Monday, May 6, 2024

Who's Afraid of the Passive Voice?

“I used the passive voice. I am awaiting the legal writing police and will go peacefully.”

This is an actual text I sent a fellow Commissioner on a town-wide commission after sending an email expressing my disappointment that the recipients did not complete a task. Well, actually, I expressed disappointment in the task not being completed-which is, as we all know, different. I had originally written the email using the active voice, but I wanted to temper my statement by not appearing to attack the recipients. They are, after all, neither courts nor lawyers.

But here is a sacrilege I will unleash for the Academic Support audience only: sometimes, you can use the passive voice. In fact, sometimes, you should. As I await the ankle[1] bracelet that is surely coming for me, I will explain when and why you might be willing to be my partner in “crime.”

  1. Distance. Sometimes your client (or other actors in your facts) have done terrible things. Or maybe, terrible things have happened, and your clients may or may not have played a role in causing them. For example, the pedestrian was hit by a vehicle vs. my client hit the pedestrian who was walking with the light in a crosswalk on a bright sunny day (with no glare). You are going to need this distance. Because your client sucks-or the facts are not favorable to them.
  2. Tone: Sometimes, you would prefer not to assign blame as directly. For example,  this Court made the absolutely baffling decision to grant this this motion vs. Inexplicably, the decision was made to grant the motion. Courts don’t like being accused of misconduct.[2]
  3. You don’t know who did something: you cannot place an actor in the role, so you speak of the facts as happening without attributing them to anyone.
  4. You are trying to focus on the reaction to the circumstances and not the actor who created them: this comes in very handy during trials when you need to tell the Court and/or jury what a police officer knew when they stopped someone without having to say who told them that or even if it was true[3].
  5. You are stating a commonly known truth: for example: using the passive voice is frowned upon.

As someone who works with a wide range of international (mostly LL.M.) students, I have found that there are some languages that tend to veer towards the passive voice (like many romance languages) and teaching these students to identify and use the active voice is a struggle for all of us. But I do tell them that finding the passive voice is as simple as looking at bumper stickers because, as we all know, “Shit Happens.”

(Liz Stillman)


[1] Maybe a wrist bracelet so I cannot no longer use the dreaded PV?

[2] And they are aware that the coded phrase, “with all due respect your honor,” means, “you are wrong here.” The first time a judge ever said, “I know what you mean by that,” I almost let excrement escape from my body (see, distance!).

[3] This is your hearsay “get out of jail free” card during suppression hearings. Works every time.

Miscellany, Teaching Tips, Writing | Permalink


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