OK, I give up. I admit that I was wrong. I thought that the grammatical term passive had developed a spectrum of everyday meanings like "vague about agency", "listless writing, lacking in vigor", and "failure to take sides in a conflict". But I've now reluctantly concluded that for some members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".
The evidence that drove me over the edge? Hank Stuever and Wil Haygood, "Parsing The Book Of Mark", Washington Post, 6/25/2009:
Wow. Was that a press conference or was that a press conference? That genteel lilt of hubris, sorrow, guilt! But other than a very slow, meandering build to I just needed a little strange, what did it all mean? What language was South Carolina's Republican governor speaking yesterday as he forlornly told the world of his travels and travails, of how sorry he is to his wife, to his sons, to his staff, to "the Tom Davises of the world" (not the Virginia one, all the other ones)? Is it a new Pat Conroy novel? Is it a megachurch sermon? Is it the language of couples therapy? The metaphysics of Oprah? Shakespeare? The psychobabble of cheating husbands? (Note all the passive constructions, the avoidance of first person.) [emphasis added]
Before we get to the "passive constructions" part of "parsing the book of Mark", let's look at that "avoidance of first person". The 2,747 words of the NYT transcript of Gov. Sanford's remarks include 190 first-person singular pronouns, for a rate of 6.9%, which seems pretty respectable even for a confession. In comparison, Barack Obama was slammed by another WaPo writer, George Will, for being "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun" in his GM take-over speech, which contained 1.7% of the same words. This would be a case of damned if you do ("inordinately fond of the first person") and damned if you don't ("avoidance of first person") — except that at the Post these days, you're apparently damned for doing if you don't, and damned for not doing if you do.
But my topic today is "all the passive constructions". In the section of Gov. Sanford's press conference before the question period, I count 180 tensed verbs, of which I can find only four instances of grammatical passive voice, plus one or two more adjectival passives — and none of these are in the part of the statement where he describes his affair, or are connected to anything that seems remotely like psychobabble, of cheating husbands or otherwise.
In three of the genuine passives, the unnamed but implied agent is the media:
… what I have found in this job is that one desperately needs a break from the bubble wherein every word, every moment is recorded …
… it was always viewed as, "You're doing this to climb some further political office." It was always based on that idea, that I genuinely believed that that action would be bad for the taxpayers …
And in the last one, the unnamed but implied agent is God:
… if you were to look at God's laws, they're in every instance designed to protect people from themselves …
(Yes, I know that I should count up all the infinitives and participles as well, but life is too short. Please feel free to contribute your labor to the cause, if you like to count things and have some spare time — for now, I'll simply assert in a qualitative way that looking at infinitives and participles doesn't change the picture in a material way.)
OK, what about the currently popular interpretation of "passive voice" (or in this case "passive constructions") as meaning something like "vague about agency"? For example, when Bernie Madoff said that "I believed it [his Ponzi scheme] would end soon", Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker commented that
[H]e betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him.
But the weird thing is, Gov. Sanford emphasized his own responsibility in first person active sentences, over and over again:
And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a — what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on one's life there and advice here.
But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends like Tom Davis. I hurt a lot of different folks. And all I can say is that I apologize.
True, he describes the progression of the affair in two impersonal sentences: "It began very innocently … But … it developed into something much more". On the other hand, these two sentences are surrounded by no fewer than nine sentences with first-person singular subjects confessing agency: "I have been unfaithful … I developed a relationship … I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends … I hurt a lot of … folks. … I apologize."
And for Sanford to describe his affair as something he alone did would have been offensively narcissistic, it seems to me — it takes two, as they say, to tango.
So what in the world did Stuever and Haygood mean by all this?
I hate to think badly of prominent members of the press corps — Hank Stuever is said to be "a regular contributor to the Style section in the Washington Post" and "a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize". But my guess is that these pundits were simply, in the technical sense of the term, bullshitting. More precisely, they were spinning out associative clichés, with no concern for any particular connection to facts. Their thought process was apparently something like this: Public figures stereotypically avoid taking responsibility, which translates linguistically into passive ("mistakes were made") and impersonal third-person ("things happen") constructions; Mark Sanford is a public figure; His statement must therefore have avoided the first person and been full of passive constructions. Q.E.D.
In this kind of writing, I guess, cleverness is everything and facts are not relevant at all.
[Update: in the comments below, there are some complaints that the grammatical phenomena traditionally connected to the term "passive voice" are complex and confusing, across languages and within English; and that if the public is confused about what the term means, it's partly or entirely because linguists haven't put forward an analysis that is both clear and descriptively comprehensive.
It's certainly true that most people, and even most educated people, have never encountered such an explanation. A clear and accessible account has now been provided on Language Log by Geoff Pullum: see The passive in English. A more comprehensive account along similar lines can be found on pp. 1427-1447 of CGEL. In another context, we could talk about what it would take to make this information effectively available to people like Stuever and Haygood. But the point of this post is that it probably doesn't matter what their understanding of "passive construction" is.
I doubt, for example, that there's any significant defect in their understanding of "first person" — but this didn't prevent them from tossing in an empirically contentless note about Sanford's "avoidance of first person". The problem is not that their analysis of linguistic structure and content is wrong — though perhaps it would be if they did any — but that their assertions about linguistic structure and content are just empty echoes of generic prejudice.]