Thursday, September 18, 2008

Passive Voice Alert

What's passive voice? It's a way to build a sentence so that the true subject isn't performing the action--like this one from this morning's New York Times:

Of no small appeal to the network was that the idea for “Opportunity Knocks” was pitched by the actor Ashton Kutcher, whose credits as a reality-show producer include MTV’s “Punk’d” (“Candid Camera” essentially reimagined with attitude, and celebrities) and CW’s “Beauty and the Geek” (nerds paired with pinup models, with each, ideally, improving the lot of the other).
It can really make a sentence hard to understand, even though it's not grammatically incorrect. Here's a better way to write it:

The network liked that the idea came from the actor Ashton Kutcher, who produced other "reality" shows, including MTV's "Punked," a "Candid Camera" update, and CW's "Beauty and the Geek," which paired models with nerds.

The passive voice and parenthetical asides really muddy the waters in this particular example.

Passive voice isn't always bad, though.

Sometimes, the subject is less important than the object and the action. For example, "The man was charged with murder." You could say "The prosecutor charged the man with murder," but if the prosecutor isn't really important, then you'd use the passive voice to shine the attention on the man.

The passive voice can be sneaky, though.
Cake was eaten. Mistakes were made. Lives were lost.
Who did it? And why is no one taking responsibility? To quote Milton-Bradley (or was it Hasbro?): "Pretty sneaky, sis."

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