May 31, 2004

Hey folks, "passive voice" != "vague about agency"

We've seen several examples of people who think that "passive" means "without an explicit agent". Here's another example, from Phil Dennison's weblog.

Dennison quotes the lede of an AP story:

Prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a security guard in the 2000 death of a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation — a case that took on racial overtones.

and complains that "[i]t just 'took them on,' out of the ether or the phlogiston, I guess. Just like that. Nobody’s fault, really". Dennison points out that you have to read to the end of the AP story to learn how the overtones arose, namely because of protests led by Al Sharpton. The linguistic criticism is fair enough. It's a political question whether raising the racial issue was to Sharpton's credit or due to his "fault", but either way, his agency deserves to be placed higher in the story.

However, Dennison starts his post by writing "Here is a great example of how to mislead readers by using the passive voice", and ends "Don’t use the passive voice in news stories, kids. Especially in news stories about people doing things to other people. It’s really, really dishonest."

Ironically, there's only one instance of the passive voice in the offending sentence, and it's not the one that Dennison complains about. He's annoyed about "a case that took on racial overtones", which involves an ordinary active use of the verb take, in the past tense. Removing the relative clause and making the subject definite for clarity, we get:

The case took on racial overtones.

A passive version -- at best marginally possible for me -- would be

?Racial overtones were taken on by the case.

The actual passive in the AP's lede is in the phrase

a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation

Again removing the (implicit) relative clause ("a man (who was) put in a...) and making the subject definite, we get

The man was put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation.

An active version would be

[Someone] put the man in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation.

Ironically echoing Dennison's ironic complaint, we could say "he just was 'put in a choke hold' out of the ether? Just like that. Nobody's fault, really."

I don't know anything about the facts of this case, and I'm not trying to take sides for or against either Sharpton or Dennison. The AP story's lede choses to be vague about two questions of agency -- who choked the alleged shoplifter to death? and who raised the issue of race in connection with the case? But the AP writer achieves this vagueness by using the passive voice in only one of the two cases -- and it's not the one that Phil Dennison complained about.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 31, 2004 01:19 PM