Hidden agents

In linguistics, an agent is a person carrying out an action within a sentence. For example, My mother plants roses. My mother is the one planting roses, so she is the agent. Or: The boy eats ice cream. The boy is the one eating ice cream and thus, the agent.

In passive constructions, however, the agent is absent, and we focus on the action instead.

For instance, Pictures are taken. We have no idea who took the pictures because the agent is hidden. Or: Gloves are provided. Here, we do not know who provided the gloves because the agent, again, is hidden.

While this comes in handy when the agent is unknown or irrelevant, passive constructions allow agents to hide behind their actions.

Imagine reading an article on cancer research. At some point it reads: Mice were injected with cancerous cells. As you may notice, the person injecting the cancerous cells is not mentioned here. Now, what would it sound like if it read: Dr. Ribitsch injected mice with cancerous cells?

Or imagine an article on stroke research that reads: The blood vessel in the monkey's brain was blocked. What if it read instead: Drs. Johnson and Miller blocked the blood vessel in the monkey's brain?

In the first sentence of each example, we focus on the mice getting cancerous cells and on the blood vessel being blocked - without even wondering who did it.

The other two sentences, in contrast, reveal the agents, and we actually envision them injecting the mice and blocking the monkey's brain.

Passive constructions like these make researchers invisible so that they do not even enter our minds.

This raises the question: would they have a harder time experimenting on nonhuman animals if they have to include themselves as agents in their descriptions?

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at ribitsch@lycoming.edu.