The Importance of Active vs. Passive Voice in Protest Coverage

Joshua Adams
5 min readMay 31, 2020

I wanted to use the two tweets from NYT to explain active versus passive voice and why it matters in news coverage (particularly when covering charged topics at the moment).

A sentence typically has a clear subject and verb. When you write a sentence, you can write in active or passive voice. Active voice is subject then verb. An example is “I fixed the car.” Passive is an inversion of this i.e. “The car was fixed by me.” There are levels of active and passive voice, particularly relating to the subject and verb. Examples:

Joshua sliced an apple
A man sliced an apple
An apple was sliced by Joshua
An apple was sliced by a man
An apple was sliced
The slicing of an apple was by a man

The subject of the sentence is the most important part, and usually comes at the beginning. When it comes at the end, our brain is less likely to register it as important as it is. Another effect created in the difference between active and passive is assumed agency.

Active voice takes ownership (someone did something) while passive voice makes ownership more nebulous (something was done by someone). It distances the wrong thing away from the subject. This is because passive voice makes the direct object the subject in the technical sense (even if it is not the subject in the literal sense), which blurs the meaning of the sentence. Though this may seem like English grammar nerd stuff, we understand this intrinsically. As a child, when you knock over the cookie jar, you tell mommy “it fell over” not “I knocked it over.” When “we” do something wrong, we write in passive voice. When “they” do something wrong, we write in active voice.In public relations, when your company did something good, make it active; if you are doing damage control, write in passive voice. If you fought someone, for example, wouldn’t you say “I was involved in a fight with Joshua,” you’d say “I fought Joshua.”

When news org write headlines, they should stay in active voice. It’s generally more objective, it’s reporting in the traditional sense and gives the reader a clear understanding of what happened (who what where when why how)…

--

--

Joshua Adams

Joshua Adams is a writer from Chicago. UVA & USC. Assistant Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Twitter: @ProfJoshuaA