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Passive Resistance

David Alpert taps into an annoyance of mine, that staple of car crash reporting known as the passive voice.

He notes a Washington Post story from yesterday:

Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said.

As he notes, until we get to full DARPA-style automation, the sense of agency cannot be attributed entirely to the car (particularly in this case, as cars don’t choose to go down the wrong way down roads). But we seem to, and one wonders hows this plays into our cultural downgrading of personal responsibility when it comes to negligent driving.

Finally, our habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars tends to create assumptions that their actions are not actually someone’s responsibility. A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper. It’s extremely unlikely his car magically malfunctioned. And even if it did, we don’t engage in the same linguistic contortions to say, for example, that a police officer’s bullet impacted a suspected robber, who had themselves been holding a gun which fired into someone else earlier in the day. That would be silly. So is this.

This writer was in agreement.

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 23rd, 2009 at 2:31 pm and is filed under Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “Passive Resistance”

  1. John Says:

    I have ranted about this for a long time. Someone in the local media here in Austin told me they intentionally use passive voice and “blame” the tools, not the humans, because at press time no one has been found guilty of anything. If they had reported “So-and-so killed four people while driving the wrong way…” they’re opening themselves up to a lawsuit. They could use the weasel-word “allegedly”, but to be extra safe they just saw the vehicle was on the wrong side of the road as if the Highway Fairy just dropped it there out of the blue.

  2. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    It gets into interesting semantic territory for sure; if one shot a gun and killed someone in a hunting accident, would the journalist say the victim ‘was killed by the gun.’? I suppose this would be wrapped up in the victim ‘was killed by an errant shot” or “in an accident” or some such. And is ‘killed’ per se the same as murder, which implies intentional killing? Legally, does the word ‘kill’ imply causality, I wonder?

    It reminds me of the “Family Guy” episode in which a character said the words “Laura Bush killed a guy”; which, in the strictest sense, she did. But the show of course caused a certain amount of outrage.

  3. Colin Says:

    Quote: “Finally, our habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars…”

    Well, cars aren’t human so that’s fair enough. It seems like David Alpert is making the same mistake he complains of, substituting the car for the driver.

  4. Jay Jardine Says:

    The “killer highway” label irritates me as well. Google search here.

    It’s like granting volition to a mix of asphalt, gravel and painted lines.

  5. Aisha O'Brien Says:

    As a journalist, I feel the same way about car crash reporting. For a creative writing class (MFA level, so it’s very serious business), I wrote a story triggered by the Las Vegas Sun’s Twitter feed. Almost every other tweet is about a car crash. So I imagined what actually happened beyond just the details of how many intersections they ran through, when it happened, and how many were injured. That way I could humanize the person behind the wheel as I’m pretty much not allowed to do in work.

    I also discovered I like writing about largely unlikable people. :)

  6. Karl-On-Sea (Twitter: @karlonsea) Says:

    This is so deeply ingrained that it’s hard to avoid in our conversation or writing. I wrote a short post yesterday about parking & driver choices, and most of it took several re-writes to get it from the passive to the active voice. Even now, re-reading it, I can see that I’ve failed twice in the photo captions!

    The other linguistic oddity that I think you point out in the book is that we don’t make the same mistake with bikes. It’s always “the cyclist who . . .” rather than “the bike then . . .”

  7. chris hutt Says:

    One of the most obvious manifestations of this must be the tendency of people to say “the roads are dangerous” if, for example, asked why they don’t cycle. It’s obviously not the roads that are dangerous but some road users. But to say “motorists drive dangerously” would for most people be an admission of their own involvement in creating the problem. So they blame some inanimate object.

  8. patrick Says:

    This writer is also in agreement. Well said, Tom.

  9. Kim Says:

    Ah, that is because the
    driving licence has become a sacred right
    which absolves the driver of all responsibility…

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

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