The Droopy Sentences

Dasu Krishnamoorty

As we move from the word to the highways of sentence formation, negotiation becomes less friendly. First, it is necessary to remember that every word of a sentence is one or the other part of the eight parts of speech like noun, verb, adjective etc. Before that we will have to make brief halts at phrases and clauses to better understand sentences and syntax. For the last time we reiterate that these are not lessons in grammar.

We discuss a principle of grammar as and when it is violated, usually in the media. We will begin this drill by examining a couple of passive voice sentences; we take up a few real sentences from newspapers. I have absolutely no idea of how passive voice sentences became the favorite expression of journalists here and abroad.  Grammatically PV sentences are correct but not desirable. Why should we reject the active voice option when using it is as easy as changing hands carrying a suitcase?

We start with an excerpt from The New York Times report by Hari Kumar dated April 6, 2015:

Three unarmed Indian policemen were killed Monday by militants in Indian-administered Kashmir, another in a string of recent attacks. The police officers, who were investigating a land dispute in the Shopian district, died when militants shot at them with Kalashnikov rifles and then escaped into woods. In separate extremist attacks, a former militant who was suspected of being a police informer was seriously injured and a police officer in another district was shot in the neck from close range. “If you see all the three incidents, they have resorted to attack on soft targets where people were unarmed,” S. J. M. Gillani, inspector general of police in Kashmir, told the NDTV news channel. Among other recent violence in the area, a police officer and a soldier were killed Thursday by militants who escaped and last month an attack on a police station and army camp left three police officers, four militants and a civilian dead. (Excerpt ends).

The NYT intro or the lead paragraph, apart from being unduly long by media standards, features five passive voice sentences. No grammar absolutist insists on completely abjuring PV. But where possible the writer can use the active voice, which underlines the power of the action verb. Some persons embrace the PV at the first opportunity. You will find that every PV sentence in the NYT intro has an AV alternative.

See below the intro rewritten in two paragraphs:

“Militants armed with Kalashnikov rifles shot at and killed three unarmed Indian policemen, investigating a land dispute in the Shopian district in the Indian administered Kashmir. They then disappeared into the woods.”

“According to Kashmir’s Inspector-General of Police S.J.M.Gillani, in a series of attacks, extremists shot and seriously injured a former militant, considered a police informer, besides shooting a police officer in the neck from close range.”

Now an example from our backyard:

The Hindu, Chittoor, April 7 2015

“Twenty woodcutters from Tamil Nadu, found felling red sanders, were killed in an alleged encounter in the Seshachalam forest at the foot of the Tirumala hills on Tuesday.

“The newly formed Red-sanders Anti-Smuggling Task force was on a combing operation near Srinivasa Mangapuram, Srivarimettu and Eethagunta on the Seshachalam hill ranges on Monday when they spotted footprints.”(Intro ends).

“Twenty red sanders smugglers were killed by the Andhra State Police who caught them red-handed in the Tirupati hills.” Suppose the reporter rewrote the above sentence thus: “The Andhra State police have today shot and killed 20 red sanders smugglers, caught red-handed, chopping off wood for transport elsewhere,” is the reader too lazy to move his eyes from the subject to the object, arguing that the deaths are more important than the police killing them? But the police are the cause and the deaths are the effect. The cause comes first; the effect follows. In the report victimhood overshadows criminality. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether it is the murder or the murderer that deserves the front seat. Let us assume that the victims are more important than the killers. In that event how would readers receive it if we write the intro as follows?

“Twenty red sanders smugglers died when the Andhra State Police, who caught them red-handed in the Tirupati hills opened fire on them.”

This excerpt below is again from The Hindu. The reporter is Alok Deshpande;

“Mumbai 6 April 15:  Clearing all hurdles in the construction of a memorial for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at the Indu mill land in Central Mumbai, a tripartite agreement was signed in New Delhi on Sunday between the Union government, the National Textile Corporation (NTC) and the Maharashtra government.”

First, it is a passive voice sentence. Second, the adverbial modifier “clearing all hurdles in the construction of a memorial for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at the Indu mill land in Central Mumbai” modifies wrongly the agreement between the two parties, making it a subject that has cleared all the hurdles.

Look at another paragraph:

“The project was put on hold as the Central government had not presented the Bill in Parliament to hand over the mill land from the NTC to the State government. According to officials, the agreement was signed after Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis held discussions with the legal fraternity and it was clarified that the land could be transferred with approval from the Central government, without bringing the Bill.”

In the above paragraph there are three PV sentences. One of them does not tell us who put the project on hold. It could have read, ‘By not presenting the Bill in Parliament for the transfer of the mill land, the Central Government put the project on hold. “

I have steadfastly remained a critic of the passive voice and found myself with the majority and in the good company of The BBC, The Economist, good old Fowler and the 1984 man George Orwell. But the PV guys have become active stating their case in The Economist and blaming Grammar Bibles for advising the young and the old alike, ‘Don’t use PV.’

George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” also supports the PV critics. But the minority, advocating passive voice, has begun to restore the respectability of the passive voice.

To be continued…..

1 Response

  1. SM Krishna says:

    We see more PV usage in daily news papers to make the news items longer. PV is probably is used more to keep the reader in suspense till the end of the sentence. Usage of PV has become scribes passion and fashion. That’s why readers spend more time in reading news papers. I would send you any such PV sentences I come across along with the source.

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