News, Spin

More Than Three Little Words

When I have taught or trained in editing or writing or somesuch, I always bring out a personal lesson: What is wrong with the headline “Suspect Arrested”?

For those who did reasonably well in high school English, you’ll recall having been taught that such sentences or phrases are in the passive voice and that you never should use the passive voice.

The passive voice puts the subject of the sentence at the end, after the word “by,” “Suspect Arrested by Police.” Further, my passive headline has an “implied subject”: the phrase “By Police” is missing, precisely because it’s obvious.

The standard passive style is scorned because straightline phrasing with active verbs is livelier and more attractive. (To passive readers, presumably.) The problem with an implied subject comes from it not being obvious to the general reader.

The lesson I deliver to novices, however, is that the passive voice exists, even gets a name, because it has sound uses in good writing. Top reason: You want to avoid saying the obvious.

A few weeks into my first copy-editing job at the then-Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock, in 1985, I submitted atop a crime brief the headline, “Suspect Arrested in LR Robbery.” (Candidly, I only remember the first half, not the crime committed.) The copy desk’s shift chief, the slot editor, Melody, called me on it, that we always use the active voice.

She rewrote the headline to “Police Hold Suspect in LR Robbery.” The character count is only 2 longer (29 and 31) so either will fit across two columns in the selected font size.

I objected of course, saying it’s obvious who did the arresting, you don’t need to spell out the cops. Melody was not persuaded, and she was slot that night.

I made the rule for myself, though, for later on when I could get by with it:

The implied subject in a passive construction is superfluous if it is obvious, so is usually allowable.

So who or what determined Joe Biden was victorious in the epochal, centered, all-cap, bold-faced, sans serif headline of editions of Sunday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette “BIDEN CALLED VICTOR”?

Or did they? It’s someone’s call, maybe he’s not the winner.

The implied subject is not clear. For the passive voice with implied subject to work, the subject has to be clear, to a hypothetical Joe.

The evident point of the headline was that the country began Saturday the 7th to move as if Biden won the presidency with the last final if uncertified state tallies that morning. The subtextual second point was that Biden was not factually victorious as the incumbent promised to fight the vote tallies in the courts.

Whomever chose BIDEN CALLED VICTOR wanted the second point to be nearly as strong as the first.

The editors had a good news-judgment reason, to show that the race was not over. Yet just as factual were the headlines nationwide from that Sunday the 8th: mostly variations on “Biden Wins.”

Not that media projections of incomplete or almost complete vote returns are official, that awaits certification days later, but for many decades they have an informal legitimacy. Because the final counts usually show slight changes.

If election results change through recounts or legal maneuvers, that calls for new headlines on those future articles. Don’t have to signal that possibility early.

“Biden Called Victor” is an alternate grammar construction, where the implied subject is not obvious but deliberately not clear.

Let’s call it the “passive-aggressive voice.”

“Biden Called Victor” is not terrible because readers should get the intent: ambiguity. But my old paper the Demzette long has prided itself on precise language. Choosing a headline that calls attention to itself should be allowable only for puns on light stories.

If it was so important to point out some softness of Joe Biden’s electoral victory 4-5 days after the election, the paper could’ve made the same point actively and clearly — and a bit longer headline count (22.5 and 26.5) so drop the font a bit — with:


A majority of Americans, maybe even a majority of Electoral College delegates, would agree.

Presidential election result headline in the Nov. 8, 2020, editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Presidential election result headline in the Nov. 8, 2020, editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
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