Whatever Would Wolfie Have Done Without the Passive Voice?

05/18/2007 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

More than once, I'll bet, some English teacher has told you to avoid using the passive voice.

But the executive directors of the World Bank have just used it to save whatever face is left on the head of Paul Wolfowitz as he resigns from the presidency of the bank.

On May 13, according to The New York Times, "a special investigative committee of the bank concluded that he had violated his contract by breaking ethical and governing rules in arranging the generous pay and promotion package for Shaha Ali Riza, his companion, in 2005."

Yesterday, however, as part of an agreement stipulating that Wolfowitz will resign on June 30, the board decided to accept his assurance "that he acted ethically and in good faith in what he believed were the best interests of the institution."

So what happened to the simple, active-voice statement that he had VIOLATED his contract and BROKEN bank rules?

Simple. It got twisted into the passive voice: "It is clear . . . that a number of mistakes were made by a number of individuals in handling the matter under consideration."

In the zoo of language, the passive voice is the biggest weasel of all because it can designate action without mentioning an agent - without saying who did it. So the Board could have said simply that "mistakes were made." Period. Instead it bravely furnished an agent -- but guess what? No names. Just "individuals." And since we've just been told --in the active voice-- that Wolfie "acted ethically and in good faith," we are presumably being asked to conclude (oh, how hard it is to avoid that passive!) that none of those mistakes was made by Wolfie.

What would he or the Board have done without the passive voice? The Board itself provides a partial answer. Besides concluding that "mistakes were made" by nameless individuals, the Board also concluded "that the Bank's systems did not prove robust to the strain under which they were placed." Ah, the glory of abstraction! If the president of a bank breaks its rules by promoting his girl friend and fatly raising her pay, we must not conclude that he did anything wrong. The systems of regulation--the structure of by-laws at the bank--was not "robust" enough to withstand the president's impulse to break them.

Is this not a splendid model for us all? Just in case you're ever accused of fatally shooting your neighbor, all you have to do is explain that he was shot by some individual and that the laws against murder were not "robust" enough to dissuade you from killing him. You can thus resign from any involvement in the case.

By the way, our Vice President is a master of the passive voice. Here's what he said about the Enron disaster on January 27, 2002:

"There's no evidence to indicate anybody did anything wrong in the administration. This issue of Enron isn't about the administration. What it's really about is whether or not laws were broken or laws need to be changed with respect to the functioning of a major corporation."

So forget what your English teacher told you about the passive voice. One of these days it may save your face --or even your life.