Passive voice wrongly accused yet again

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Tom Maguire, on a blog called JustOneMinute, attempts to fisk the arrest affidavit for George Zimmerman (the man in Sanford, Florida, who shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin). Mention is made of "a lack of self-confidence from the prosecution, which switches to the passive voice at a crucial moment in the action." Uh-oh! Passive voice alert! Let's see… the crucial words are that Zimmerman "confronted Martin and a struggle ensued." Maguire comments:

I especially like the passive voice at the critical plot point: "…a struggle ensued". Those pesky struggles, ensuing like that! One might have thought the prosecution would at least argue that Zimmerman initiated the struggle, in addition to the verbal confrontation.

It's yet another case of the usual sort, isn't it? When you hear the word "passive", put your hand on your billfold.

As regular readers of Language Log will know, I collect these cases. I have a roomful of them. Once again a supposed point of grammar has been brought up to muddy what could have been a perfectly straightforward critique of unclear agency attribution. Ensue is an intransitive verb like expire or occur or elapse. It simply doesn't have a passive. The grammar terminology is completely mistaken and completely unnecessary. Why could Maguire not just comment, accurately, that no guess is made at the identity of the instigator of the struggle?

Of course, his implied criticism might still be unreasonable — it isn't always reasonable to object to a failure to attribute agency. The Trayvon Martin case is going to be very difficult to resolve: one guy is dead and the other has every reason to insist that the dead guy was the instigator. Is it even clearly defined who the instigator is, when two men face off, both perhaps angry and scared? That a struggle ensued is about the only thing an affidavit can say without straying completely outside the bounds of what can be justifiably asserted right now.

And it's a completely standard phrase: "a struggle ensued" (in quotation marks) gets about 600,000 Google hits, with examples like "a struggle ensued for control of the flag" in an page about The Red Badge of Courage, or "a struggle ensued between the Muslim Khans of Russia and the shamanist Khans of Persia" in a history of Islam. It's crazy to object to such sentences. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them, grammatically or stylistically or ethically or politically.

What's happening is that people whose English teacher made them read Orwell's intellectually dishonest and absurdly over-written essay "Politics and the English language," or Strunk and White's disgraceful page 18, have gone crazy trying to find deviousness in every passive, every intransitive, every nominalization, every kind of sentence that doesn't directly and plonkingly say that Colonel Mustard killed Mr Boddy in the library with the dagger.

If you read Language Log a lot, you're sick of me saying this. I know that. But you're not as sick of me saying it as I am of seeing the passive misidentified and wrongly accused in newspapers and magazines and blogs every week.

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