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Hard Times

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 5, 2011

You probably remember your English teacher chastising you about using the passive voice, that reverse construction that put the object of a sentence first (“The ball was hit by Mary”) rather than the subject (“Mary hit the ball”). It sounds awkward and weak and stuffy, he or she probably said, if he or she was inclined to give you explanations.

Your English teacher would probably agree with The Chicago Manual of Style: “As a matter of style, passive voice is typically, though not always, inferior to active voice.” Trust Chicago to be pompous about preferring less pompous language. It’s better than the style guide that reportedly included the instruction “The passive voice must be avoided at all times.”

Now, a sentence in passive voice is not grammatically wrong, and caring explicitly about avoiding it seems to be one of those stylistic writing things that is largely a mark of journalists and language geeks. Indeed, academics seem to go out of their way to use it as much as possible, probably because it generally takes more words.

I think the American Chemical Society Style Guide on effective communication of scientific information (yes, I was copyediting science articles for a little while) unintentionally gives us a much more explicit look at why the passive voice gets used—and why the rest of us might want to care. After an instruction to use the active voice when it is “less wordy and more direct,” it goes on to say, “Use the passive voice when the doer of the action is unknown or not important or when you would prefer not to specify the doer of the action.”
In science, this feeds into the tendency to treat scientists as complete objective entities whose expectations, biases, desires, and habits will have no bearing on the outcome of what they do or how they analyze the results. This is dangerous.

But in this time of the Great Recession (does that phrase seem odd to anyone else? If a recession becomes great, doesn’t that make it a depression? I know there are still arguments over the technical economic definition, but in terms of nomenclature it sounds like saying “very kinda bad.”), there’s a classic phrase that’s going around a lot that makes me think strongly of those ACS instructions on the use of the passive voice.

“Times are hard.”

They are. No denying it. The phrase for me first calls up the emotional strains of the old Stephen C. Foster civil war song: “It’s the song, the sigh, of the weary. Hard times, hard times, come again no more.”
It’s also, though, been starting to get under my a skin a little. It bothers me to hear a construction that seems akin to “The sky is blue” floating around as the main descriptor of our economic situation right now. It makes it sound like it was inevitable, just something that happened, a storm to be weathered, an accident we all have to grin and bear.

Because it just isn’t. The federal government and the financial sector led us to this point with specific, intentional and well-documented dangerous deregulation, speculation, fraud, predatory behavior, and greed overcoming common sense.

It’s hard to keep that front and center of course. I was amused to find that in the midst of writing this very column, I first constructed that key sentence in the last paragraph passively: “There is a specific, intentional and well-documented trail of . . . that led us to this point.”
In that case rephrasing was called for, but it’s true that sometimes we all need a short hand to make our point, and sometimes our point is other than causal analysis. Sometimes it is the hard times we’re talking about and not their cause. If you start every thing you have to say that refers to people suffering economically with “The bosses/capitalism/Wall Street/theRepubs/theDems have screwed them in thus and so way . . .” people very quickly start to take you for an unsubtle thinker and tune you out. They might even be right, depending how one note you are.

And yet perhaps we need to collectively swing a little bit away from the other extreme where we too often neglect to, ahem, “specify the doer of the action.” Allowing this financial crisis to be discussed publicly only as something that “just happened,” without keeping the focus on the actors and actions that brought it about will keep us from taking the steps necessary to keep it from happening again. And our children and their children would live to regret that deeply.