Archive for passives

Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! What's going on? Is Language Log beginning to break through? Are journalists waking up to the fact that there actually is a definition of the notion 'passive voice' (though hardly anybody seems to know what it is)? The article is by Tristin Hopper of the National Post in Canada (August 8, 2014); you can read it here. Kudos to Tristin.

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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Josh Marshall: grammar success

Josh Marshall, at TPM where he is editor, quotes President Barack Obama saying of last year's debt-ceiling negotiation shenanigans: "We're not going to play the same game that we saw happen in 2011," and notes an interesting change of sentence plan:

You can’t see it in the transcript. But he momentarily caught himself after ‘game’ and then shifted gear — just a moment of hesitation. The logical way to complete that sentence was ‘We’re not going to play the same game we played in 2011.’ But he caught himself and shifted the sentence into a sort of conceptual passive voice. It’s active but with himself as the onlooker.

As Jeffrey Stafford pointed out to me by email, this really deserves some credit. Josh can tell the difference between a passive clause and an active one!

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One more misidentified passive (can you bear it?)

You know, people keep telling me that I shouldn't blame Strunk & White for the way so many Americans are clueless about identifying passive clauses. Others tell me I'm being prescriptive: I should let people use the word 'passive' however they want. (And you can, of course; you can use it to mean "box containing electrical equipment" if you want.) But I'm unrepentant in my conviction that page 18 of The Elements of Style has been confusing people for decades. Let me give you (if you can bear it) another example of why.

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A very special inscription

While shopping for a card for my dad the other day (he will be 90 on August 7) I noticed a sign of the times: a birthday card with a big silver "100" on it — one of quite a few, in fact, manufactured specifically for birthdays of people who reach that age. The extreme longevity made possible by modern medicine, nutrition, and social care may be a disaster for pension plans and health insurance companies, but it has inspired a new niche product for card manufacturers. They didn't make Happy 100th Birthday cards fifty years ago. I was puzzled, though, when I looked inside. The inscription was distinctly peculiar.

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Death of the Queen's English Society

The Queen's English Society (QES), mentioned only a couple of times here on Language Log over the past few years, is no more. It has ceased to be. On the last day of this month they will ring down the curtain and it will join the choir invisible. It will be an ex-society. Said Rhea Williams, chairman of QES, in a letter to the membership of which I have seen a facsimile copy:

At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. Three members had sent their apologies. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus!

Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30th June 2012

(Quest is the society's magazine.) Is this a sad day for defenders of English? Not in my view. I don't think it was a serious enterprise at all. I don't think the members cared about what they said they cared about. And I will present linguistic evidence for this thesis.

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Kudos to Shaun and #passivevoiceday

Let the record show that in the post advertising Passive Voice Day 2012 on Shaun's Blog (April 27), which was naturally crying out to be written entirely in the passive voice, the writer, shaunm, has not made a single slip. Every single transitive verb in his post is in the passive. (There is one intransitive subordinate clause in addition, "that April 27th will be passive voice day", but the main clause of that sentence is a passive, with the verb decide, so I'm giving that a pass.) In a world where hardly anyone knows what a passive clause is, and pontificating critics of other people's prose get it wildly wrong over and over again, this is truly amazing.

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Passive voice wrongly accused yet again

Tom Maguire, on a blog called JustOneMinute, attempts to fisk the arrest affidavit for George Zimmerman (the man in Sanford, Florida, who shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin). Mention is made of "a lack of self-confidence from the prosecution, which switches to the passive voice at a crucial moment in the action." Uh-oh! Passive voice alert! Let's see… the crucial words are that Zimmerman "confronted Martin and a struggle ensued." Maguire comments:

I especially like the passive voice at the critical plot point: "…a struggle ensued". Those pesky struggles, ensuing like that! One might have thought the prosecution would at least argue that Zimmerman initiated the struggle, in addition to the verbal confrontation.

It's yet another case of the usual sort, isn't it? When you hear the word "passive", put your hand on your billfold.

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Rewriting Wikipedia in the passive?

Matt Cherett on Buzzfeed said: "Tonight, my friend Frank sent me a link to the Wikipedia entry for RHOBH star Kim Richards, which he'd just rewritten entirely in the passive voice, making it nearly unreadable and, at the same time, infinitely better." He supplied a screenshot.

But the spoof rewriting, supposed to be in the passive voice throughout, instead provides a fascinating a corpus of new evidence concerning the complete inability of educated Americans to understand the concept of passive voice. The attempts to create passive versions of the original fail as often as they succeed:

  • An American actress, former child actress, and television personality is (born September 19, 1964) Kimberly "Kim" Richards. [Merely reverses subject and complement of an ascriptive copular clause, changing A is an F to An F is A.]

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Journalism 101: a passive fact-check

A furious Daniel Schwammenthal at The Commentator excoriates The Economist for accusing the Israeli government of being delusional and paranoid. Asking rhetorically why there continues to be conflict between Israel and the Palestinians according to The Economist’s view, Schwammenthal adds a linguistic element to his political critique:

"Violent clashes and provocations erupted whenever the peace process seemed on the verge of concrete steps forward," the Economist explains. And, as Journalism 101 courses explain, the passive voice erupts whenever the journalist is trying to obscure the truth. Violence did not spontaneously or anonymously break out, as the article suggests.

And he goes on to hammer home the point that it's the Palestinians who fire the rockets. Well, it's true that Journalism 101 courses often follow grammatically clueless critics in their prejudice against the passive, and in wrongly associating the passive voice with deviousness and mendacity. But I hope there are at least some journalism teachers who can tell passive clauses from active ones. Schwammenthal evidently can't.

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Passive-aggressive maybe, but not passive

You're the prime minister of Australia. (Well, you're not, actually, but this is my little rhetorical way of plunging you imaginatively in medias res. I want you to imagine that you're the prime minister of Australia.) Your foreign minister is a former prime minister that you ousted from the leadership in 2010, and now a bitter rival who looks like he's plotting to get back the leadership. You haven't been exactly assiduous in publicly rebutting criticisms of him emanating from your wing of the party, because frankly you wouldn't piss on him if he caught fire. He suddenly decides, while on a trip overseas representing the country, that he's had enough of the insults and attacks, and it's time to make his play. So he resigns his ministerial post and announces his resignation to a press conference at 1:30 a.m. in Washington DC so as to catch the 6 p.m. news in Australia.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it: to say something prime-ministerial about his accomplishments in office without giving one iota of extra support to his candidacy now that he's quite clearly going to come back to Oz and challenge you for your job. What do you say? You don't want to say that he achieved anything, yet you have to uphold the foreign policy record of your government. Is it time for the passive construction?

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More comments on comments (just between us)

I want to share something with you Language Log readers. But for heaven's sake don't mention it to anyone at The Chronicle of Higher Education or its Lingua Franca blog. This is just between us. There is no telling what would happen over at the Chronicle if they read this, so just keep it dark, OK?

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Nate Silver knows his passives

After so many posts by Geoff Pullum (ok, rants, but I agree with him!) about journalists who use the word "passive" without knowing what it means, it actually caught my eye just now to see "passive" used perfectly correctly! Has it come to this? Should I say "Congratulations to Nate Silver!"? Here it is:

First, Mr. Romney eliminated Rick Perry from the nomination contest. Of course, Mr. Romney got a lot of help from Mr. Perry himself. Maybe we should use the passive voice — Mr. Perry was eliminated from the nomination contest.

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