Illustration by Su Ji Kang

Grammar is Political: It Can Marginalize, But It Can Also Amplify Voices

Grammar is inherently political in nature. If used with precision and care, language has the power to express agency over action and thus amplify the voices of the marginalized.

Mar 28, 2021

Whether Grammar was your least favorite part about studying language, or you were the Ross Geller of your friend group, always annoyingly going “well actually, it’s whom,” you’re probably used to thinking of grammar as a mere set of rules that govern language and form its structure. Well, so did I — until I took a closer look at news reporting on political violence.
In a piece published in The Guardian, writer and professor of English, Moustafa Bayoumi wrote, “It is the peculiar fate of oppressed people everywhere that when they are killed, they are killed twice: first by bullet or bomb, and next by the language used to describe their deaths.” Bayoumi’s words articulate how language can make the difference between amplifying the voices of the oppressed and marginalizing them even further. Through framing the struggle of the oppressed in a way that doesn’t blame them for their oppression, grammar has the power to hold the oppressor accountable for the injustices they’ve committed.
The way a sentence is typically structured in the English language is that the subject comes before the verb. This sentence structure is written in what is known as the active voice. When the active voice is used, our minds focus on the subject of the sentence, since it comes first, and give it the utmost importance. The active voice unmistakably gives ownership of the action to the subject. The typical example your middle school English teacher probably gave was, “The boy broke the vase.”
An inversion of the active voice is called the passive voice, whereby, technically speaking, the direct object is made the subject of the sentence, even though the object was not the one to carry out the action in the literal sense. Our middle school example would then become, “The vase was broken.” The passive voice obscures the relationship between the subject and the action in the sentence: no one knows who broke the vase. Using the passive voice makes it a lot easier to evade responsibility and avoid taking ownership of one’s actions.
These technicalities of grammar may seem boring, but they are essential to understanding the obfuscating headlines in the media. Take a look at The New York Times’ tweet in May 2020, reporting events that unfolded during the protests following George Floyd’s death: “Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye.” This sentence was followed by two others reporting violence towards journalists, whereby protestors were the perpetrators in one case and police in the other. When you read the NY Times’ tweet, you have no idea who shot the photographer in the eye. But given the information you have in the following two pieces of news, it could either be the protestors or the police, and you have to decide that for yourself. Chances are, your prediction will be biased because it will be based on information that you have already internalized from the media.
When no one knows who did the action, holding the perpetrator accountable becomes very difficult. Thus, it is very intuitive to see why the passive voice is politicians’ and bureaucrats’ best friend. It allows them to say vague things like, “Mistakes were made,” or “The project was neglected for too long.” Some may argue that the passive voice does not necessarily obscure responsibility. One could still say, “Protestors were killed by the police.” There are two points here. The first is that the “by-” phrase is completely optional and very frequently omitted. The second is that placing protestors at the beginning of the sentence makes it seem as though it is their fault that they were shot. The way the sentence is structured robs them of their struggle and, as Bayoumi put it, kills them a second time.
If we observe the patterns of using the passive voice in journalism, we can see that such sentence structure plays a pivotal role when reporting on issues of structural racism and discrimination. When a person belonging to a minority group — be it racial, ethnic or religious — commits a crime, we often hear about the news in the active voice. However, the crimes of white people are far more likely to be masked with the passive voice. Look at how The Guardian reported the devastating Atlanta shootings: “At least eight people were killed in a spate of shootings at Atlanta massage parlors.” This sentence captures practically nothing of the significance of the event. It does nothing to highlight the anti-Asian discrimination, the context of the crime or the perpetrator himself.
Intransitive verbs are another way that grammar buries responsibility. An intransitive verb does not require an object to act upon. Jump is an intransitive verb. Another tweet by The New York Times posted in 2018 exemplifies this: “Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the U.S. prepares to open its Jerusalem embassy.” In this sentence, “died” is the intransitive verb. The construction of the sentence makes it seem as though Palestinians just happened to coincidentally die at the same time that the U.S. was preparing to move its embassy to Jerusalem. The misuse of an intransitive verb here leaves the Palestinians’ death a mystery. How did they die? Cancer? Old age? A meteor fell on their heads?
The New York Times also used the same sentence structure when reporting the murder of George Floyd: “George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died in Minneapolis on Monday after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer.” Although the sentence does reveal the reason behind Mr. Floyd’s death at the end of the sentence, it does not establish a powerful connection between the action of pinning Mr. Floyd to the ground and his death. Maybe he survived the pinning but died in a car accident afterward? It does not matter whether the public eventually learned that the police officer murdered Mr. Floyd. What matters is that the language used in the media outlets we refer to for “the truth” is often contested, misleading and vague. It employs sentence structures that oppress voices and undermine their struggles.
Language and writing have defined the beginnings of human civilization. They have become our primary means of communicating knowledge and truth. If used with accuracy and care, political language has the power to express agency over action and amplify the voices of the marginalized. The point here is not to demonize the passive voice or any other grammatical tool, but to point out the danger of abusing such grammatical structures and to call for the full disclosure of information in journalistic politics.
I am no grammar pundit, and I probably ignore my word processor’s grammar advice more often than I would like to admit, but I do know that we need to read language that represents our reality. We need language that acknowledges our struggles and not one that portrays them as a coincidence or a mystery. We need the purveyors of political language to understand that if our voices remain active in our struggle for a more equitable, just world, then so should the voices writing about us.
Aya Abu Ali is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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