John McIntyre

Someone shot someone, but how could we tell? | COMMENTARY

Benjamin Dreyer held up for examination on Twitter today this prize tweet from ABC News: “DEVELOPING: Maryland State Police are investigating a trooper-involved fatal shooting in Leonardtown that ended in the death of a 16-year-old.”

He remarked, “This is not why English was invented.”


Trooper-involved shooting stops short of saying that a trooper shot someone, merely indicating that a trooper was on the scene. And fatal shooting … that ended in the death of a 16-year-old is a cumbersome circumlocution saying that there was a fatal shooting in which some 16-year-old somehow wound up dead.

The headline on the actual article, though, was less mealy-mouthed: “Maryland state trooper fatally shoots 16-year-old after responding to reports of an armed man.”


The Associated Press, bless its heart, offers explicit advice against such stodge: “Avoid the vague ‘officer-involved’ for shootings and other cases involving police. Be specific about what happened. If police use the term, ask: How was the officer or officers involved? Who did the shooting? If the information is not available or not provided, spell that out.”

Someone commented in the Twitter feed, “The active voice in English has been abolished.” But the original sentence is not a passive construction but an active one: police are investigating shooting, standard subject-verb-object. What this shows is that the active voice can be used to conceal agency just as much as the passive voice.*

I’m a little surprised that the author of the ABC tweet didn’t work in allegedly somewhere, since the journalistic practice of seeding allegedlys throughout sentences is supposed to protect from libel suits without requiring the labor of distinguishing between what is alleged and what is established fact.

Just say what happened as straightforwardly as you can, qualifying when necessary.

* And by the way, people, for the love of Fowler, stop nattering about the wicked passive voice when you are unable to identify actual passive constructions. Not every sentence containing a form of to be is passive. You might also stop bringing up George Orwell, who regularly used passive constructions, just like every other native speaker of English.