Do you know this zombie hack?
I don’t know when tips became hacks…
Or whether this one should be a trick.
Let’s go with zombie hack. That sounds seasonal…
Speaking of seasonal, Britain has a new Prime Minister.
Wow, that jibe veers into political commentary. That’s not like me at all.
So I’ll quickly get back to my comfort zone. Grammar.
In Rishi Sunak’s first speech as Prime Minister (25th October), he reflected on Liz Truss’s brief spell at the helm.
“I admired her restlessness to create change.
But some mistakes were made.
Not borne of ill will or bad intentions. Quite the opposite, in fact. But mistakes nonetheless.” (Transcript from gov.uk)
MISTAKES WERE MADE.
What we are looking at here is a passive construction. Or the passive voice. This can be differentiated from the active voice.
Mistakes were made. By whom?
Mistakes were made (by Liz Truss)?
Mistakes were made (by the government)?
Mistakes were made (by zombies)?!?
It’s really hard to avoid insinuation here. Maybe I should just lean into it…
(*Finds a backbone*. A 44-day stint at the top is suggestive of a botch job. There! I said it. And you could say that whatever your political allegiance.)
Mistakes were made.
Using the active voice would look something like this:
Liz Truss made mistakes.
The government made mistakes.
We made mistakes.
I made mistakes.
Zombies made mistakes.
As opposed to the passive voice Mr Sunak chose when he said:
Mistakes were made.
Look! Over there! Some mistakes have happened. Nowt to do with me. I’m merely commenting on their existence. Interesting, huh?
So what’s the zombie angle?
The zombie angle is the ‘hack’. If you can add ‘by zombies’ to a construction, you’re looking at the passive voice.
Depending on whether you’ve got the box ticked on Microsoft Word, this type of construction may be flagged in your writing. (See what I did there?)
The same goes for ProWritingAid: they’re forever trying to weed out the passive voice.
But what if you’re away from your computer?
How can you tell if it’s passive without employing AI tools?
Try appending the phrase ‘by zombies’ to your sentence. If it fits, you’re most likely looking at a passive construction.
🍰 The last piece of cake has been eaten. (By zombies?)
🗑️ The bins were not emptied. (By zombies?)
🍽️ The cupboards have not been restocked. (By zombies?)
Sometimes the passive voice needs to be employed.
But it can suggest barriers. It can suggest distance.
Sunak could have said: ‘We made mistakes.’ That probably would have gone down better with the public.
Mistakes were made (in my vicinity, but not BY me – you must understand) sounds like you’re washing your hands of responsibility.
Make sure your eyes are open. Make sure you’re aware of the connotations of language. Read the subtext.
Try the zombie hack to see whether you’re using the passive voice or whether someone’s using the passive voice on you.
*I can’t find where this tip originated. Google gives me a few different names. To whoever came up with this hack: thank you. I’ve been using it for years. It’s really useful.