Mistakes were made

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Edward Liddy chose, bizarrely, to start the third paragraph of his Op-Ed piece in today's WaPo ("Our Mission at AIG: Repairs, and Repayment") with a classical allusion:

Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible. The most egregious of those began in 1987, when the company strayed from its core insurance competencies to launch a credit-default-swaps portfolio, which eventually became subject to massive collateral calls that created a liquidity crisis for AIG. Its missteps have exacted a high price, not only for the company and its employees but for the American taxpayer, the federal government's finances and the global economy. These missteps brought AIG to the brink of collapse and to the government for help.

The phrase "mistakes were made" is simple enough to be common — especially if minor variants like "mistakes have been made" are counted — and evasive enough to be be salt in the wounds of angry people eager for contrition and even revenge. The fact that it has its own Wikipedia page is evidence of its special status, as is the fact that (back in 1991) William Safire endorsed William Schneider's joke-grammar coinage past exonerative to describe it.  When Alberto Gonzales used the phrase two years ago, the NYT teased him with a historical review under the headline "Familiar Fallback for Officials: 'Mistakes were Made'". The most widely-remarked example, I think, was Ronald Reagan's reference to the Iran-Contra scandal in his 1987 State of the Union address:

… we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for.

I believe that this is was the instance that led to the Matt Groening Life in Hell strip, shown above (click for a larger version). [I haven't been able to verify the connection, beyond finding a 1990 interview with Groening that mentions the cartoon and thus indicates that it's old enough.]

Poor Mr. Liddy, who was brought in to bail out AIG six months ago, and is getting $1 a year for his pains, needs better PR advice.

[And yes, if you've been following our discussions of the peregrinations of passivity, "mistakes were made" is an instance of passive voice in both the traditional and the New Yorker senses of the term.]

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26 Comments »

  1. acilius said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    The whole column reads as if Mr Liddy wrote it himself. It's too cliche-ridden to be the work of a professional ghostwriter.

  2. William F Dowling said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    I agree with acilius; "These missteps brought AIG to the brink of collapse and to the government for help" has a "kick the habit or the bucket" feel — but I suppose Liddy is worried about extraction from other things than coordinated structures.

  3. Steve said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Zeugmas like that used to be highly prized by rhetoricians.

    [Ummm... Doesn't Steve mean "zeugmata like that"? Just a thought from one who still takes our classical languages to count for something... — Melvyn Quince]

  4. acilius said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    @William F Dowling: "I suppose Liddy is worried about extraction from other things than coordinated structures"- Yes, that's why he should hire a professional to do his public writing for him.

    [And others might perhaps hire a syntactician to parse their sentences: "to the brink of collapse and to the government for help" is certainly a coordination of unlike things, but what has been extracted from it? -- Melvyn Quince]

  5. Harry Campbell said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    My favourite example is when Bart Simpson shoots a bird on its nest, then full of remorse climbs the tree to break the news to the eggs: "Your mom was involved in an incident. Mistakes were made."

    (But then his voice turns all active as he adds "By me".)

    [Harry is joking, of course. Mistakes were made by me is a passive clause. People lay such stress on passive clauses as a way to cover up the identity of the agent that they forget that passive clauses permit extra stress on the agent, by allowing it to fall at the end of the verb phrase: These particular mistakes were made by your own staff. The special thing is that in a passive clause, since the agent is expressed in a preposition phrase, and preposition phrases (unlike subject noun phrases) are optional, you can if you wish leave the agent out. The choice is yours. Harry knows all this. —GKP]

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    "She left in a huff and a '57 Chevy" is zeugma and, in particular, syllepsis. Must the winner of any syllepsis competition be Michael Flanders with "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear":
    ( http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/havesome.htm )?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OW_zi8n4HDQ

    [(myl) More here, including some more modern terminology (e.g. "WTF coordination", which I think I invented, unless someone else did), and some other LL links.]

  7. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    But quite often it is not that the identity of the agent is "covered up" (although that is a possiblity), it is that it is either unknown, or too predictable to be mentioned, as in "He was arrested (by the police)" – who else?

  8. Karen said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    Covering up the agent can be done in active voice quite nicely, too, of course. It's in information structuring that the passive has uses that the active can't fulfill.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    The special thing is that in a passive clause, since the agent is expressed in a preposition phrase, and preposition phrases (unlike subject noun phrases) are optional, you can if you wish leave the agent out. The choice is yours. —GKP]

    A somewhat infelicitous explanation there, in my opinion, Geoff. The two important parts of a sentence are the theme and the focus (or the theme and the rheme if one is a Hallidayian). In a normal English sentence, without fronting, the agent is the theme, and the focus (or new information) will be the predicate.

    Now where the agent is unknown or irrelevant it obviously is not going to be the theme, and in these cases we have the agentless passive. The second case where we have the passive is where the agent is the new information, the focus of the sentence, and thus comes after the verb in the salient position. Now there is not a choice between putting the agent in or not. I would be hard pressed to think of a passive construction where the inclusion or not of the agent was optional (the choice is between either passive construction and the active one).

    Geoff's comment is interesting however because it refers to a point made in the previous post on the passive: the tendency of linguists to always think that 'voice' has the narrow technical meaning. When Harry Campbell is saying But then his voice turns all active as he adds "By me" he is impishly playing on both meanings of the word voice: Bart's physical voice and the grammatical term.

    Still Geoff, it's not that important. Comments on these threads are often misinterpreted ….. by you:)

  10. Karen said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    The agent need not be the new information. Perhaps the verb is, all by itself. Perhaps a location or time element is – cookies will be sold on Tuesday, not Wednesday.

  11. James said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    What is the difference between syllepsis and zeugma, Nathan Myers? (My New Oxford American gives the same definition for both, and at each entry asks me to compare the other.)

  12. Janice Huth Byer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    I fear I'm not as charitable as my fellows here. While wholly agreeing with Mark's discerning take on Liddy's hackneyed paragraph, I read it as cynical boilerplate, likely crafted not by Liddy, but, my guess is, by AIG's Risk Management Dept., out of stock phrases, including the laughing stock past exonerative, chosen not for their felicity, but their utility in insinuating something, while telling us nothing.

    AIG owes us an honest explication, but, to be charitable, they don't have one. Further, they act like they know they don't need one, and they're probably right.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    James: All I know is what I read in Wikipedia. If it's wrong, there's no point in fixing it, because it'll be unfixed in no time. If you missed Mark's enlargement on my post, scan back for it.

  14. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    @ James: What is the difference between syllepsis and zeugma, Nathan Myers?

    I'm not Nathan Myers but I'll answer. According to Fowler, "syllepsis" (talking together) and "zeugma" (yoking) both mean that a word relates to two others, but the relation is not the same. Syllepsis (e.g. "Miss Bolo went home in a flood of tears and a sedan chair") does not offend grammar. Zeugma (e.g. "Kill the boys and the luggage!") does.

  15. Bill Walderman said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    "While wholly agreeing with Mark's discerning take on Liddy's hackneyed paragraph, I read it as cynical boilerplate, likely crafted not by Liddy, but, my guess is, by AIG's Risk Management Dept., out of stock phrases, including the laughing stock past exonerative, chosen not for their felicity, but their utility in insinuating something, while telling us nothing."

    This is unfair. However inept from a public relations perspective, Liddy's remark wasn't inappropriate or cynical boilerplate. His use of a passive clause seems proper because, as Mark Liberman noted in his original post, Liddy was put in charge of AIG just recently to liquidate its assets and clean up the mess, and has no personal responsibility for the past "mistakes" made by AIG's previous management and the Financial Products unit. And he was persuaded to take on this task as a public service for a salary of $1 a year. He's a retired insurance executive from another company, and he's expected to try to sell off AIG's healthy insurance company assets at a fair price and maybe even make the government whole for its outlay. He made a calculation, and it may well have been a rational and wise one, that it would be better to keep the Financial Products people around a little longer to help liquidate the "toxic" assets–the credit default swap business–since they know something about these complex instruments, and not to embark on an expensive and distracting effort to challenge bonuses to which they seem to have a prima facie legal entitlement. I don't see anything objectionable from a moral perspective about the way he framed his statement in the Washington Post.

  16. James said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    Nathan,
    Aha; the Wikipedia entry (myl's link) seems to be saying that zeugma is simply coordination, of any kind.

    Simon,
    Check that Wikipedia entry for examples called 'zeugma' where the relation is the same and there is no offense of grammar, e.g. “Lust conquered shame, audacity fear, madness reason.”
    I have to say that I don't understand your example of syllepsis ("Kill the boys and the luggage!"), which seems to me a perfectly grammatical imperative that is impossible to obey.

  17. Harry Campbell said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    For years I've had the nagging feeling that there was supposed to be some subtle difference between syllepsis and zeugma, but never been able to pin it down. OED seems to say that syllepsis is a specific type of zeugma and even perhaps some kind of solecism:

    A figure by which a single word is made to refer to two or more words in the sentence; esp. when properly applying in sense to only one of them, or applying to them in different senses; but formerly more widely, including, e.g., the use of the same predicate, without repetition, with two or more subjects; also sometimes applied to cases of irregular construction, in which the single word agrees grammatically with only one of the other words to which it refers (more properly called SYLLEPSIS).

    This, if I'm not mistaken, would be the opposite of what Simon Cauchi says Fowler says.

    (And I can't work out myself with what exact implication I wrote "would be". Is it conditional or just the colloquial "That would be us" usage discussed at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1245 ?)

    Meanwhile syllepsis is

    A figure by which a word, or a particular form or inflexion of a word, is made to refer to two or more other words in the same sentence, while properly applying to or agreeing with only one of them (e.g. a masc. adj. qualifying two ns., masc. and fem.; a sing. verb serving as predicate to two subjects, sing. and pl.), or applying to them in different senses (e.g. literal and metaphorical). Cf. ZEUGMA.

    Both entries are illustrated with an 1882 citation referring to

    the figure of speech called zeugma, or rather syllepsis, [by which] the same word..is..made to serve two purposes in the same sentence. A verb is often used with two clauses which is only appropriate to one of them, as in Pope's line—‘See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned.’

    Which, again if I'm not mistaken, would also be an example of chiasmus.

  18. Bea Moreira said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    Well, nothing tops Cheney's "stuff happens!" response.

    Love the post.

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    Harry: I think you're firmly in conditional "would be" territory. The Pope example is strange. I agree it's chiasmus. Decomposing, we have "See Pan with flocks. See with fruits Pomona crowned." Simplifying, "See Pan. See Pomona crowned." I suppose these are different senses of "see".

  20. Aaron Davies said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 12:46 am

    Bob Kanefsky rewrote "Madeira" to another tune, and included the great lines "Just a dissipated creep who wears a Rolex on his wrist/On her nerves, too much cologne, and down her power to resist" and "Did she turn down the wrong hallway, his advances, or the sheet?".

  21. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    @James: I have to say that I don't understand your example of syllepsis ("Kill the boys and the luggage!"), which seems to me a perfectly grammatical imperative that is impossible to obey.
    No, Fluellen didn't mean "kill the luggage". He meant "Kill the boys and burn (or otherwise destroy) the luggage". I cited it as an example of zeugma actually, not syllepsis, and was following Fowler in doing so. But if the OED differs from Fowler, I'm happy to defer to the OED.
    @ Nathan Myers: The Pope example is strange. I agree it's chiasmus. Decomposing, we have "See Pan with flocks. See with fruits Pomona crowned." Simplifying, "See Pan. See Pomona crowned." I suppose these are different senses of "see".
    I prefer a different analysis. "Pan with flocks" is meant to have a complement to make it (disregarding the chiasmus for a moment) match "with fruits Pomona". The poet is trying to make the frame "See . . . crowned" serve to complete them both, but it doesn't work except perhaps as an example of poetic licence.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    Simon: But how could Pan be crowned with flocks, even poetically? And if we let him be so crowned (poetically), how is it then syllepsis? On reflection I can see how "see" is being used in two different senses, as required for syllepsis, if we simply note Pan mooching about with his flocks, but acknowledge, by direct experience of the ceremony, Pomona's fruity coronation.

  23. Janice Huth Byer said,

    March 22, 2009 @ 12:40 am

    Bill Walderman, yes, all of what you say is true. My point is precisely that Mr. Liddy's essay is not a reflection ON Mr. Liddy, because, imo, it's not Of Mr. Liddy, who little doubt, has more important things to do, for which he appears more than qualified, than to pen a piece to submit to a newspaper, which companies like AIG routinely relegate to risk management staff.

    No doubt he read it before it was submitted, but that kind of communique is not his expertise, so it casts no aspersion on Mr. Liddy, a busy executive, for my description to call what presumably some staffer wrote "boilerplate".

  24. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 3:36 am

    Nathan: we must agree to differ. I still think "Pan with flocks" requires a complement, and "crowned" isn't it, although the poet tries to make it serve the purpose. We are meant to take the line as parallel to (say)
    Let bread with jam, with gravy meat be served
    where "Let . . . be served" completes both "bread with jam" and "with gravy meat".
    Sorry to try to explain Pope's line about Pan and Pomona with such a humdrum comparison.

  25. Nathan Myers said,

    March 25, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    Simon: Masticate your bread and your meat how I will, I find no flavor of syllepsis, only the savory crust of chiasmus. Clearly But if we must so agree, why then we must. But may I offer (entirely non-threateningly, I assure you!), "I shall see thy bet to my ruin, and from a gibbet thee hanged" as a closer but more sylleptically contrastive analog?

  26. David Harris said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Nathan: How is 'see' being used differently in the Pope quote, even on your interpretation? See Pan with flocks [surrounded], [see] Pomona with fruits crowned!

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