The Language of International Conflicts

12 October 2023

The war between Israel and Hamas has drawn a lot of international attention this week. News reports, videos, and social media posts have informed people about the latest events in the conflict.

What kinds of language do reporters, journalists, or even citizens use during these conflicts?

That will be the subject of this week's Everyday Grammar.

Everyday Grammar
Everyday Grammar

International conflicts

Conflict is not a happy subject. But learning how to understand the language surrounding such events is important.

When we look at the language used to describe conflicts, verbs have special importance. Violent conflicts are about actions – one group doing something to another group. Verbs are the words we use to describe actions.

We can break apart the verbs into two general groups: active and passive forms.

When we say the term active verb, we mean the relationship between the verb and the subject of the sentence. We call a verb an active verb when the subject of the sentence performs the action. Consider this example:

Tom kicked the ball.

In the sentence, the subject, Tom, does the action – kicking. The action is done to the object – the ball.

In other words, we have this structure: subject – verb – object.

Passive verbs tell us when something is done to someone or something. In other words, the subject is being acted upon. The subject is not acting.

We make a verb passive by introducing the auxiliary verb "be," putting the verb in its past participial form, and sometimes by introducing a prepositional phrase.

Let's take an example.

Here is our active sentence:

Tom kicked the ball.

A passive sentence might be this:

The ball was kicked by Tom.

So far, we have explored active and passive verbs at the sentence level. But the same ideas hold true at the level of a clause as well. A clause has a subject and a predicate. When a clause stands on its own, we say it is a sentence. But sometimes two or more clauses make up a sentence.

Why does this matter?

So, why are these ideas important?

The language surrounding international conflicts often contains a mixture of active and passive structures. Some reports or social media posts might contain a little more of the passive voice or a little more of the active voice. But most reports will have some kind of mix.

Let's explore one example from the Voice of America.

Linda Gradstein describes some events in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Here is some information about events in Gaza:

Palestinian health officials said several dozen Palestinians including women and children were killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Jabaliya refugee camp Monday in Gaza.

In our example, we have an active form (health officials said....) as well as a passive form (were killed).

The same idea – the mixing of active and passive forms – holds true in many other places in the report.

For example, here is some information about events in Israel.

The bodies of more than 260 young music festival goers were discovered Sunday. Hamas gunman kidnapped more than 130 Israelis – many from the festival – and took them to Gaza.


Let's use this final example for a homework assignment. You just heard a mixture of active and passive structures. Can you identify the active and passive forms?

Write to us your answers in the comments section of our website,, or send us an email to

I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

auxiliary verb – n. a verb (such as have or be) that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question, etc.

past participle – n. the form of the verb that is used with "be" in passive constructions

prepositional phrase – n. a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase

predicate – n. the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject