Passive Voice Is Dangerous. These Examples Show Why.

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

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.

Seems okay? Eh no, it’s not. That sentence is missing some key information and also absolving police of any agency in the incident.

Try this one instead:

A month after police killed George Floyd, the streets of Philadelphia and cities around the world continue to be filled with sometimes violent clashes between police and protesters.

The Grammarian then goes on to say the following:

Maybe you learned growing up that you should avoid writing in the passive voice. But no one told you that doing so can be a matter of life and death. These two sentences are textbook examples of why: because passive voice eschews responsibility for action. The sentences are factually equal, but their active/passive-voice dance affects how you feel about what occurred.

“George Floyd was killed” is in the passive voice, which allows a grammatically correct sentence without assigning any agency — that is, without telling you who killed George Floyd. After the comma, however, the sentence switches to active voice: The protesters are the ones who “clash violently” and “fill the streets.” Protesters are bad, and police are off the hook.

We all need to examine our language use when discussing anti-Black racism, police brutality, and, frankly, anything surrounding protests, crime, and medical news. Far too often, in journalists’ zeal and rush to be first, we leave out the context readers need to truly understand what happened. This is sometimes out of a misplaced desire to appear “objective” — an outdated notion in journalism. We cannot and should not claim to be objective when describing state-sanctioned murders, for example. [See: Fred Hampton, Chicago.]

Let’s look at another commonly-quoted sentence from police reports: “The weapon was discharged.”

Whenever I read this, I know that it means a police officer shot at or shot someone. I mean, I know ghost discharges can happen occasionally, but I sincerely hope that weapons owned by officers aren’t spewing bullets by themselves on a daily basis.

While we’re discussing language, let’s also take a look at the commonly used phrase “officer-involved shooting.” This is another one that, when you read or see or hear it, should raise an eyebrow. What does this mean, exactly? The Columbia Journalism Review and CBS News correspondent Wesley Lowery tackled the issue. Here’s what CJR says about it:

Recently, in a widely read New York Times column, Wesley Lowery singled out the phrase as a “clunky euphemism” used to sustain journalism’s persistent objectivity myth. “Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: ‘the police shot someone.’” And yet, in March, the Times published this lede: “An armed man who entered a Southern California church in between Masses died on Sunday after an officer-involved shooting, the authorities said.”

See? Even the top-tier news agencies do it too. Granted, in this case, it’s unclear whether the bullet that killed the man was shot by an officer or the man himself — but it’s clear that one or more police officers present fired a weapon. The journalists have a responsibility to state that plainly. Armed with such information, viewers might then conclude that the officer is a hero. Or, they might not. The key here is to provide the viewer or reader with all the information they need to make their own judgment and get out the way of the story.

Too many of us embrace these passive phrases for the same reasons we are reluctant to call a person who expresses or acts upon racial hatred “a racist.” Yet, not wanting something to be true doesn’t erase the truth.

Officer-involved shootings mean a police officer, or several officers, shot at someone. No man ever arrested himself out of thin air. Someone did the arresting.

While you check your privilege, also take a moment to check your voice.

Director, Multicultural @Medium. Focusing on ZORA, Momentum, Level and bolstering creators of color. All ideas welcome. And yes, I’ll still be writing.

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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