When the passive voice is needed for clarity’s sake

Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

While browsing the Internet edition of a leading Metro Manila daily last week, I came across this peculiar news headline: “Palace: Cops must stop sale of US ready-to-eat meals.”

That headline made me very uncomfortable because it gave the distinct impression that some unscrupulous policemen had gone into the business of selling US ready-to-eat meals meant to provide relief to the victims of Typhoon Yolanda, and that a Malacañang spokesman had admonished them to stop and desist from engaging in that activity.

After a quick reading of the news story, however, I regained my composure and my momentarily shaken faith in the country’s police force. As it turned out, that headline was a dud—what I’d call a dismal failure of journalistic shorthand. For in the story proper itself, what the Malacañang spokesman actually said was that “law enforcement agencies should investigate and enforce the law if it is proven that ready-to-eat meals from the US government were being peddled in local markets.”

In short, the police were not engaged in the illegal activity at all; they were, in fact, being directed by Malacañang to go after unscrupulous traders reportedly blackmarketing US military Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) in some Metro Manila stores.

So why did that seemingly cut-and-dried headline convey a dangerously perverse sense of the news story?

After pondering that problem with language, I came to the conclusion that it is the unfortunate result of an overly strong active-voice mindset among some journalists. That mindset forces the editor or reporter to make the doer of the action always the subject of the sentence even if doing so is uncalled for; this is as opposed to having the flexibility to use the passive voice when the object of the action or the theme of the statement itself should logically be the subject of that sentence.

Let’s take a closer look at that headline: “Palace: Cops must stop sale of US ready-to-eat meals.” Note that by putting the word “Palace” up front, that headline overemphasizes the source of the information. This is a minor problem that can be fixed by simple repositioning, though; the more serious problem is that just to ensure that the statement is in the active voice, the headline unwarrantedly used the noun “cops” as the subject.

That wrongheaded decision skewed the semantics of that headline. As I pointed out earlier, it conveyed the wrong idea that those cops were engaged in blackmarketing US ready-to-eat meals. This became the default sense because grammatically, the headline statement doesn’t specify a particular doer of the illicit trade in the ready-to-eat meals. Of course, the sense of that statement wouldn’t have become ambiguous had it identified the malefactors who must be stopped by police, as in a headline like “Cops must stop blackmarketers of US ready-to-eat meals.”

All of these unpleasant grammatical and semantic complications wouldn’t have arisen if the headline writer was flexible enough to recognize that the passive voice was more suited for that headline than the active voice. Indeed, “cops” had no business being in that headline. Had the headline writer used the passive voice, he wouldn’t have needed “cops” or any other doer of the action; he could have come up with a clearer headline like, say, “Sales of US ready-to-eat meals must be stopped, says Palace” or “Blackmarket of US ready-to-eat meals must be stopped, says Palace.”

The beauty of the passive voice is that it need not always identify an agent or doer of the action, particularly if doing so would only muddle the picture. In that particular headline, not having “cops” as doer of the action and making the theme of the statement itself as the subject gives emphasis where emphasis is due—to the need to prevent the diversion of relief goods from foreign governments into the hands of unscrupulous blackmarketers.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.



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  1. Yes, Taxproinomaha, “Cops must stop selling US ready-to-eat meals” would be more appropriate if that statement is a regular sentence. However, we must recognize that headlines are a form of journalistic shorthand–one that’s constrained by strict character count to fit the limited space of a newspaper column as well as to achieve line-by-line symmetry. This is most likely the reason why the headline writer chose to write “stop selling of” (15 characters, including spaces) instead of “stop sales of” (13 characters). This, of course, is abstruse newspaper headline-making talk that I really shouldn’t bother lay readers with. In any case, Taxproinomaha, whether we use “Cops must stop sales of US ready-to-eat meals” and “Cops must stop selling US ready-to-eat meals,” the sense would be similarly ambiguous. Both statements distinctly convey the wrong impression that the cops themselves are involved in the illicit activity. In fact, that ambiguity will disappear only if we specify the doer of the selling of the ready-to-eat meals, as in a headline like, say, “Cops must stop blackmarketers from selling US ready-to-eat meals.” However, the news story itself actually doesn’t refer to actual police action per se but only to general law enforcement against the illicit activity. This is why I recommended that we do away with the police as doers of the action in that headline by using either of these two passive-voice statements: “Sales of US ready-to-eat meals must be stopped, says Palace” or “Blackmarket of US ready-to-eat meals must be stopped, says Palace.” Without “cops” as subject and without a specific doer of the illicit selling action, the ambiguity totally disappears from that headline. This is the virtue of the passive voice that I wanted to emphasize in the discussion of that flawed newspaper headline.

  2. If it was worded like “Cops must stop selling US ready-to-eat meals.”, I would agree with your observation. The “Cops must stop sale of US ready-to-eat meals” is missing “by non-cops” to make the praise definite in meaning.