Thoughts on Writing

The power of the passive voice

“Rules are made to be broken.”

This phrase sprang to mind after I read Buckingham Palace’s response to the interview Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had with Oprah.

In our school days, all too often our teachers would exhort us to write in the active voice. While it is true that we should usually heed this rule, the Queen’s note demonstrates the handiness of the passive voice when we’re in a dicey situation.

“The issue raised, particularly that of race, are concerning” – in adopting the passive voice, the royal household is killing two birds with one stone: (1) there’s no need to mention Harry or Markle; the family can therefore minimize the impression that they’re blaming the estranged royals; (2) there’s no need to mention Oprah either; she is thus deprived of the satisfaction of receiving free publicity from the Palace.

“While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately” – the continual use of the passive voice, coupled with the vague wording (“some recollections may vary”), enables the Queen to dodge the need to validate or deny the claims Harry and Markle have made. The promise that the allegations will be addressed privately has the effect of urging the public to keep their respectful distance.

Buckingham Palace’s statement may look short and simple, but it was probably drafted with a great deal of thought, and rewritten amid a great deal of discussion between the royal family and their advisors.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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