading is that “found her husband there with Mrs. Nichols” suggests, in context, that the husband and Mrs. Nichols were together in a compromising situation — rather than talking with two other people. But the sentence’s active voice doesn’t prevent that misleading implication.

I say all this not because of just this one comment, but because people routinely condemn the “passive voice” in situations where the statements are actually in the active voice, or where the passive voice is just fine. The linguists at Language Log have had many posts on this subject; “Hey Folks, ‘Passive Voice’ [Doesn't Equal] ‘Vague About Agency‘ “ is an excellent discussion of the mislabeling of active clauses as passive (though read the whole post for more):

We’ve seen several examples of people who think that “passive” means “without an explicit agent”. Here’s another example, from Phil Dennison’s weblog.

Dennison quotes the lede of an AP story:

Prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a security guard in the 2000 death of a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation — a case that took on racial overtones.

and complains that “[i]t just ‘took them on,’ out of the ether or the phlogiston, I guess. Just like that. Nobody’s fault, really”. Dennison points out that you have to read to the end of the AP story to learn how the overtones arose, namely because of protests led by Al Sharpton. The linguistic criticism is fair enough. It’s a political question whether raising the racial issue was to Sharpton’s credit or due to his “fault”, but either way, his agency deserves to be placed higher in the story.

However, Dennison starts his post by writing “Here is a great example of how to mislead readers by using the passive voice”, and ends “Don’t use the passive voice in news stories, kids. Especially in news stories about people doing things to other people. It’s really, really dishonest.”

Ironically, there’s only one instance of the passive voice in the offending sentence, and it’s not the one that Dennison complains about …

(Note, incidentally, that this isn’t even a situation where “passive voice” has acquired an established alternate meaning, such as a usage that doesn’t mention the actor. The “Woman Hurt by Gunshot” passage, for instance, mentioned the actor — the shooter. It just didn’t mention other circumstances that would have helped understand what was really going on.)

So the passive voice is sometimes misidentified — but even when properly identified, it is often improperly condemned. More on that in an upcoming post.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh · May 12