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Shock: Writer Avoids Mentioning Passive!

Here’s part of a 2007 blog post by Melissa McEwan, talking about the way some news sources write about the rape and murder of young women in a way that almost makes it sound as if women were just out there playing the rape-victim role and becoming murdered without any male intervention at all:

In a second homicide that summer in the city involving a young woman who had been drinking to excess, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore left one of the city’s most exclusive lounges intoxicated. Walking alone in the early morning hours along the city’s West Side Highway, she was abducted and raped. Two days later she was found disemboweled in a dumpster in Weehawken, N.J.

She was abducted and raped and she was found disemboweled in a dumpster, all because she had been drinking to excess and was walking alone while intoxicated. No trace of the person who actually abducted, raped, and murdered her anywhere. He is absent while his crime haunts the article like a menacing specter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re going to write an article about minimizing the “barroom risk” of assault against women, perhaps you ought to consider actually discussing the assaulters, too.

Melissa is absolutely right that the writing is a disgrace. It contrives to mention an abduction without alluding to any abductor; a rape with no trace of a rapist; a disembowelment with no one wielding the knife; a murder lacking a murderer; and a finding of a body with no finder. The verbs abducted, raped, found, and disemboweled are all genuine cases of verbs used in the passive with no passive complement denoting the agent. Looks like a tailor-made opportunity for blaming the passive voice, don’t you think? The paragraph could certainly have been phrased using only actives:

In a second case of a man murdering a defenseless girl that summer in the city, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore left one of the city’s most exclusive lounges intoxicated. As she walked alone in the early morning hours along the city’s West Side Highway, the so-far unidentified man abducted her and raped her. He then apparently disemboweled her. A member of the public found her body in a dumpster in Weehawken, N.J., two days later.

The indefinite references to agents here (“a man”, “a member of the public”) are not satisfactory; they add details that I don’t know and had to invent here—but that is just the sort of thing that better journalism might fix. What is known about the culprit? Nothing at all? Who found the body: a passing hobo, a city trash hauler, a supermarket employee, a police officer? Just the sort of details a reporter ought to be tracking down.

Using active clauses throughout might have forced the writer to confront the fact that we don’t even know who found the body, let alone who was the unmentioned rapist, mutilator, and murderer who’s still out there somewhere. The agentless passive provides the evasive linguistic expression that enables these sentences to avoid mention of the culprit, or anyone else but the poor drunken young woman.

Critics of other people’s writing love fingering what they take to be “passive.” I have collected about 25 instances, in print and blogs, of people pointing disapproving fingers at the passive while giving examples that are not passives. Melissa has a genuine case of evasive use of the passive voice here, so why doesn’t she flaunt it?

Because, I would claim, she’s smart. Smart enough to see that although it would be accurate to mention the passive, there’s no special reason to. There are all sorts of constructions that one could use to create a similar effect: Anyone who wanted to obscure responsibility for a woman’s abduction and rape and disembowelment and murder could allude to the events in many ways that don’t involve passives. (I believe I just did it: There are no passives in the preceding sentence.)

George Orwell, William Strunk, and the other enemies of the passive construction have it wrong: It’s not about the passive. Melissa McEwan is intelligent enough to be more concerned with the feminist anti-rape message than with taking trips around the block waving the grammar flag. No grammar talk needed: The enemy is not the passive.

Of course, if you want to rail against needless evasiveness about agency, lazy omission of relevant detail, and pointless obscuring of blame, then I’m right with you: I hate these practices too. But eschewing passives is neither necessary nor sufficient as a way to battle those faults. Kudos to Melissa McEwan for not falling into the usual trap.

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