Tag Archives: passive voice

Textbook Writers Use Passive Voice to Exonerate Enslavers

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.

In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.

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Why I Discourage the Passive Voice

I frequently encourage students to write sentences with people as their subjects and verbs in the active voice. Some critics contend that professors go too far in disparaging the passive voice, and I am sure that I do at times. But a recent example shows why I prefer to err on the side of the active.

The example comes from a review of a book that presents both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on the history of the shared land. [Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Can They Ever Make a Deal?” (review of Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh), New York Review of Books, 5 April 2012] The reviewer quotes two versions of the same event:

1. One of the most notorious massacres perpetrated against the Palestinians took place in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948. The Zionist forces killed more than 100 and wounded dozens more.

2. There was a massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem; Irgun and Lehi units attacked the village, and by the time the battle was over, according to most updated historical research, 100 to 120 Arabs had been killed, including women, children, and the elderly.

The first sentence of the first account has a non-human subject (massacres) and a weak verb (took place). But the second sentence offers a human subject (Zionist forces) and strong, active-voice verbs (killed and wounded). It tells us who did what to whom.

The second account starts with a “there was” construction and ends with a passive verb (had been killed). Though it implies that Irgun and Lehi units massacred and killed, it leaves open the possibility that some other actors–werewolves, perhaps–chanced to pass through at the same time and commit mass slaughter.

Perhaps the authors of the second passage are not sure who perpetrated the massacre. Perhaps they believe that the Irgun and Lehi units killed all those people, but are reluctant to say so, for fear of giving offense. Either one of these is a serious flaw in a historical narrative. Rather than using grammatical tricks to paper over such flaws. I would advise students to address them with more research, a discussion of the limits of their sources, or the courage to present their findings.