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Mistakes were made

04/06/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Vermont senator Pat Leahy has called Attorney General Roberto Gonzalez to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17th. Commentator Vic Henningsen hopes the Attorney General will be attentive to his use of language.

(HENNINGSEN) When the Attorney General and the President acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the firings of federal prosecutors last year, they joined a long line of politicians using a linguistic construction to look like they're accepting responsibility when in fact they're doing no such thing. Who made the mistakes, we ask? Their words don't tell us. They admit nothing, they accept no responsibility, nor do they assign responsibility to anyone else.

They were following the playbook. Look sincere, sound contrite, speak in a way that appears direct, yet evades accountability: it's as old as politics itself. We associate it with Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam; Nixon and Watergate; Reagan on Iran-Contra; Bill Clinton on any number of issues. The New York Times recently quoted Washington insider William Schneider that this usage is a new tense called "past exonerative."

What it really is is what we call the passive voice. If you use the verb, "to be", in conjunction with "by" - either stated or implicit - you're writing or speaking in the passive voice. For example, "I made the decision" is active; "The decision was made" is passive and raises the question, "by whom?"

It's not totally worthless. Scientists employ passive construction to promote the impersonal objectivity important to their investigations. And the passive voice is often useful when speaking with skeptical teenagers, as in "When there's drinking at a party and people may want to be driven..."

But the passive voice usually sucks life out of language. Think how dull literature or history would be, if everyone wrote that way.

Remember Emerson's Concord Hymn? "Here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard 'round the world." Let's make it passive: "The shot heard round the world was fired by embattled farmers who were standing here."

We can change "We hold these truths to be self-evident" to "These truths are held to be self-evident."

Or let's re-write Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie: "We have met the enemy and he is ours." Nah! "The enemy has been met and conquered by us."

We can even edit the Rolling Stones. "You can't always get what you want," becomes "What is desirable, is not always obtainable."

The passive voice avoids fixing responsibility. That's why struggling students and sleazy politicos use it: the first because they're unsure; the second because they're quite sure and want to make sure we don't find out.

That ought to make us angry.

After all, even high school students know that growing up means moving from the passive to the active voice: from "my homework got lost" to "I lost my homework." Becoming an adult means being accountable and we all learn that our language must reflect that.

Perhaps it's time for folks in power to take a grammar lesson.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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