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The McSweeney’s Guide to Deceptive Language and Obfuscative Writing

Speed involved jumping-related incident fox brownWe’ve all seen how the passive voice can be used to write weaselly-worded sentences that avoid assigning blame or saying what actually happened.

In fact, one noteworthy and recent example of mealy-mouthed language would have to be the recent news coverage of a US military attack on an Afghan hospital, which was variously reported as:

  • Air Attacks Kill at Least 19 at Afghanistan Hospital; US Investigating
  • US Officials Investigate Airstrike in Afghanistan That Killed at Least 19 at Doctors Without Borders Hospital
  • Airstrike Hits Hospital in Afghanistan, Killing at Least 9

And now McSweeney’s is going to show us how to pull the same trick ourselves.

There’s a new post on McSweeney’s today that shows how you can rewrite a straightforward sentence written in the active voice to one written in the passive voice, and avoid saying anything important.

Starting with the sentence we all typed in keyboarding class (The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog), McSweeney’s takes us step by step through the various stages of non-responsibility, leading to a sentence that only has the vaguest relation to the event it describes:

Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.

You really have to read the article to get the greatest benefit; it’s almost a self-contained lesson in the structure of the English language and in writing to obfuscate.

I picked up a couple pointers myself. And I’ll be honest; I’ve written sentences like that. Sometimes I do it to avoid the truth, but other times I use the passive voice just for my own amusement – just to see how far I can get and still write an accurate report.

And even if you’re not a writer, you should still go read it. This article will inoculate you against non-inflammatory writing like the headlines mentioned above, leaving you a better-informed reader with the ability to recognize and call BS when a news report is trying to avoid calling a spade a spade.


image by Tambako the Jaguar


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BA October 6, 2015 um 9:35 pm

FWIW, bone of the example sentences you provide utilize the passive voice. But instead, you included one clause that *does* utilize the passive voice, in your own reporting of it ("…which was variously reported as…").

Nate Hoffelder October 7, 2015 um 4:34 pm

It took me a while to figure out that you meant none, and not some.

I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. The final sentence does use the passive voice. "Speed was involved" is passive, not active.

Barry Marks November 7, 2016 um 8:39 am

I think passive voice is just another writing technique. I do it when it seems appropriate. Of course it can be overdone. Sometimes I enjoy overdoing it. 🙂

It’s a little like the maxim about writing long sentences. The proper way to write is the way that conveys your message in the way you choose.

On the other hand using terms like "weaselly-worded" seems to me a bit blustery.


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