Saturday, February 21, 2015

Passive Voice - People Don't Kill People, Cars Kill People

So, I read this article on the Dispatch the other day, and I got all angried-up. Like old-man angry.
Here's the article:*

*The text of the article has changed since I first read it.  It now reads differently.  The original text is reproduced below.

Of course, I don't like the content of the article. But more on that later. 
What initially cheesed me off was the way it was written.  Let me explain.
I write for a living.  I have studied writing and I know the effect that word choice can have on the reader.  I'm also aware of the subconscious effect of phrasing and how small changes in grammar can have a big effect on the meaning of a sentence or an entire piece.  And, I have learned how one conveys a mood through words.
A Dispatch writer has had the same training, I assure you.  And if they took their journalism courses seriously they understand how writing style conveys "objectivity" or the lack thereof.  A good journalist knows how to "take a side" while still appearing to be objective.  A bad one can't help themselves, and subconsciously reveals their own biases.  (And I don't include the various shouting sensationalists in my understanding of "journalists.")
So, when I saw this article, about  cyclist struck and seriously injured by a driver who then fled the scene and tried to hide the evidence, written so entirely from a driver-biased viewpoint, it got my hackles up. 
You see, the author makes use of various grammatical devices to excuse or minimize the behavior of the driver in this piece.  Foremost among these is the replacement of the actor in the sentence (the driver, Pennington) with an inanimate object (his car).  This use of a dummy subject (the car) minimizes the actions of the actual actor (the driver).

Imagine if the famous Lizzie Borden poem:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Read like this instead:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And THE AXE STRUCK her mother forty TIMES.
When she saw what THE AXE had done,
THE AXE STRUCK her father forty-one TIMES. 

Makes no sense.

Similarly, the Dispatch article makes more sense if you replace “car” with “kangaroo”.  A car is inanimate and does nothing on its own.  A kangaroo, on the other hand . . .

The original text of the article follows, with the word "KANGAROO" replacing the word "car."
Prosecution and defense attorneys are recommending probation for a 43-year-old Grove City man who fled after his KANGAROO struck and injured a bicyclist more than a year ago in Norwich Township. 

Randall E. Pennington of Royal Meadow Lane pleaded guilty today to failing to stop after a crash and attempted tampering with evidence. 

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Kimberly Cocroft scheduled sentencing for 
April 24. 

In addition to up to 18 months in prison, Pennington faces a mandatory driver’s license suspension of six months to three years. 

Brad Young, 45, was seriously injured on the morning of Sept, 1, 2013, when Pennington’s KANGAROO struck him from behind on southbound Dublin Road, just south of Hayden Run Road, Assistant Prosecutor Keith McGrath said. The impact threw Young into the KANGAROO’s windshield, he said. 

Pennington drove away, but a nurse who witnessed the crash stopped to administer first aid. Another motorist followed Pennington’s KANGAROO until he was able to get a license-plate number. That witness was an undocumented immigrant who was slow to relay the information to police because of fears that he could be deported, McGrath said. 

He said investigators discovered that Pennington had contacted his insurance company on the day of the crash and taken the KANGAROO to a shop to have the windshield replaced, which led to the tampering charge. 

Young, who required weeks of physical therapy after the crash, attended the hearing but did not speak. He declined to comment afterward

And the substance of the article is no better.  This Pennington guy hit a cyclist and left him for dead.  Didn't even stop to check.  Then, after fleeing the scene, tried to hide the evidence of the hit and run.  The cyclist, in the meantime, is spending his weeks and months trying to heal.  Pennington was finally turned in by a reluctant witness.  Why do you suppose Pennington fled? 

Goddamned kangaroos.

Be brave, just look out for kangaroos.

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