The Presidency Is Being Campaigned For! Politics and the Power of the Passive Voice

Americans will choose their next president on November 6, 2012.  Although this is many months away, the campaign for the presidency is already in full swing.  Each candidate seems to be promising that he or she will stand out among the competitors, but I guarantee you that one thing will be uniform across the political spectrum: the popularity of the passive voice.

Why would the passive voice be so popular?

The St. Martin’s Handbook explains that “[t]he passive voice uses the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb be followed by the past participle of the main verb: he is being questioned, he was questioned, he will be questioned, he has been questioned.”  The Handbook continues:

“Most contemporary writers use the active voice as much as possible because it livens up their prose.  Passive-voice verbs often make a passage hard to understand and remember.”

The passive voice can make a sentence difficult to understand because it hides responsibility.  For instance, in the example “He is being questioned,” we aren’t told who is doing the questioning.  In the trenches of political discourse, however, this is what makes the passive voice such a valuable rhetorical tool.  An oft-cited example is former president Ronald Reagan’s famous assessment of the Iran-Contra affair: “Mistakes were made.”  More recently, when scandals stalked former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, he offered the media his own inflection on Reagan’s words, admitting that “lines were crossed.”  In both instances, notice how the passive voice hides the primary agent–that is, the responsible persons or party–from view of the audience.  Even President Barack Obama, whom pundits have acknowledged for his rhetorical abilities, has employed the passive voice, but with a unique twist.  In an interview from 2008, Obama explained that “[s]ometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.”  Notice how this excerpt drops the tiresome “subject + form of be + past particple” formula,  but nonetheless masks the primary agent.  Obviously there must be somebody behind all the overheating and amplifying, but who it is remains unclear.

So is the passive voice wrong?  Or can it be useful?

It’s fair to say the passive voice carries a somewhat unsavory reputation.  To be sure, grammarians detest its lack of clarity just as commentators scoff at the way politicians abuse it–but is it altogether bad?  As a matter of fact, Marc Grinker, who has taught legal writing at Chicago-Kent School of Law, identifies a few instances where the passive voice can be valuable, if we’re conscious of how we use it.

One such instance is in placing emphasis.  Compare these two sentences describing the aftermath of an earthquake:

  • A week later, the authorities still could not identify the victims of the earthquake.

OR

  • A week later, the victims of the earthquake were still unidentified.

In choosing one or the other, we have to ask ourselves which deserves more attention–the authorities or the victims?  Most readers would be more interested in the fates of the victims; the people doing the identifying might not be as important.

The passive voice is also useful in handling clunky, complex sentence subjects.  Compare these two sentences:

  • A backlog of support queries, unfavorable customer feedback, poor inter-office communication, and low morale altogether justified the sweeping administrative overhaul.

OR

  • The sweeping administrative overhaul was justified by a backlog of support queries, unfavorable customer feedback, poor inter-office communication, and low morale.

Although the second sentence uses the passive voice, it helps us identify the consequence of a series of circumstances which, in the active voice, might overwhelm us with too much information.

Additional resources

These are only two examples where the passive voice serves a strategic purpose for writers, and there are of course many others in addition to these.  For more guidance on where the passive voice may be useful, see the resources at Capital Community College and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  In addition to helping you to be more strategic in your writing, you might get a better sense when you listen to this election’s candidates whether they have good reason for using the passive voice–aside from shielding themselves from criticism.