12/8/41: A Strong Passive Tense
I played the Pearl Harbor address, so easily available online, for Lilly today. At the moment she happens to be studying World War II in her social studies class (please never to call it "history"), but her teacher didn't play it in class, despite today being a perfect time to do so, and the fact that it's one of the most famous speeches ever given by an American president.
Listening to it again myself, it occurred to me that the very first sentence belies the idea, advocated with unreasoning vigor by some editors and English teachers, that the passive voice is a mark of namby-pamby or evasive writing. It can be used those ways, of course ("mistakes were made"), but so what?
I've seen editing guides that discourage the passive, and no less a writer than George Orwell discouraged the construction in the famed "Politics and the English Language." But Orwell wasn't right about everything, and nor are editors and English teachers. FDR knew how to create a powerful passive. There it is, in the first sentence.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date that will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
Now, imagine that a narrow-minded editor had gotten ahold of it.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date that will live in infamy -- naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan suddenly and deliberately attacked the United States of America."
In this case, the active is weak and the passive is strong. The president wasn't trying to deliver a news report. Emphasizing what happened to the United States of America was what he set out to do, and he did it.