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Alberto GonzalesWant to be a better writer? Just let Albert Gonzales show you what not to do.

Recently, Gonzales took ownership of the controversial firing of eight US federal prosecuters. Or did he?

Gonzales said:

I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility.

He didn’t say:

I made mistakes and accept responsibility.

The latter statement is more straightforward, succinct, and bold. Did Gonzales simply forget this classic principle from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style?

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.

This is much better than

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

The latter sentence is less direct, less bold, and less concise.

No, he didn’t forget. Gonzales’s rhetorical sleight of hand echoes Reagan’s response to the Iran-Contra dust-up:

And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so.

Both politicians purposely say “mistakes were made” to misdirect responsibility. They use passive voice to blur the connection between wrongdoing and wrongdoers.

Used intentionally or haphazardly, passive voice makes the written word whimper. It creates ambiguity, displaces responsibility, and distances the reader. Though politicians remain slavishly chained to it, you shouldn’t be.

When writing, don’t be Gonzales or The Gipper. Instead, use the active voice. Be direct, specific, and forceful.

13 Comments

  • jr

    gravatarMar 15, 2007
    10:30 am

    please stay away from the politico stuff

  • Aaron Bassett

    gravatarMar 16, 2007
    4:42 am

    “LifeClever is a collection of tips for design and life”

    jr: I think that was a pretty good tip for life, political reference or not ;)

  • Zr970

    gravatarMar 16, 2007
    5:58 am

    I visit this site daily to check up for updates 9mostly cause I’m a loser, and don’t use RSS, cause it takes less time, and I’m a time waster) but I feel that the political stuff should be left to political blogs.

  • grammar contra

    gravatarMar 16, 2007
    6:10 am

    Passive voice is perfectly proper in such a situation. The alternatives are to accept personal responsibilty, which is a mistake if the AG doesn’t believe he deserves all the blame, or to point the finger at someone else, which is unprofessional and cowardly.

    Prof. Geoffrey K. Pullum has an interesting post on the bias against passive voice. It concludes with his assessment of Strunk and White: “What a shameless, pontificating, ignorant, hypocritical, incompetent, authoritarian pair of old weasels they were.”

  • Groovymarlin

    gravatarMar 16, 2007
    9:29 am

    Well I still think passive voice sounds bad, in most situations, and I strive to avoid it when possible. It can be appropriate, but most people lean on it to make a straightforward sentence sound more flowery or complex than it really is, providing some “padding” to their text.

    Also I don’t think this post was very political; I actually found your example timely and amusing. :)

  • Chanpory

    gravatarMar 16, 2007
    11:23 am

    jr and Zr970, this post was meant to be a writing tip using current events as an example. I don’t usually incorporate news into my postings very much, so I’d thought I try something new ;-)

    Grammar contra, thanks for the additional insight into passive voice. Certainly, some cases warrant passive voice , and sometimes it’s preferable. Thank you also for reminding us to be critical of authoritative figures such as Strunk and White. I wouldn’t go as far as calling The Elements of Style a “vile little compendium of tripe” as Prof. Pullum. I think it’s helped many improve their writing, certainly me.

    Of course, one book shouldn’t stand as the end-all be-all of writing. And I’d love to see what Pullum recommends in addition or in place of Strunk & White.

  • Zr970

    gravatarMar 17, 2007
    10:20 pm

    I completely understand, it just erked me when I first read it… Didn’t mean any harm, just voicing my opinion (Gotta love the net for that) Love the site!

  • gpc

    gravatarMar 18, 2007
    12:35 pm

    Um, not “wimper” but “whimper.” If you’re going to comment on language use, you oughta be a little more careful.

  • Chanpory

    gravatarMar 18, 2007
    12:43 pm

    gpc, whoops! mistakes were made, but they’re now fixed ;-)

  • Vigilante

    gravatarMar 20, 2007
    7:00 pm

    Some guy on BBC today (don’t the British see us better than we see our selves?) called this the use of the “Passive exonerative tense” by the Bush crime family. Doesn’t that perfectly describe this crap? I’ll say it again just so everyone gets this new syntax into their brain so they can recognize it coming before they actually hear the words.

    (alert!)PASSIVE EXONERATIVE TENSE!!!

  • xoites defends Constitution

    gravatarDec 12, 2007
    6:26 pm

    “jr Mar 15th, 2007 10:30 am please stay away from the politico stuff”

    Life; how living people interact is politics. A website dedicated to tips on life can not ignore politics. If politics upset you it may be because you are backing the wrong horse and hate it when that horse gets justifiably mocked or criticized. If this is the case you are not paying close enough attention to the details of what you support and why. Think the world is a mess? It could be that people are not paying attention to the politics.

  • Wall Sreet

    gravatarMay 21, 2008
    1:03 pm

    I’m corporate america and always trying to get somewhere. Passive language has never taken me astray. I say stuff but nobody can ever bring it back to me. I say well, the work can be done; I never say when the work will be done

  • fritos

    gravatarJun 12, 2008
    3:15 pm

    You dealt with what would normally have been a boring ‘tip’ and presented it in a refreshing way. I’m sure by the time you will have read this and realized that you actually had given someone a chuckle, you may begin presently chuckle -ing. By that time someone will have already hot-linked or stolen your photo. Mistakes have been made, but that is in my future and will be in your past by the time you read this – too late. ‘Speedy’ would have wanted it that way.