Ivanka’s Passive Voice Subtly Signals the Truth

This might have been a subconscious hiccup, but it is nonetheless telling. Ivanka Trump recently tweeted as follows:

Since . . . inauguration, over 1 million net new jobs have been created in the American economy! #MAGA

There’s a subtle grammatical construction at work here, and by employing that construction, Ivanka signaled some appreciation for a truth that her father might prefer to ignore.

Careful writers normally use plain language and the active voice: sentences in which the subject is the agent (the one doing something) and the predicate (including a concrete verb) is as simple and declarative as possible. It’s much easier for the reader to follow a string of sentences telling a story about who did what; it’s not so easy to follow a string of sentences telling a story about what was done to whom (in other words, a story told in the passive voice). Here’s an illustration:

Passive Voice

Jim was hit by Tom, after which Tom was arrested by police. It was stated by Jim that Tom had been provoked by a comment that was made by Tom about a girlfriend of Tom’s who had previously been courted by Jim.

Active Voice

Tom hit Jim, after which police arrested Tom. Jim stated that he had provoked Tom by commenting on Tom’s girlfriend, whom Jim had previously courted.

Good law schools teach students the difference between active and passive voice. The two leading reasons to use the passive voice would be a) that you want to de-emphasize the role played by the agent (the one doing the action), or b) that the agent is unknown or unimportant.

As to (a), when you want your audience to understand what happened because it favors your side, use short, active-voice sentences. On the other hand, when you’re trying to obscure facts unfavorable to your side, use the passive voice. (In the example above, if you were Tom’s lawyer addressing a jury, you’d use the passive voice and leave the agent — the one doing the hitting — out of it altogether: “Jim was hit.”)

As to (b), you might not care who the agent is (or it might be obvious) — for example, “The case was dismissed.” Or you might not know who the actor is — for example, “Sally was mysteriously killed.”

ivankaNow let’s look again at Ivanka’s tweet. Her hashtag reference (#MAGA) and the context of her point (that job creation followed her father’s inauguration) indicate that she wants the credit for the creation of a million new jobs to go to her father, Donald Trump.

But if she really wanted to slam that idea home, then she should have used the active voice and identified Donald Trump as the actor or logical agent: “Since the inauguration, my father (the logical agent) has created (an active-voice verb) over 1 million net new jobs for the American economy! #MAGA”

Instead, she used the passive voice and left the agent out of it: “[one] million net new jobs have been created (a passive-voice verb with no identifiable agent) in the American economy.”

Though subtle, Ivanka’s use of the passive voice here seems purposeful and, frankly, smart. It would have been preposterous and laughable to say that Donald Trump created a million new jobs when he hasn’t even gotten any economic legislation passed, and Ivanka didn’t want to expose herself to the relentless ridicule that would have resulted from such a claim.

And as to what or who actually did cause the creation of those one million jobs, she couldn’t very well identify the real logical agent; at best (from her standpoint), that would have been market forces operating independently of the chaos that presently defines our government, and at worst (again, from her standpoint), it was Barack (Gasp!) Obama. The economic train Obama set in motion is still careening down the tracks; there’s this thing called inertia.

So Ivanka made jobs (rather than the logical agent — the jobs creator) the subject of her sentence and left the agent out of it. Whatever sense she has, she must have gotten from her mother.

-bb