More about Passive Voice

In my previous post, I discussed a recurring problem with the police reports I read: They almost always lapse into passive voice near the end. Examples include “Smith was read his Miranda rights” and “The suspect was patted down.”

Active voice (better) sentences would be “I read Smith his Miranda rights” and “Officer Colm patted down the suspect.” You should always explain who performed an action during a call.

There’s another problem with passive voice that’s often overlooked – a grammatical one. Passive voice requires a construction called a past participle. It’s a specialized verb form (brought, gone, and done are examples). Many past participles end with -ed, which is easy to forget when you’re in a hurry. The result is that many writers flub these past participles.

I came across an example in the July 16, 2015 issue of Smithsonian Daily:

I’m going to focus on the first sentence:

Whether its call a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  INCORRECT

There’s a lot wrong with this sentence. (Apparently there’s no copy editor on the staff of Smithsonian Daily.) It should be changed to they (“Public sources of clean water” is plural), and its needs an apostrophe (to mean it is).

But today we’re interested in call, which is a past participle that needs an -ed ending. Here’s the sentence with the –ed added:

Whether it’s called a drinking fountain, water fountain or bubbler, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Active voice is easier because it don’t require past participles. Here’s how the sentence could have been written. (I’ve also corrected the singular/plural problem.)

Whether people call them drinking fountains, water fountains or bubblers, public sources of clean water have long been a part of urban life.  CORRECT

Why do officers keep writing in passive voice? It’s a tradition dating back to the days when criminal justice was wary of the word “I.” Trainers and supervisors believed that if you used “I” in a report, you might lie. Omit “I,” and you would be sure to tell the truth.

That’s absolute nonsense, and academies no longer train recruits that way. But passive voice lives on…and on…and on.

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