Politics and the English Language, Rule 4


Rule 4: “Never use theĀ passive where you can use the active.”

For most people, identifying passive voice is like finding a dangling participle in a metaphorical haystack. Let’s look at an example:

Active voice:

Andy embraced Vivian.

Passive voice:

Vivian was embraced by Andy.

Not only does the active voice usually require fewer words (making it play nice with Rule 3), it is also more direct, more clear, and more compelling.

Consider the clarity of this example:

Active voice:

Vivian told Andy to put down the gun.

Passive voice:

Andy was told to put down the gun by Vivian.

In this passive voice example, did Vivian tell Andy to put down the gun, or did some other actor tell Andy to put the gun down near (by) Vivian? Of course, it could also be constructed like this:

Andy was told by Vivian to put down the gun.

but your narrative ear should be screaming in pain from the sound of that.

Remember, the order should always be subject (the person doing the action), verb (the action being performed), object (the target of the action, if it exists). With passive voice, the order becomes object, verb, subject; one good way to look for this is to quickly search your document for common past-tense verbs, like “was” or “had” and check those sentences to see if you have a weakness for the passive voice.

Is there ever a reason to use passive voice? Orwell’s rule says “never use the passive where you can use the active” (emphasis mine), which suggests that there are times when using the active voice is not appropriate. My opinion is that the passive form should only be used if you intend to create a sense of disconnection, vagueness, or confusion. For example, if you were describing a burial scene, it might capture the numb disbelief of the mother of the deceased to write, “Her son’s coffin was placed in the ground. She was taken by arm and led to the car. A glass of water was placed in her hand.” Note that we do not know who placed the coffin in the ground, who took her by the arm, or who gave her the water; we only know these things happen. It is for exactly this reason that Orwell loathes the passive voice: politicians commonly use the passive voice to describe events with the intend of deflecting blame or responsibility:

“To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties.”

-Bernard Madoff, on stealing billions from investors in a Ponzi scheme

Universality has been severely reduced: it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy.

-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

“And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.”

-Ronald Reagan, on the Iran-Contra scandal

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