Passive partygoers and active shooters
One story is a seemingly trivial one about parties. The second is about another deadly shooting in America. But both tell us why the words we choose and the way we manipulate them matter so much
A former civil servant was the first person BBC Radio got on the line after the publication of Sue Gray’s report into lockdown breaches in 10, Downing Street, the headquarters of the British Government. And the first thing she did was to lament the language civil servants use.
The report, she said, was mainly written in the passive tense – a grammatical bias (she said) all civil servants share.
Some of you may have pre-loaded grammar programmes that automatically alerts you when a passive tense is used (ALERT – ‘when you use the passive tense’).
If so, Ms Gray’s computer must have been pinging like a Vegas slot machine. The Economist compared the writing to the infamous photograph that heads this page: “This blend of precision and pixellation characterises Ms Gray’s report into events that scandalised Britons”.
The subject is closed
“I was asked to lead this work,” says Ms Gray, right at the start of the report. She lost at least one Twitter user straight away. “Note the use of the passive voice which is a device to avoid stating who asked Gray to lead the work,” says @2legged. “That is what made me stop”.
“This is not linguistic pedantry…The core issues at stake are not just what happened, but who did what when. Omitting the "who" makes the report useless”.
The BBC’s interviewee did not say the report was useless, but lamented the way the civil service passive deflects attention away from the perpetrator. Here is an example:
“…as I have noted, a number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did. There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across Government”.
Findings of Second Permanent Secretary Investigation into Alleged Gatherings on Government Premises During Covid Restrictions
Who allowed these meetings to take place? Who allowed them to develop in the way they did? Are they the same people?
Ms Gray acknowledges in her introduction that the question of naming individuals “has not been easy”. She decided that only “the most high-ranking individuals” will be identified: though it’s obvious that even here she has taken the grammatical way out. The most high-ranking individual everyone was thinking of, the Prime Minister, a man who knows his English grammar, said, several times, he takes “full responsibility”, while skilfully portraying himself as a kind of innocent victim of others’ carelessness.
Let’s get away from politics and back to language.
A big point that’s not often made when people discuss the passive tense is how it puts the noun before the verb, both in sequence and importance:
…a number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place
The force is in the two nouns (‘a number of’ and ‘gatherings’) rather than the verbs (‘allowed’, ‘take place’).
As she is passively avoiding names, let’s make one up in order to recast the sentence:
John Borisson should not have allowed these gatherings to happen.
Look how the energy in that sentence has changed. If the PM were reading these words in the Commons, he would make damn sure he landed on those verbs with a thud: SHOULD NOT, HAVE ALLOWED, TO HAPPEN.
Exercise: real writing from a real report
I try to be quick when editing reports and proposals. But some passages of writing take longer than others. Here’s one:
From the input of [Department A] and [Department B], the ‘current situation’ can be documented. Once completed, the new solution design can be developed, ideally driven by a series of workshops including the critical stakeholders. Facilitation of such workshops by an independent expert can ensure a thorough examination of the options and documentation of the results. On finalisation and sign-off of the solution design, a business case and/or roadmap can be built. The business case will articulate the business value of the project, estimating both the quantitative and qualitative benefits along with the project costs while the roadmap will set out the timelines and resource implications of the multiple sub-projects associated with implementation.
In that passage, there are 111 words and 10 passive tenses.
Department A and Department B should document the situation in full. Workshops involving critical stakeholders can then design a new model. Ask an independent expert to facilitate the workshops to make sure the various options and findings are properly recorded.
Then you build the business case and the roadmap. The business case articulates the business value of the project, estimating quantitative/qualitative benefits and the project costs. The roadmap sets out the timelines and resources needed across what are likely to be multiple sub-projects.
84 words, one passive tense.
An active shooter
Words matter so much after an obscene, gut-wrenching event like the shooting at the Robb elementary school in Texas.
It’s a particular challenge for the pro-gun lobby and the politicians who are so proud of supporting them. As ever, they need to step in front of the microphones and make damn sure no-one can use this as an excuse to bring in new laws to control guns and who can buy them.
It’s a challenge they always do meet. Mind, they have had plenty of practice.
Now, compare what they do with language compared to that British civil service passive voice.
I don't believe the problem is the gun, the problem is the person who used the gun.
That’s Republican congressman Pete Sessions, also on BBC Radio.
He is using the standard line. Still, this is really good. No word is longer than two syllables. The sentences are short. The message is unambiguous. We know who is guilty and who is innocent.
Or rather, what is innocent.
The hugely successful gun lobby in the USA uses one very simple grammatical trick to make sure nothing changes and the number of guns in circulation continues to grow.
They focus on the subject of the sentence. That’s the person holding the gun. We can say lots about that subject. We can apply adjectives to them: ‘disturbed’, ‘troubled’, ‘evil’ or (as the National Rifle Association said in the aftermath of Robb) ‘lone and deranged’. But the object, the gun, is just that. A gun. Inert, passive. Innocent, if you like.
But subjects and objects, verbs and nouns go together in a sentence. Separate them, and you lose meaning, or you mislead.
Salvador Ramos, who shot those poor children, was a troubled individual, a bullied child. Put a gun in his hand and he becomes a shooter. He becomes an active shooter. He becomes a murderer. In every country, there are bullied children, disgruntled employees, spurned spouses, people with extreme views. In the USA, they add the object: they give these people as many guns as they want. The alchemy happens. The man becomes a gunman. The gunman becomes a killer.
And a gun isn’t just a gun. I’m sure the delegates at this week’s NRA conference (‘14 acres of guns and gear!’) are eager to know what particular guns Ramos was packing. Well, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tells us, they were two legally bought AR-style rifles.
Look at what a difference it makes when you start adding adjectives to that plain word, ‘gun’. Legally-bought. AR-style. That doesn’t mean ‘automatic rifle’, but the semi-automatic Arma Lite.
So popular is the AR that the NRA says it deserves the epithet "America's Rifle." It’s a heck of a lot more than a gun. America’s rifle. Proudly American.