Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Passive Voice, Abused

Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Passive Voice, Abused

 

The Passive Voice is abused when the agent of the verb is not general and is indeed of consequence, but the writer wishes to obfuscate. Bureaucrats and politicians abuse the passive all the time, to hide responsibility. That is not surprising, since bureaucrats and politicians abuse the Constitution, abuse their immunity from civil suits, abuse the media, abuse communication with their constituents, and abuse the sausage-grinding process, to hide responsibility.
Consider the following sentences:

 

The committee members, by a vote of 5 to 4, decided that the school nurse should immediately inform the police that Mr. Jenkins had been found smoking marijuana with several of his students.

 

It was decided that the authorities should be informed of an apparent misdemeanor.

 

The first sentence is longer. Well may it be – it is long because it delivers a great deal. It tells us quite a lot. It tells us who did the deciding, and that the decision was close. It tells us who was to do the informing. It tells us who had done what with whom. The second sentence obscures all that. Who decided? Who informed? We don’t know. We aren’t meant to know.
Or consider these sentences:

 

Several recommendations were made that were approved after discussion, after which a motion was made that further recommendations might be made in the future, contingent upon the success of the former.

We talked about hiring a janitor and a carpenter. We decided it was a good idea, and, if it worked out, we might hire an assistant for each.

 

No one can read more than a few sentences in the style of the first, without suffering anacephalic shock: one’s head explodes. (I made up that word.) That’s what the writer intends. The writer wants to make it as hard as possible for you, citizen, rube, peon, to understand what your betters are doing.

The classic analysis of such political bloviating is George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell saw that the purpose of most political writing and speech was not to communicate, and not even to lie in a brazen “honest” way, but to render language so vague and unintelligible that its speakers and readers and hearers will cease to be able to think. It’s been many decades since he wrote that essay, and every college educated person has read it, and yet it seems to have had no effect whatever. It’s as if Joseph Lister had advised every surgeon and nurse in the world that they should wash their hands before dressing their patients’ bandages or examining their wounds, and every surgeon and nurse had read his work, and yet, far from actually doing what he asked, should make sure that they used the lavatory or rummaged in the garbage right before inserting dirty fingers and fingernails into an open sore. Literary theorists, social scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, educational “innovators,” and college presidents regularly show us that if the Ministry of Truth (the BBC) needed one Orwell during the war, America needs a hundred now.

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