The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Active voice, passive voice, weasel voice

The Economist's Johnson column last week (which I just got around to reading tonight) took on verb conjugations in journalism:

On May 14th, as Palestinians massed at the Gaza Strip’s border, Israeli soldiers fired on them, killing around 60 people. Shortly afterwards, the New York Times tweeted: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.” Social media went ballistic. “From old age?” was one incredulous reply. #HaveDied quickly became a hashtag campaign.

English and most other European languages have both an active voice (Steve kicked John) and a passive (John was kicked by Steve). Style manuals, including The Economist’s, generally deprecate the passive voice. It is longer, for one thing. For another, it is often found in heavy academic and bureaucratic prose. Inexperienced writers tend to over-use it.

But critics of the passive often confuse two different things: syntax and semantics. Syntax has to do with the mechanics of putting a sentence together. In Steve kicked John, Steve is the subject and John is the direct object. But in John was kicked by Steve, John is now the subject, even though he is still the kickee, and Steve is still the kicker.

So what the critics really meant is that the Times erred in using an intransitive verb.

I analyzed this not as an argument for a particular kind of prose, but as an argument for learning the vocabulary of the thing you want to criticize. Critics of the Times' headline aren't wrong; they're just arguing the wrong point. One can understand viscerally why the Times' headline got under the skin. But as in so much of life, people on one side argued feelings and people on the other argued correctness.

Until people hear what the opposition really wants to say—until people make an effort to hear it, I mean—we're going to keep talking past each other. That said, I want everyone to read Orwell right now.

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