Congratulations to the Walnut Street Theatre! America’s oldest playhouse has another first on its hands: With its poor grammar, it may have incited a revolution that makes those French insurgents in Les Misérables, which the Walnut staged in 2008, look like timid schoolboys.
The fracas began when local performer Jenna Pinchbeck, who has acted at the Walnut and is listed among its education faculty, commented on the theater’s June 6 season-announcement Facebook post. In her comment, Pinchbeck asked how the theater would “make your space safer for BIPOC, trans, and disabled artists? How are you going to make women feel safe with Bernard [Havard, president and producing artistic director] around? What have you done to hold him accountable?”
Rather than ignoring a comment that likely would have remained under the radar, the Walnut’s lawyers threatened legal action with a cease-and-desist letter dripping with extraneous adverbs, responsibility-shifting passive voice, and specious arguments.
Which Pinchbeck posted to Facebook. Cue the barricades.
It’s not just to torture you that your English teachers and college professors and E.B. White implored you to write in active voice and steer clear of unnecessary adverbs; it’s because passive voice and overuse of adverbs are hallmarks of weak writing, which the Walnut is learning the hard way.
The law firm Archer, which represents the Walnut Street Theatre, could have left out nearly every adverb without losing any meaning (all emphasis added): “You have willfully published statements … They actually suggest criminal activity … statements you have decided to post clearly qualify as [defamation] … such types of allegations as those you have made are plainly capable of defamatory meaning … demand that you immediately cease and desist … immediately retract the defamatory statements.” Collectively, the adverbs read like a high schooler trying to pad an essay to reach a minimum word count.
The letter’s frequent passive verbs — or active verbs in passive construction, to avoid specifying the shadowy actors — further weaken its logic. “Your actions give rise to claims against you for defamation. … [This letter] shall also serve as a demand that you immediately retract the defamatory statements. … Failure to do so will cause the filing of legal action against you.”
The letter ends with a menacing passive-voice/adverb one-two: “Be guided accordingly.”
In any writing — but especially in legal writing, which stands upon specificity — sloppy word usage indicates sloppy thinking. If you’re fluffing your arguments with extra words and your verbs don’t have proper subjects, your readers (or defendants) can see right through your empty threats.
Within days, Pinchbeck’s lawyer pounced with a more grammatically sane response, which the performer also posted. Moreover, the theater community mobilized against the Walnut, with nearly 100 people showing up for a protest march last week, and a new coalition known as Protect the Artist Philly compiling scores of testimonials from former Walnut employees who claim to have witnessed inappropriate behavior and/or comments by Havard and his staff.
As of earlier this week, Pinchbeck — who doesn’t intend to retract any of her statements — hadn’t heard anything further from the Walnut. “It could get messy,” she said in a phone interview, “but I have a beautiful community behind me.”
Hey, Walnut Street: Do you hear the people sing?
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 iambic pentameter to firstname.lastname@example.org.