Passive-voice constructions are a perennial favorite with public officials who find themselves under unwelcome scrutiny. To quote the esteemed Mark Alger:
So, the head of the GSA resigns under an ethical cloud. "Ethics are a big issue for me," she said upon ascending to the office. Now we learn she actually mean she has issues with ethics.
"Taxpayer funds were mis-spent," she admits. Not, you will notice, "I mis-spent taxpayer funds."
Mistakes were made. There were ethical lapses. Monies were mal-appropriated.
Please note the lack of an actor in each statement. Who made the mistakes? Whose ethics lapsed? Who mal-appropriated or mis-spent monies? These are questions that need to be asked, and sharply, repeatedly, until satisfactory answers are forthcoming. No. Shift that from passive to active voice. Until the miscreant in question fesses up.
This is so typical of politicians and public officials that there ought to be a special term for it. Even Ronald Reagan, arguably the best and most ethical president of the century past, used such constructions from time to time. But then, it's typical of immature children, too: "It got broken."
As a rule, the more often a man recurs to the passive voice, the less trustworthy he is. Active-voice phrasings that designate a party responsible for the action described give the listener a focus whose conduct can be assessed: for efficacy, for efficiency, and for ethical worth. Particularly to be appreciated is he who admits to his own errors in the active voice: "I screwed up. Alongside the acceptance of responsibility for his deeds, the phrasing suggests that the speaker is open to learning from his mistakes -- the only way most of us ever learn anything.
Persons in public life learn early-on to grab as much credit for anything positive as they possibly can...and to deflect the blame for anything negative by any means necessary, including involute passive-voice periphrases such as Mark cites in the above. We're nearing the peak of the art with the Obama Administration, whose leader has made a point of blaming everything bad on someone else -- usually, his predecessor in the White House -- while claiming to have killed Osama bin Laden his very own self.
NBC concluded its internal investigation into why George Zimmerman's 9-1-1 call was edited to make him appear racist. The findings?
"During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret," NBC News said in a statement e-mailed to The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday. "We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers."
When asked if anyone at Today had lost their job or had been reassigned as a result of the investigation, an NBC spokeswoman said: "We will not be commenting on our course of action."
Theodore Dalrymple has written some penetrating essays on the use of passive-voice constructions and the anthropomorphization of inanimate objects to avert acceptance of responsibility -- by convicted felons immured in British prisons. "The beer went mad." "The knife went in." When neurolinguistics becomes adequately advanced, I'll be fascinated to learn what portions of the brain are involved in such feints...and whether they "light up" the EEG machines when recited to journalists, public officials, and aspirants to high office.