Weapons of denial

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Another opinion piece for our passive voice file: Marie Murray, “The passive voice is the penultimate weapon of denial“, The Irish Times, 7/31/2009:

The passive voice is especially useful where apologies are required: personal apologies for what people have done personally. Because instead of having to say, “I’m sorry”, the passive voice allows a culprit to say “It is regrettable”. Instead of saying “I made a mistake” the abstract term “mistakes happened” can be evoked.

On the basis of the examples provided, it seems that Ms. Murray, who is “the director of student counselling services in UCD”, subscribes to the now-dominant view that passive voice means “unclear about agency, and especially about blame”. It’s interesting to see that this new meaning has become international, and that the traditional interpretation of grammatical terminology has apparently not survived even in Ireland, where the government subcontracts primary and secondary education to the Catholic Church.

The essay doesn’t identify the ultimate weapon of denial, suggesting that Murray is also among those who have adopted the new meaning of penultimate as “especially or intensely ultimate”. She strengthens this impression by asserting that “of all the duplicitous linguistic devices designed to deny civil rights to citizens, the passive voice is supreme”.

Ironically, Murray herself uses the passive voice frequently, in entirely appropriate ways, e.g. the bold-face verb groups in the quote below:

It is time to speak out against the passive voice. It is time to insist that it is not used when people are asked questions about their personal responsibility or the responsibility of the institutions they represent.

Or this passage:

Repetition of unreality is a powerful denial of reality. Repetition weakens resistance, dismantles resolve and assumes a veracity against which there is little defence. The most courageous and loquacious may try to challenge it, but they are defeated by the impenetrability of the passive voice.

Actually, that last sentence might be better in the active voice:

…but the impenetrability of the passive voice defeats them.

If so, however, it’s not because the passive version leaves any doubt about who’s to blame. Either way, it’s clear that the writer believes that the passive voice is at fault. And that equality of clarity underlines the fact that she’s wrong.



49 Comments

  1. [ni:v] said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    The “penultimate” part I was confused about too, so I’m interested to read those other articles on its new meaning.
    I emailed her yesterday so I’m waiting to see if she replies!

  2. Sili said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    the new meaning of penultimate as “especially or intensely ultimate”.

    Why, oh why, do people insist on making it hard to be a nice descriptivist and accept languagechange? It’s like “bjørnetjeneste” in Danish – it used to mean “the bear’s favour” after the fable of the bear swatting a fly on its masters face. Now it means “a bear of a favour” / ” a very big favour”.

    Apropos of nothing: I noticed a passage in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science where he describis someone’s backpedalling with words along the lines of “no phrase could be passive enough” – but of course I forgot to make a note of it, so I’ll have to reread the book to find it, I fear.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    Why, oh why, do people insist on making it hard to be a nice descriptivist and accept languagechange?

    If people started using ‘two’ to mean ‘three’ it would certainly mess up rather a lot, including salary negotiations and schedules.

  4. Richard Ashdowne said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    @Stephen Jones:

    Yes, but practicality is not necessarily prophylactic against language change. In fact, I’d like to see a really clear-cut example that demonstrates that functional considerations even can prevent change.

    The kind of numerical change that you mention looks already to have happened in the different ways people use the term “billion” (i.e. a million million vs. a mere thousand million).

    [I know the history of this particular usage is a whole lot more complicated, but the existence of synchronic variation does in other instances reflect language change, so current speakers would be perfectly reasonable in treating this instance of variation as the result of such change – whatever its actual origin.]

    Now, confusing these two uses would certainly mess up rather a lot – including the world economy … Credit crunch, anyone?

  5. peter said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    Stephen Jones said (August 1, 2009 @ 8:57 am)

    “If people started using ‘two’ to mean ‘three’ it would certainly mess up rather a lot . . .”

    As in the way numerous academics in recent years have been using “A” to mean “C”, perhaps?

  6. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    There are words, and then there are Humpty Dumpty words. Perhaps we should acknowledge that words have no intrinsic meaning, and that most utterances are not much more significant than Seinfeld’s “Yada, yada, yada:” Determiner noun verb adverb preposition noun determiner adjective noun, if you know what I mean. Ultimately we will regress to point-and-grunt.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    I have noticed the “it is” and “there is” constructions conflated with passive voice on numerous occasions. The most recent was at a bookstore, whilst flipping through a book of advice for would-be romance authors. I wonder if there is an ur-source that is responsible. Too late to stop it, of course. The error has spread like a virus.

    Perhaps it is a mis-remembering of advice to be found in Joseph Williams’s Style?

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    As in the way numerous academics in recent years have been using “A” to mean “C”, perhaps?

    No; they’re using ‘A’ to mean ‘What used to be ‘A-C’. This would only cause confusion if you wanted to do a longitudinal study.

    With regard to ‘billion’ it was originally a dialectical difference between BrE and AmE. It seems British English has now followed the American usage.

    ‘Penultimate’ seems to have had both senses for at least twenty years, though I hadn’t actually been aware of the second sense until Mark pointed it out. That’s probably because I’m British. The second sense seems very rare in the BNC at a quick glance.

    [(myl) Looking in today’s Google News harvest, I found four instances of “penultimate” used to mean “final” in the first 30 hits — Ms. Murray’s essay, this, this, and this (check the schedule here to see that the phrase “Saturday’s penultimate day” refers in fact to the final day of races). There were some others where I was unable to tell which sense was intended. All this suggests that “penultimate = ultimate” remains a minority taste, but by no means a negligible one — on the order of 10% working journalists apparently use it.]

  9. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    A lot of ecologists get annoyed that when the general public picked up the word “symbiotic”, they brought with it the notion of mutualism (symbiotic relationships need not be mutually beneficial; parasites are in a symbiotic relationship with their host; all symbiotic means is that the organisms are living together).

    Like the case with “penultimate” I think the annoyance with “symbiotic” comes from the fact that the word is made up of analyzable parts that define the word, and people who use the word “wrongly” are just seeing the word as a nonsense symbol. Arguing against this lack of analysis may be prescriptivism, but of a rather more defensible sort than arguing against splitting infinitives or other arbitrary rules.

  10. Tim Silverman said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Why, oh why, do people insist on making it hard to be a nice descriptivist and accept languagechange?

    That seems like an odd way of putting things. Most innovations die out quite quickly—language stability is just as important as language change (more important, really, since most features of a language are not changing at any given time). Most innovations are errors leading to confusion, and it’s not surprising that nobody accepts that errors should be automatically elevated to become a new standard. Every innovation needs to prove itself in one way or another, and resistance to innovation is natural and normal.

    You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”. The mere observation that a change is occurring says nothing about whether you should or should not approve of it. Yes, it is true that one shouldn’t let one’s like or dislike for a change interfere with one’s ability to describe it objectively; nevertheless, the fact of engaging in objective description gives no guidance as to what one should do as an active member of a linguistic community. After all, governments and laws change too, but my acknowledgement of this objective fact doesn’t oblige me to accept all changes of government or law as either inevitable or desirable.

  11. Ellen said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    It perhaps wouldn’t be so bad for “passive voice” to be used to mean vague about agency if it was done with understanding that that’s what’s meant. Here, we get circular reasoning that pretends not to be circular. The basic logic of what she says is, being vague about agency allows us to be vague about agency.

    [(myl) This is an excellent point that deserves emphasis. If the problem is failure to assign clear responsibility for some situation or event, then the solution is to state clearly what happened, how it happened, who was responsible, and what will be done so that it doesn’t happen again — not to worry about sentence structure.]

  12. Tim Silverman said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Most innovations are errors

    Actually, I’m not sure if this true. But it is certainly true that some innovations begin life as errors, and other speakers of the language are perfectly entitled to reject them on that ground.

  13. Jeff DeMarco said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    And I always thought the passive voice was the ante-penultimate weapon of denial. Apparently this was misunderstood by me.

  14. Emily said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    With the old “correct” meaning of “penultimate”, wouldn’t the “penultimate weapon” actually be the second-to-last in a ranking of all of them, that is, the next-to-weakest?

  15. Linda said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    @ Jonathan Badger

    According to the OED, symbiosis was originally mutualism, and has only later been extended to include commensalism. Parasitism was an even later addition to its meaning.

  16. Tim said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    Emily : I’m pretty sure that most people would interpret “ultimate weapon” to mean the most powerful, so “penultimate weapon” would have to be the second-most powerful. Since “ultimate” just means that it’s at the end of the list, it depends upon whether you assume the weapons are ranked in ascending or descending order of power.

    [(myl) I think that if you check out uses of the phrase “the ultimate X”, where X is something that can be more or less powerful, effective, etc., you’ll find that the implied ordering is ascending. And this this case, Ms. Murray makes her meaning clear by telling us that “…of all the duplicitous linguistic devices designed to deny civil rights to citizens, the passive voice is supreme.”]

  17. Ryan said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Could the headline be saying “Passive voice is what you use when you don’t want to outright deny something”? That’s what I read it as, at least. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

  18. Haamu said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    I’m always prepared for a blurred use of the word penultimate the instant it grazes my eye, so I was delighted to realize ah, she’s probably using it correctly, because the ultimate weapon of denial would presumably be explicit denial itself.

    Then I read the article, and disappointment ensued. So, a bit of a rollercoaster experience.

    Of course, maybe it’s not a blurring at all. If penultimate is evolving in response to some impulse to express the mind-bending concept of beyond ultimate, (or maybe just filling the high-end gap as ultimate itself gets devalued), that may not be quite so lamentable. Apparently we have before us an autoantonym to join the ranks of sanction, cleave, etc.

  19. Richard M Buck said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Surely, the ultimate weapon of denial is “Just say No”?

  20. Sili said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    the mind-bending concept of beyond ultimate, (or maybe just filling the high-end gap as ultimate itself gets devalued), that may not be quite so lamentable.

    Ah. I was thinking that this was starting to sound a bit like “most unique” – a usage I myself engage in without second thought.

    [(myl) As did Plautus.]

    I guess the fact that I know what “(ante)penultimate” used to mean is the only reason that this raises my heckles.

    [(myl) Trolling for prescriptivists, are we? “Heckles” indeed. As for the inflationary aspect, consider this 6/26/2007 Slashdot comment: “IBM researches are excited, because if they can get it to sustain the 3 petaflops, they’ll finally be able to switch on the new “Aero” feature of the Windows Vista Super-Penultimate Premium Advanced edition.”]

  21. Sili said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    Troll? Moi?

    I was actually expecting someone to point out my Germanophile mushing together of compound nouns or affectated use of diaereses.

    “Heckles” is a pure error – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the expression in writing. At least I didn’t even consider it could be spelt with an a – I did hesitate as to whether it was ck or gg, but the vowel felt certain.

    [(myl) I think “raise X’s heckles” is an eggcorn, actually, though not yet an official one.]

    Hmmm – the IBM usage makes sense – they’d have to get at least twelve Tflops to get to the ultimate version, innit?

  22. Sili said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    I stopped short of calling it an eggcorn – in my case – since neither word carries any inherent meaning to me (well, until now when I checked them). In my case it’s a simple mishearing.

    Of course, it may be that I’ve heard people use the eggcorn with an /ɛ/ rather than /æ/. But I doubt it. For instance it took years before I realised that there’s not such word as “barthered” – that just happend to be how I heard the word “bothered” in US sitcoms.

  23. D.O. said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    Nobody has pointed yet that Marie Murray fails on her own acoount. Here,

    It is time to speak out against the passive voice. It is time to insist that it is not used…

    “It is time…” is a forbidden construction in her style-book. Where’s responsibility? As Prof. Liberman said, if you want to make a point, make it, do not drag grammar into that.

  24. Ian Preston said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 5:37 am

    @Jonathan Badger: “A lot of ecologists get annoyed that when the general public picked up the word “symbiotic”, they brought with it the notion of mutualism (symbiotic relationships need not be mutually beneficial; parasites are in a symbiotic relationship with their host; all symbiotic means is that the organisms are living together).”

    @Linda: “According to the OED, symbiosis was originally mutualism, and has only later been extended to include commensalism. Parasitism was an even later addition to its meaning.”

    According to this article in Nature, the word was coined by Anton de Bary in the nineteenth century without a connotation of mutualism but confusion was well established in the scientific literature by the early twentieth century and persists. “Even if its use in everyday English might be ambiguous, one would expect that there would be a single rigorous definition for its technical use. However, this expectation is wrong.” The article claims, for instance, that three quarters of university textbooks sampled “gave only one meaning without mentioning the existence of an alternative usage” with no consistency over which usage was given.

  25. mollymooly said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    I had read Murray’s piece and thought of Language Log. I was genuinely confused by the subeditor’s use of “penultimate” since I was unaware of the incorrect/innovative meaning. I did wonder what Murray thought the “ultimate” weapon was. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

    [(myl) The subeditor who composed the headline took it verbatim from the first sentence of the essay’s fourth paragraph, so the original use in this case was apparently Murray’s, though it was approved and reinforced by the subeditor.]

    The objectionability of attaching a new sense to an old world is proportional to the danger of causing either
    (a) misinterpretation by those familiar only with the old sense
    or
    (b) confusion among those familiar with both senses and unable to determine which sense is intended.

    A writer familiar only with one sense will be oblivious to both dangers. A writer familiar with both may use the word obstinately regardless; or only when the danger is slight in a particular instance; or nevermore.

    The likelihood of danger varies depending on whether the new sense is a gradual semantic drift from the old one (probably caused by a vague understanding –intentional or otherwise– of the original sense) or a sudden jump (probably caused by a simple misunderstanding of the original sense).

    Now that I am aware of the danger with respect to “penultimate”, I will probably use it nevermore. It’s often used pretentiously even when the old sense is intended, so it’s no great loss to me. “Second last” serves well enough.

  26. Linda said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    @Ian Preston

    Returning to the OED, Anton de Bary may have coined the biological use in the mid 19thC (he’s not one of the quotations included in the entry) but they do include a 17thC use of the word in economics.

  27. Linda said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    @Ian Preston.

    Bother, I can’t edit my previous comment.

    Reading the Wiki entry on de Bary that you linked to, it says he coined the word in 1879, but the OED gives a quote which it dates to 1877 from Bennett’s translation of Otto Wilhelm Thomé’s Botany.

    Strange, wonder who’s date is off.

  28. Terry Collmann said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    D.O. – yup, “It is time to insist that the passive voice is not used” has to join “Cliches should be avoided like the plague” and “I’ve told you a million times – don’t exaggerate” in the list of self-defeating sentences.

  29. Ellen said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    To be fair, while she does both use the actual passive voice and uses non-passive constructions that are vague about agency, she is not doing so within the context that she is speaking of — apologies. So I think hypocrasy at least is not amongst her errors here.

  30. Andrew said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    Have people not read The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket? Mr Snicket explains at some length that ‘penultimate’ means ‘next to last’ – unsurprisingly, since it is the twelfth of a series of thirteen books.

  31. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    While we (all) concede that “It is” and “There are” constructs are not per se passive, a subset are among some of the vilest I know. Perfectly harmless sentences such as “It is a beautiful day,” and “There are three dogs in the park,” are excused and may go home. “It is understood…,” “There are known to be…,” “It is believed…,” and the like are both passive and insidious. Not only is an agent not included in the clause, but the sentences appear to be universals, such statements cleverly incorporating the minds of all sentient beings everywhere.

  32. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    I was going to add my unequivocal support to the idea that, when a word is readily analyzable into morphemes, as is the case with penultimate and its relatives, some prescriptivism might be appropriate.

    And then I asked myself, “analyzable by whom?”

    Many of us are willing to forgive the use of octopi because the overwhelming majority of English speakers do not recognize the unit pus as being (1) of Greek origin and (2) indivisible. So, aside from linguists and language buffs, how many modern English users really can analyze penultimate?

    Former students of Latin, obviously. (For those who don’t know, the term is used with respect to pronouncing accents). Biologists too, perhaps? A small crowd, anyway.

    It’s not as though pen(e) is a common prefix. After penult(imate), you have peneplain (not widely used except by geologists) and peninsula; if there are others, I don’t recall them. In each case, I would bet that few English speakers have ever considered that the word can be analyzed into parts. And I’ve never heard anyone apply pen(e) for the nonce. YMMV.

    All of which argues that in English, anyway, pen(e) is a dead prefix, if ever it was a live one, and an (all but) dead morpheme. Indeed, it is quite possible that this discussion has identified the one word in our language for which it does function as a recognizable morpheme.

    An odd thing, this: a morpheme for which a single specimen exists to document its ability to be isolated as such.

    So as much as it wrankles me, I’m inclined to let it go. Not that anyone cares what I think.

  33. Ian Preston said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    @Linda

    While the history of the term in the first chapter of this book by Jan Sapp doesn’t mention Thome it does indicate an early use by Albert Bernhard Frank, also dated to 1877 (and with the wide connotation). It says: “Though Frank’s studies were well known, and he became one of the chief advocates of the view that many associations involving microorganisms could not be labelled parasitism, the origin of the term ‘symbiosis’ was not attributed to him. Instead it was credited to Anton de Bary.” De Bary’s first use is identified as an address in 1878.

    I can’t get to the OED from where I am at the moment but I’d be interested to know who used the term and how in economics two centuries earlier.

  34. Mark F. said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    This whole vagueness about what “passive voice” means is just a symptom of the fact that there is very little real teaching of English grammar and, as far as I can tell, there hasn’t been for decades. In grade school I learned the parts of speech, the notion of a subject and a predicate, and had some introduction to subordinate clauses. We did some sentence diagramming, but the notion seemed to be afloat that that was passe. We also learned a little about the tense structure, but the progressive forms were mostly glossed over. I felt like we weren’t getting a consistent story about what to call the different -ing forms.

    By 9th grade, my English teacher clearly saw no point in instruction about grammar, as opposed to writing, although I think he had to do a little to satisfy the curriculum requirements. In later grades, nothing, unless you think that “use ‘between’ for two items, and ‘among’ for more than two” counts as grammar instruction. I don’t — that’s usage, which is different.

    There’s still the question of whether my teachers were right or wrong to downplay syntactical analysis. Honestly, I don’t know.

  35. Linda said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    @Ian Preston.

    I can only get the OED because my County Library Service has a subscription to enable members to access it from home through their web page.

    1. Living together, social life.
    1622 E. MISSELDEN Free Trade 60 To study and inuent things profitable for the publique Symbiosis. 1910 Spectator 30 July 173/2 The savage with his..sense of ‘participation’, of ‘symbiosis’. 1920 Q. Rev. July 164 So long as the people concerned can talk freely together, they form one spiritual symbiosis, and their culture will be the same.

    2. a. Biol. Association of two different organisms (usually two plants, or an animal and a plant) which live attached to each other, or one as a tenant of the other, and contribute to each other’s support. Also more widely, any intimate association of two or more different organisms, whether mutually beneficial or not.
    Also called commensalism or consortism; distinguished from parasitism, in which one organism preys upon the other. Rarely in extended use, including parasitism; or including mutually beneficial association without bodily attachment.
    1877 BENNETT tr. Thomé’s Bot. (ed. 6) 267 In the Lichens we have the most remarkable instance in the vegetable kingdom of..symbiosis or commensalism. 1882 H. N. MOSELEY in Times 30 Aug. 7/4 Certain animals have imbedded in their tissues numbers of unicellular algæ, which are not to be regarded as parasites, but which thrive in the waste products of the animal, while the animal feeds upon the compounds elaborated by the algæ. This combined condition of existence has been named by Dr. Brandt symbiosis. 1909 tr. Warming’s Oecol. Plants xxv. 84 Parasitism is a form of symbiosis. 1941 H. KIRBY in Calkins & Summers Protozoa in Biol. Res. xix. 891 De Bary..used symbiosis as a collective term, the subdivisions of which include parasitism and mutualism; he recognized two main categories, antagonistic and mutualistic symbiosis. 1953 [see SYMBIOTE]. 1953, etc. [see MUTUALISM 2]. 1973 R. G. KRUEGER et al. Introd. Microbiol. xxxi. 748/1 Three or more different kinds of organisms are involved in some symbioses. 1977 R. L. SMITH Elem. Ecol. & Field Biol. x. 268/1 Mutualism is often termed symbiosis. Actually symbiosis..includes mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.

    Those are a copy and paste from the entry for SYMBIOSIS, I hope you find them useful.

  36. Mark F said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    You know what, I think it’s still entirely fair just to call “penultimate = ultimate” an error and be done with it. Here’s why:

    1. It’s still a minority usage.

    2. Dictionaries haven’t much picked it up yet.

    3. The usage certainly arose as an error. Sometimes errors can turn into standard usage, but it should take longer than in cases where the change is, say, a metaphorical extension, IMO.

    4. The word in general is not very common. There’s not a community of people regularly and consistently using it to mean “more than ultimate.” People have mostly not seen ‘penultimate’ all that much and are stretching a little when they use it.

  37. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    Spell me Jeff: Count me out of the octopi-forgivers. But you are of course right when you realise that we cannot outlaw usages on the basis of etymology.

  38. Ian Preston said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    @Linda

    Thanks for that. The whole Misselden work can be read here. He uses the phrase “publique symbiosis” in the course of justfying patents as a legitimate restraint on trade and it seems to me to be simply a reference to the collective good without any obvious connotations of social interdependence.

  39. Matt said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:27 am

    Mollymooly said: “Now that I am aware of the danger with respect to “penultimate”, I will probably use it nevermore.”

    The term “biweekly” falls into this same category for me. The possibilty for confusion is too high. (Twice a week? Once every two weeks?)

  40. jaap said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 5:19 am

    In Oxford is a cinema that used to be called the PPP, the Penultimate Picture Palace. After a renovation it was renamed the Ultimate Picture Palace. Maybe they should return to using the better original name.

  41. greg said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    @Matt – “biweekly” bothers you? try remembering the difference between biannually and biennially

  42. Sili said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    That one’s easy, greg. I don’t think anyone could imagine there being two great international art exhibits in Venice per year.

    “Biweekly” is troublesome, though – as is “bimonthly” for the same reason.

  43. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    the whole “penultimate” thing sounds like a borge routine. so am i to take it that in the minds of these people, “preantepenultimate” now means “antepenultimate”? does anyone here know enough latin to suggest a prefix we can add to refill the new lacuna?

  44. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

    fwiw, i was quite explicitly taught in grade-school science that symbiosis referred to beneficial relationships. of course, i was also taught five-kingdom taxonomy and nine-planets astronomy, so what did they know…

  45. Spectre-7 said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    I can’t find the exact quote anywhere, but my brother reminded me of an episode of Gary Unmarried from this past season in which Gary tries to compliment his wife by calling her “the penultimate ex-wife.”

    “It’s good, right? I mean, it’s got ultimate in it.”

  46. Lee Kinkade said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    I am grateful that my high school English teacher took pains, well actually gave pains, to teach us what active voice and passive voice mean. One day she walked up to a football player, not some dumb jock as this was honors English, but nevertheless a sturdy fellow, and struck him with the back of her hand and announced, “I hit William. Active Voice,” and then stuck him again, “William was hit by me. Passive Voice,” and returned to her desk.

  47. Rodney said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    For shame – standards have obviously slipped at my alma mater. When she says ‘the abstract term “mistakes happened” can be evoked.’

    I assume she means ‘invoked’.

  48. Bob Ray said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:57 am

    Clumsy and errant language aside, I think that Murray’s point about poor apologies being vague about agency is defensible.

    I recently got to read Queen Elizabeth II’s official “apology” to the Acadians in the Acadian Museum in Erath, Louisana.

    Sadly, I couldn’t find it online except in the almost unreadable version here.

    It could hardly be more vague about agency. It says that really bad stuff happened, that some of it was contrary to law, and that no one can sue anyone over what happened. I’m not sure it actually qualifies as an apology.

    [(myl) Indeed. In other news, water is wet, and grease is slippery.]

  49. Francesco said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    Hi.
    Could anyone send me a copy of this article ? (mazzottafrancesco@hotmail.com)

    Thanks.
    Francesco

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