Passive Voice Is Dangerous. These Examples Show Why.

It’s time to stop trying so hard to say nothing at all

Adrienne Gibbs
Momentum
Published in
4 min readSep 3, 2020

--

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill speaks during a press conference to announce the termination of officer Daniel Pantaleo on August 19, 2019 in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“The suspect was seen running near the scene of the crime.” “The suspect was shot.” “Mistakes were made.”

Can we talk about the passive voice for a second?

Politicians and public officials love the grammatical form, but you’ll recall from high school English that good writers avoid the passive voice. Reporters learn in journalism school or when they first start writing police blotters to steer clear of the passive voice. Even the FBI advises law enforcement agencies to avoid the noncommittal sentence construction.

Why’s that? Because the passive voice doesn’t tell you who saw the suspect, who shot him, who made those tragic mistakes, and therefore, who must take responsibility.

Here’s how Dictionary.com explains it:

A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb. For example, in “The ball was thrown by the pitcher,” the ball (the subject) receives the action of the verb and was thrown is in the passive voice. The same sentence cast in the active voice would be, “The pitcher threw the ball.”

We have to be careful when we speak to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

The problem with passive voice and police is that police reports and often police spokespeople describe incidents in a syntax that suggests officers had nothing actively to do with the shootings, the “I can’t breathe” situations, and the arrests. (This is despite police training manuals that now tell officers to write reports in the active, not passive, voice.)

Some journalists and news organizations unfortunately default to the passive voice too.

Let’s look at this sentence: “The man was arrested.”

Let’s rewrite that: “Police arrested the man.”

Or, let’s quote The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Angry Grammarian, who asks readers to review this sentence:

A month after George Floyd was killed, protesters — who sometimes clash violently with police — continue to fill the streets of Philadelphia and cities around the world.

--

--

Adrienne Gibbs
Momentum

Director of Content @Medium. Award-winning Writer. Editor. Mother. Featured on Beyoncé's year in review film.