Crimes Against the Passive Voice

 

“From NPR News in Washington, I’m Korva Coleman.”

My Harry’s razorblade glided across my face Thursday morning as the reader sauntered through the news roundup. I finished, closed the cabinet, and turned to leave the room. Ms. Coleman solemnly reported Governor Scott Walker’s intention to sign a Right to Work bill due on his desk soon. I paused to hear the rest of the story.

She soberly explained that the bill “bars union members from being required” to pay dues.

My internal anti-passive-voice klaxon — meticulously installed by an Air Force writing course years ago — Woop! Woop! Wooped! to life. Calling out the legislation’s indirect object to affix the verb that’s meant for the subject? Egad! Such action would have sent my technical sergeant instructor to sick call.

Talk about torturing the language to extract the desired victimhood! It got me thinking how waterboarding other prose could change reader perceptions (I need a go-ahead from John Yoo first).

I can hear it now (insert your favorite NPR voice here):

“Burger King bars customers from being required to have the Whopper Burger King’s way.”

“Satellite TV bars customers from being required to accept cable monopoly offerings.”

“eHarmony bars users from being required to date that roommate’s coworker’s friend who’s coming off a rough breakup but has a great personality.”

Or my favorite, “My 20% home equity bars me from being required to pay private mortgage insurance!”

What actual examples or snarkily concocted crimes against the passive voice could you employ to gain the spin you desire?

I’d enjoy a weekend chuckle if you have the strength to respond. (And yes, I used “NPR” several times to impress Rob Long.)

Barred from being required.

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  1. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    HerrForce1: What actual examples or snarkily concocted crimes against the passive voice could you employ to gain the spin you desire?

    Aren’t these crimes of the passive voice? We need passive voice control.

    • #1
  2. user_533354 Member
    user_533354
    @melissaosullivan

    Great article.  Examples like this is why I quit contributing.  Another favorite trick is to have the reader explain the position of the person they disagree/do not approve of, while letting the favored person/position/proponent explain/promote with their own voice.

    • #2
  3. user_1830 Coolidge
    user_1830
    @HerrForce1

    Melissa O’Sullivan

    Great article.  Examples like this is why I quit contributing.

    Your points aside Ms. O’Sullivan, let me be the first to welcome you back to putting your cursor to comment button!

    • #3
  4. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    NPR is notorious for using the passive voice in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Here is a classic of the genre from this past July:

    Israel Expands Attacks On Gaza As Rockets Target Israeli Cities

    Israel said Tuesday it is expanding its operations against Hamas “and other terrorist organizations” in the Gaza Strip amid an escalation of violence that saw a barrage of rockets fired from the enclave toward Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other parts of the country.

    [quote from the Israeli prime minister]

    Rockets from Gaza were fired at targets inside Israel. No one was hurt.

    You’d think that the newsworthy item would be that Hamas resumed rocket attacks, not that Israel sent jets to take out the rocket launchers and stop the barrage. But then you realize that the rockets launched themselves. Apparently the only human actors are Israelis.

    • #4
  5. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Son of Spengler:NPR is notorious for using the passive voice in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Here is a classic of the genre from this past July:

    Israel Expands Attacks On Gaza As Rockets Target Israeli Cities

    Israel said Tuesday it is expanding its operations against Hamas “and other terrorist organizations” in the Gaza Strip amid an escalation of violence that saw a barrage of rockets fired from the enclave toward Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other parts of the country.

    [quote from the Israeli prime minister]

    Rockets from Gaza were fired at targets inside Israel. No one was hurt.

    You’d think that the newsworthy item would be that Hamas resumed rocket attacks, not that Israel sent jets to take out the rocket launchers and stop the barrage. But then you realize that the rockets launched themselves. Apparently the only human actors are Israelis.

    The left mixes obfuscatory techniques. Technically, the phrase”rockets target…” is misuse of active voice rather than a passive voice. The rockets are not sentient. The targeting is by Hamas etc. so that the more correct phrase would be “Terrorists target Israeli cities with rockets…”

    Of course “target” is obfuscatory in that it does not clearly differentiate between the aiming, and the firing, and the hitting. The yet more correct phrase would be “Gazan terrorists hit Israeli cities with rockets…”

    • #5
  6. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    ctlaw:

     

    The left mixes obfuscatory techniques. Technically, the phrase”rockets target…” is misuse of active voice rather than a passive voice. The rockets are not sentient. The targeting is by Hamas etc. so that the more correct phrase would be “Terrorists target Israeli cities with rockets…”

    Of course “target” is obfuscatory in that it does not clearly differentiate between the aiming, and the firing, and the hitting.

    The headline is egregious, but moreso the article: “an escalation of violence that saw a barrage of rockets fired from the enclave”. Also “Rockets from Gaza were fired”.

    • #6
  7. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    HerrForce1:“From NPR News in Washington, I’m Korva Coleman.”

    My Harry’s razor blade glided across my face Thursday morning as the reader sauntered through the news roundup. I finished, closed the cabinet, and turned to leave the room. Ms. Coleman solemnly reported Governor Scott Walker’s intention to sign a Right to Work bill due on his desk soon. I paused to hear the rest of the story.

    She soberly explained that the bill “bars union members from being required” to pay dues.
    Barred from being required.

    Even if you forgive the grammar, I believe it’s factually untrue. If I remember this right, the bill wouldn’t let union members off the hook from paying dues, it would allow non-members to stop paying union dues.  I think to get certain jobs you were forced to pay dues whether you joined the union or not.

    • #7
  8. user_357321 Inactive
    user_357321
    @Jordan

    Surely it must have occurred to the author that the writing of this post should have had been written in the most tortuous, difficult to understand language possible for it to have achieved an optimal state of impactfulness for the point to not be barred from conveyance to the reader.

    But seriously, this is more of an academics problem.  NPR types spent too much time in the academy where they absorb the style.  It allows the author to weasel out of things he doesn’t want to say and makes those statements unquotable.

    • #8
  9. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    A Colorado man murders a Montana teacher.  This prompts the Associated Press to write:

    The case tragically illustrated the dramatic social changes that have come with an oil boom that’s boosted the region’s economy.

    Because oil booms cause murder, you see…

    • #9
  10. Ross C Member
    Ross C
    @RossC

    HerrForce1:She soberly explained that the bill “bars union members from being required” to pay dues.

    It is hard for me to untwist the pretzel without adding words, but maybe this would work.

    The bill bars unions and employers from requiring employees to join a union or to pay union dues.

    or (aghast) you might say

    The bill allows workers to opt out of union membership.

    • #10
  11. Ross C Member
    Ross C
    @RossC

    NOW that I have the formula down –

    The red turn arrow at a traffic light bars cars from being required to turn.

    A stop sign bars traffic from being required to drive through an intersection immediately.

    The first amendment bars laws from requiring the congress establish a state religion.  (That one hurt me).

    • #11
  12. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    Someone barred NPR reporters from being required to use their brains.

    • #12
  13. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Probable Cause:A Colorado man murders a Montana teacher. This prompts the Associated Press to write:

    The case tragically illustrated the dramatic social changes that have come with an oil boom that’s boosted the region’s economy.

    Because oil booms cause murder, you see…

    “Journalists” are always trying to lead the reader to their own desired conclusion. This was an absurd stretch. That sentence comes after only a few sentences describing a few basic facts about the event. Notice they never even say what the killer’s motive was for the murder or “attempted abduction”, yet they somehow jump to that conclusion.

    • #13
  14. kylez Member
    kylez
    @kylez

    Neither article at that link even says the killer was an oil worker or a more recent arrival. Now perhaps further searching will reveal those to be the case, but there is nothing in the two blurbs to lead the reader to that conclusion. The man could have been living there his whole life. The other report tells us they were probably on crack.

    • #14
  15. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    If you google the quote, you’ll find a bunch of different articles to which the AP “contributed.”  Different ones have different chunks of the sausage.  It’s an interesting exercise.

    • #15
  16. Jojo Inactive
    Jojo
    @TheDowagerJojo

    NPR…..just minutes ago I heard an interview with a fellow who made a movie, “Merchants of Doubt.”  The interviewer supportively had him explain his finding that global warming skepticism is led by well-paid shills for big oil, who laugh about how they can sell any idea to the rubes, same slick sales techniques used to maintain doubt about the dangers of tobacco against overwhelming scientific evidence, some of the exact same people, big tobacco, big oil, bad people, and they are so mean they personally attack the poor scientists who just want to work in their laboratories.  There was not a whisper of balance- or scientific fact- in the whole story.  No “Are there any financial incentives on the global warming side?” or, “Is there any validity at all to the questions raised by these skepticism salesmen?  The point was “only idiots listen to global warming skeptics.”

    • #16
  17. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    Jojo:NPR…..just minutes ago I heard an interview with a fellow who made a movie, “Merchants of Doubt.” The interviewer supportively had him explain his finding that global warming skepticism is led by well-paid shills for big oil, who laugh about how they can sell any idea to the rubes, same slick sales techniques used to maintain doubt about the dangers of tobacco against overwhelming scientific evidence, some of the exact same people, big tobacco, big oil, bad people, and they are so mean they personally attack the poor scientists who just want to work in their laboratories. There was not a whisper of balance- or scientific fact- in the whole story. No “Are there any financial incentives on the global warming side?” or, “Is there any validity at all to the questions raised by these skepticism salesmen? The point was “only idiots listen to global warming skeptics.”

    A whole lot of documentaries are not attempts at even-handed journalism.  They usually take a side, and it’s usually on the left.  I’ve looked through page after page of listings of politically-oriented documentaries on Netflix and as a ballpark guess the ratio of left-sypathetric vs right-sympathetic is 5:1.

    • #17
  18. Scott Reusser Member
    Scott Reusser
    @ScottR

    Roe v Wade bars moms from being required to honor their children’s right to life.

    • #18
  19. Dave Carter Podcaster
    Dave Carter
    @DaveCarter

    HerrForce1, you’re giving me flashbacks to a certain Historian Development Course, long long ago.  It’s like eating ice cream too fast and getting a brain headache…

    • #19
  20. user_22932 Member
    user_22932
    @PaulDeRocco

    The more pedestrian, routine use of the passive voice is the “It isn’t known” excuse. Reporting on an accident, “It isn’t known if anyone was seriously hurt.” About a burglary, “It isn’t known how much money was stolen.” A lot less embarrassing than admitting, “Our incompetent reporters weren’t able to find the details.”

    • #20
  21. user_1830 Coolidge
    user_1830
    @HerrForce1

    Dave Carter
    HerrForce1, you’re giving me flashbacks to a certain Historian Development Course, long long ago. It’s like eating ice cream too fast and getting a brain headache…

    Dave: Your ice cream reference fits perfectly. I worked so hard to expunge passive from my HDS final project and got a 76. 76! I was the only student without a lick of passive, but neglected to include when the wing redeployed. Kind of an important detail. Good times!

    • #21
  22. Jojo Inactive
    Jojo
    @TheDowagerJojo

    Randy Weivoda:

    Jojo:NPR…..just minutes ago I heard an interview with a fellow who made a movie, “Merchants of Doubt.” The interviewer supportively had him explain his finding that global warming skepticism is led by well-paid shills for big oil, [….] The point was “only idiots listen to global warming skeptics.”

    A whole lot of documentaries are not attempts at even-handed journalism. They usually take a side, and it’s usually on the left. I’ve looked through page after page of listings of politically-oriented documentaries on Netflix and as a ballpark guess the ratio of left-sypathetric vs right-sympathetic is 5:1.

    Sure, documentaries usually have an agenda, and I think the interviewer should be polite, but she accepted and repeated his “findings” unquestioningly.  I don’t fault the documentary maker (much) but NPR pretends to be unbiased.

    • #22
  23. Dave Carter Podcaster
    Dave Carter
    @DaveCarter

    HerrForce1:Dave Carter HerrForce1, you’re giving me flashbacks to a certain Historian Development Course, long long ago.It’s like eating ice cream too fast and getting a brain headache…

    Dave: Your ice cream reference fits perfectly. I worked so hard to expunge passive from my HDS final project and got a 76. 76! I was the only student without a lick of passive, but neglected to include when the wing redeployed. Kind of an important detail. Good times!

    I can’t remember what my score was, but I do remember that we had to write the bloody thing long-hand, so I bought a fountain pen so I could enjoy the experience.

    • #23
  24. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    It is sometimes helpful to distinguish between what I call “removing agency” and “the passive voice.”

    Writing that removes agency simply refuses to ascribe human agents to actions. Son of Spengler’s quote provides three examples of this type of writing, only one of which is the passive voice.

    1. “Rockets target Israeli Cities”: ctlaw handled the grammar of this one nicely.

    2. “a barrage of rockets fired from the enclave”: this is a noun [rockets] modified by a past participial phrase. No passive voice, but the action lacks an agent.

    3. “Rockets from Gaza were fired”: as Son of S points out, this is a classic deceptive use of the passive voice.

    I mention the larger issue of removing agency because when people strive to add agents to their writing, they naturally stop using the passive voice, as well as many other confusing constructions (such as overly-complex subjects and long strings of prepositional phrases).

    In the process, they improve the clarity of their writing and thinking. But I’m surely preaching to the choir here.

    • #24
  25. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @carcat74

    Paul DeRocco:The more pedestrian, routine use of the passive voice is the “It isn’t known” excuse. Reporting on an accident, “It isn’t known if anyone was seriously hurt.” About a burglary, “It isn’t known how much money was stolen.” A lot less embarrassing than admitting, “Our incompetent reporters weren’t able to find the details.”

    Another approach would be “There isn’t an estimate at this time how much money was taken.”  “Authorities have yet to report if anyone was injured.”  The ‘It isn’t known” phrase is laziness, and a desire to use fewer words.

    • #25
  26. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Is there an official NPR source online that features a transcription of the offending quote?

    I think it would make a great photomeme, but I’d like a URL to link back to.

    • #26
  27. user_1830 Coolidge
    user_1830
    @HerrForce1

    Misthiocracy,
    I checked their story archive on the iOS app and did not find the line. However, it’s unlikely to appear there since the phrase occurred as part of one of their 4 minute top-of-the-hour newscasts. I’m not sure if those are archived (passive voice).

    • #27

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