Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence: Agency and the Passive Voice

Nancy M. Henley, Michelle Miller, Jo Anne Beazley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


This research tested hypotheses that news media often report violence against women (VAW) in passive-verb format and that this leads readers to be more accepting of VAW than reports using the active voice. In Study 1, 1,501 verbs from news stories were classified as having active or passive voice. Passive voice use for both VAW (rape) and nonsexual violence (murder) was greater than for comparison verbs. Findings of a follow-up semantic differential study suggested that these verbs'negativity could account for the results. In a third study, 54 college students read mock news reports on rape, battery, robbery, and murder, rated victim harm and perpetrator responsibility after each, and completed scales of attitudes toward sexual violence. With passive voice, males, but notfemales, attributed less victim harm and perpetrator responsibility for VAW than with active voice. Both females and males showed more acceptance of VAW with passive voice use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)60-84
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Language and Social Psychology
StatePublished - Mar 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language


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