Sunday, September 8, 2013

Active Vs. Passive Voice - Ronald Reagan

On January 27, 1987, in his State of the Union Address, Ronald Reagan discussed the Iran-Contra affair, a political scandal involving the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras.  Reagan characterized the affair as follows:

And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for.

Reagan's words follow the long political tradition of using the passive voice to evade direct admission of responsibility.  By recasting the sentence from the active "I made mistakes," the writer makes the subject the receiver of the action, instead of the source of the action.  This allows the complete removal of the subject:

Mistakes were made by me.

Notice the differences in the sentences below:

Active Voice:
The chicken crossed the road.
Passive Voice:
The road was crossed by the chicken.
In the passive example above, the actor  or subject (the chicken) is placed at the end of the sentence, while the object (the road) is moved to the front of the sentence.  In addition, note that the verb changes from "crossed" to "was crossed."  The transformation from active to passive also creates a more wordy sentence of seven words, rather than the five words in the active voice.

It is important to note that use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error.  In cases when a writer wants to place emphasis on the object, or what happened, over the subject, or who did it, the passive is perfectly acceptable.  In general, however, it is best to put the actor in front to create a more vivid and more concise sentence.

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