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On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented a radio address to the nation. His subject was a political scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair, where members of Reagan’s administration engaged in a secret arms deal in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages. Without approval or even the knowledge of the U.S. Congress, Reagan administration officials sold weapons to Iran and then used the profits from the sale to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.
When a Lebanese newspaper published a report detailing the secret deal in November 1986, President Reagan was forced to address the matter publicly:
In the process of providing his explanation to the American people, Reagan used a classic framing device, the evasive maneuver known as passive voice:
And while we are still seeking all the facts, it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made [emphasis added] (1).
Use of the passive voice puts the object of the sentence “mistakes” up front and makes the doer of the action magically disappear. Use of the passive voice allows the speaker to subtly evade admitting direct responsibility. Notice the difference in the two sentences below:
Active Voice: I made a mistake.
Passive Voice: Mistakes were made.
Reagan was certainly not the first president to make this kind of unapologetic apology. Use of this artful dodge dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration. In a report to Congress in 1876, Grant acknowledged his administration’s scandals, saying “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it” (2).
For most writers, understanding the difference between active and passive voice has nothing to do with political rhetoric. Instead, the difference relates to making sure that your sentences are as clear, concise, and active as possible.
Just as the key to keeping your car running well is taking care of its engine, the key to successful sentences is taking care of the engine of the sentence: the verb. Notice the difference in the following two sentences:
Passive Sentence: The book was read by Mary.
Active Sentence: Mary read the book.
Both sentences say the same thing. The active sentence, however, says it in fewer words. Also, the active sentence makes Mary the doer of the action. In contrast, the passive sentence puts the object up front which requires the addition of two weak and unnecessary words: “was” and “by.”
Passive voice is technically not a grammar error; instead, it is a style choice. There are times when you might want to focus on the object rather than the doer of the action. Be aware, however, that in most cases putting the doer up front and eliminating unnecessary words will make your writing more clear and concise.
As exemplified by the sentence about Mary above, be on the lookout for forms of “to be.” We use this verb more than any other verb in English, but don’t overuse it. “To be” is a state of being verb. When you use forms of “to be” as the engine of your sentence, the sentence doesn’t get very far:
Bill was happy.
In contrast, when you employ active verbs, your sentences have more motion, which creates a better picture for the reader:
Bill smiled broadly and threw his head back as he laughed.
Today’s Challenge: Mistakes Were Corrected
What is the best way to begin a story? Select one of the passive sentences below. Transform the sentence from passive voice to active voice, and expand the sentence into an opening paragraph of a short story. As you revise, consider the subject of your sentence. Whenever possible make people the subjects of your sentences, the doers of the action; this will add more life and human interest to your writing.
The groceries were purchased.
The cake was eaten.
The sun was watched.
The test was taken.
The book was thrown.
The poem was written.
The team was booed.
The birthday was celebrated.
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
1- Reagan, Ronald. Radio Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy. 6 Dec. 1986. The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36788.
2-Safire, William. Safire’s Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008: 431.