Now that Derek Chauvin is a convicted murderer, it’s chilling to read the original police report describing the scene of his crime. Most disturbing are the verbs.
They’re a how-to guide in shifting blame by shifting between active and passive verbs.
Replacing passive voice with active voice improves most writing. Active verbs are more direct and compelling, and crucially, their subjects are precise. With passive verbs, accountability gets muddy.
Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the point.
In the readout of the George Floyd killing, the police start in active voice: “Officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded. … Two officers arrived and located the subject.” So far, so good.
After that, the cops are mostly done with active voice. Their victim — not so much.
“[Floyd] was ordered to step from his car.” The passive voice gives no indication that the police were the ones ordering, but for Floyd, they spare no active verbs: “After he got out, he physically resisted officers” — a claim that, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey would later say, was not true.
The next sentence uses a related method of weakening writing: the verb to be. Many sentences that use verbs such as be, were, am, and was can become stronger and more direct by replacing those be verbs with active verbs. The report says: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” If employing active verbs, that would become: “Officers handcuffed the suspect and knelt on his neck, which caused medical distress.”
More concise, more descriptive, more accurate. But to no one’s surprise, the police report chose the former option.
The cops get the valor of one more active verb — “Officers called for an ambulance” — before retreating into passive voice for the remainder of the report: “[Floyd] was transported. … At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone. … The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in. … No officers were injured. … Body worn cameras were on and activated during this incident.”
The report reserves its last active verb for Floyd’s last “action”: “He died a short time later.”
For George Floyd’s murder, this police report was the first draft of history. Forget, for a moment, all of the details it leaves out but that the world learned by watching Darnella Frazier’s cell phone video. The report’s aggressive use of passive verbs ensures that in this account of Floyd’s death, police are not responsible for anything, from the handcuffing to the body cameras.
That verb usage is deliberate, and most of the time, it frames the entire narrative that follows.
The problem is pervasive. Amid last summer’s protests for racial and economic justice, articles from every news outlet you can imagine — from the New York Times to hyperlocal news blogs — wrote about how “protesters marched and looted,” while passively mentioning that “tear gas canisters were fired” and “protesters were shot.” The officers who shot those protesters were mentioned belatedly, if at all.
As with the Floyd report, these initial accounts subtly shape readers’ perceptions of guilt and responsibility. Each passive verb is a tiny nudge; in the aggregate, they’re a deadly force.
From police to politicians, calls for accountability must be stronger. Verbs that demand an accountable subject are a great place to start.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and passive infinitives to firstname.lastname@example.org.