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Grammar Pet Peeve – Crime in Passive Voice

March 28, 2011

In the film class for which I am a teaching assistant, we watched a film that depicts Saddam Hussein’s soldiers raping a young girl. The students were asked to write a response paper about the editing of the film. Many are choosing to write about this scene, as the editing in it is very interesting.  However, not ONE paper in the batch I am grading speaks about rape in the active voice. I’m pretty sure my Intro to Women’s Studies drilled this into me, but I can’t be certain that’s where I became so aware of this. Regardless, it bothers me. Why do we often take the perpetrator out of the crime? This happens a lot in headlines. “Store Clerk Was Shot” “Young Girl Was Raped” “Bank Was Robbed” etc — Why can’t we say “Ex-Con Shot Store Clerk” or “Iraqi Soldiers Rape Young Girl” or “Nuns Rob Bank” ? I’ve been making comments on each of these papers that discuss the rape scene in passive voice. Even in film, we can’t take the rapist out of the equation. Taking that person out of the headline or sentence seemingly puts all blame on the victim.

This is why grammar matters.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 1:46 pm

    It’s true. I have always been bad at using active voice. I don’t even realize it half the time. Now that I am in law school it is being drilled into me. Of course now I have active/passive voice dreams because I know that I forget half the time.

  2. March 28, 2011 2:01 pm

    I agree that the rapist shouldn’t be taken out of the equation. But as a journalism major and editor, my guess is that the newspaper editor is using the subject of the story as the first word in the headline, and so that automatically makes it passive. If the story is covering the store that was robbed, the store clerk is the primary figure in the story, because the article is about him and what happened to him. Not the ex-con. Does that make sense? Not sure I’m explaining it well…

    • March 28, 2011 2:29 pm

      Sure that makes sense in the newspaper world, but it’s a result of wonky editing rules and I’m not too keen on those. I’m specifically referring to academic writing, though.

  3. March 28, 2011 3:07 pm

    That’s one of the hardest things about my writing at work – we end up with some very very dull writing “The Investigator will recruit…”, “The research assistant will administer…”, etc. instead of “52 subjects will be recruited…” or “A placebo will be administered…” And of course, it’s not supposed to be interesting, it’s supposed to be an investigational plan that leaves no question as to who will be doing what. That’s a very hard shift for my medically trained researchers, but it’s a surprisingly hard shift for the psych department as well. And since I’m trained as an engineer, just using the English language anything close to appropriately is a hard shift for me. Math < ambiguity than language. Sometimes.

    As a side note, my job now makes me want to find quantifiable data on everything. I'd love to see a study on the use of the active/passive voice in casual communication, course work and professional publications for different disciplines.

  4. March 28, 2011 3:33 pm

    Hear Hear!

  5. March 29, 2011 6:47 am

    Agreed agreed agreed x a billion.

  6. March 29, 2011 5:26 pm

    I have to share this with my students. You’ve made a very good argument for grammar.

  7. Greg Engle permalink
    March 31, 2011 8:32 am

    Thanks for pointing this out — it’s definitely one of the most annoying things about journalism right now, and really just serves to detract from the realities of gender violence.

    While I suppose the argument that it’s about being “unbiased” has a little bit of merit, it’s a little too close to false equivalence for my tastes.

  8. Gia permalink
    April 5, 2011 5:12 pm

    Wow, I had actually NEVER really thought about that.

    Holy shit, I’m having a moment here.

  9. random guy permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:26 am

    While you bring up a good point, I think part of the reason for the passivization of agents in criminal situations is tied to our legal system. If some girl gets raped in lower Manhattan, how should onewrite the headline, given that any suspect would have to be proven guilty before being labeled as the rapist? “Suspect rapes girl in SoHo?” “Guy in red shirt accused of raping girl in SoHo?” (funny here how the police’s/state’s agency is definitely ignored through passivization also. “Government convicts man” sounds a lot harsher and intentional than “Man Convicted” ). Sure, we can write “Man rapes girl in SoHo” but you’re still dealing with the fact that you’re forwarding a claim about something that hasn’t been proven; that said, our criminal legal system doesn’t deal with trying to prove whether events occured or not, but rather just whether certain people committed crimes (fact-finding is left to civil litigation and, unofficially, the cops). Also—and this is a less impressive idea—I figure that the passive form saves room on the paper. I wonder if spoken news (tv) features less passivization.

    Anyways, your question is a good one. My first thoughts wander to thoughts of the non-role of women in rape cases through the much of medieval and modern Euro/Amerohistory; that is, rapes were considered property crimes against the husbands of the females. The men were considered the victims. Prostitutes, for example, could not be raped, because no man owned them. That said, I’m not sure how that ties into this issue, if at all. Like you said, most salient is the issue of a non-personification of the rapist. Again, I think that the legal stuff figures in, though it would be interesting to see if passivization occurs equally across “crimes” (theft, killing, etc.) or if certain ones are more often subject to this grammatical backflip than others.

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