More on the stupidity of Kathleen Parker

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I have completed a reanalysis of the verbs in President Obama's speech after the BP oil disaster, and can add a further note to Mark's analysis of Kathleen Parker's unbelievably irresponsible prattle about how the frequency of passive constructions chosen by his speechwriters shows that President Obama talks like a girl (is "suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit").

I can report that I found a way of counting under which one can vindicate Paul JJ Payack's 13 percent figure, which Mark found inexplicable. But a morass of inexplicable stupidity remains nonetheless.

I find it hard to say which of three things appals me the most in this story: the idiocy of assuming without evidence that females use the passive voice more; the irresponsibility of suggesting that the President of the United States is talking wimpy on the basis of that unsupported idea; or the dishonesty of a national newspaper opinion column pretending to have linguistic evidence for a point of view without taking responsibility for checking that the evidence exists.

Kathleen Parker cited Payack as the source for the claim that Obama's post-oil-spill speech "featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions". Trying to assess the truth of this, Mark counted up the sentences in the speech (there are 135) and scored a sentence as passive if it had one or more tensed constructions containing passive clauses in it anywhere. He came up with 11%, and noted that when the same methodology was applied to a comparable post-disaster speech by George W. Bush he came up with closer to 18%.

For my first attempt at replicating Payack I counted on a more fine-grained basis. I counted the lexical verbs in the text of the speech that Obama read — that is, the verbs that are not auxiliaries. Auxiliaries can begin a closed interrogative clause, as in Have you eaten?, and can take the n't suffix as in I haven't eaten, whereas lexical verbs don't have these properties. The reason for counting only lexical verbs is that they are the only ones that are potential candidates for appearing as the verbs of passive clauses. Auxiliary verbs can never be heads of passive clauses.

I counted conservatively: no occurrence of the copular verb be was included, even if it was the only verb in its sentence (because the copula can always occur before the subject in an interrogative). And no verb used as a modifier in a noun phrase was counted (so in the approaching oil I did not count approaching as a verb, although it is in fact a verb in participial form functioning as an attributive modifier). I found 519 verbs all told. The lexical verbs number 331.

I then counted passive clauses as defined in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. There are 29 passive clauses. (I don't include the copula that often precedes a passive clause as part of that clause, so sometimes the only constituent in a passive clause is the verb that is its head. I exhibit all of the relevant data below, in case you want to see what falls under the definition of a passive clause.)

Now, the ratio of passive clauses to lexical verbs is 29/331 = 8.76%, so that's too small to replicate Payack.

And the ratio of passive clauses to sentences, on the other hand, is 29/135 = 21.5%, so that's too big.

Returning to the data, therefore, I tried removing the intransitive lexical verbs from the count, and considering only transitive ones — those that have direct objects. (Some details: I included ditransitives, which have two objects, but I did not include potentially transitive verbs when used intransitively. Thus I would count help as transitive in help our neighbors but not in help stop the oil; I would count make as transitive in make no mistake or make BP pay but not in make sure it never happens again. Thus again I counted conservatively, pushing the passive percentage up.) There are 206 transitive verbs in all, and 177 of them are used in the active voice.

So the ratio of passive clauses to transitive verbs is 29/206 = 14%. That gets us close to Payack's number. And since we already know from Ben Zimmer that Payack isn't strong on telling passives from actives, all we have to assume is that he either missed a few or misanalyzed some intransitive verbs as transitive. Adding a dozen misdiagnosed verbs to the total considered would bring the ratio to about 13%. So that might be the explanation of how Payack gets his figure.

We could now proceed (though it does take an hour or two of hard work per speech) to compare Obama's speech with one by George W. Bush, and get, no doubt, a result paralleling Mark's (that Bush is way higher in passive frequency), since my methodology is not likely to change the relative numbers as opposed to the absolute percentage.

However, it is important to see that to engage in such numerology is in a sense just playing along with foolishness and irresponsibility. The real point emerges if you look at the passive examples themselves. I will list all of them, with the passive clause (the passive participle together with its complements including the agent by-phrase if there is one) underlined in each phrase quoted. Judge for yourself the extent to which these phrases look as if they were "used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular 'doer' of an action" — Payack's version of a familiar but thoroughly ignorant claim about the function of passives:

Passive clauses (underlined) in Obama's post-oil-leak speech

  1. Seventeen others were injured
  2. a team led by Dr. Steven Chu
  3. a relief well … that's expected to stop the leak
  4. an effort led by Admiral Thad Allen
  5. millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water
  6. five and a half million feet of boom has been laid
  7. the second thing we're focused on
  8. areas where the beaches are not yet affected
  9. their way of life may be lost
  10. whatever resources are required
  11. the workers and business owners who have been harmed
  12. this fund will not be controlled by BP
  13. to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid
  14. the account must and will be administered by an independent third party
  15. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents
  16. the necessary precautions would be taken
  17. known as the Minerals Management Service
  18. a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves
  19. industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight
  20. Oil companies … were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections
  21. the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered
  22. the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor
  23. an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude
  24. there are costs associated with this transition
  25. the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II
  26. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon
  27. a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe
  28. It's called "The Blessing of the Fleet"
  29. a blessing that's granted

Tell me the truth: can you truly say that you think phrases like seventeen were injured, or a team led by Dr. Chu, or expected to stop the leak, or a way of life may be lost, or the resources that are required, or his days are numbered, or threatened by a menacing cloud, or costs associated with it, or brought from Europe, sound girly?

Are Payack and Parker completely brainless? Didn't they glance at the text of the speech and think about how men talk? Did the Washington Post truly imagine something serious was being said about men's as opposed to women's styles of speech?

And girliness aside, is the alleged tendency to "deflect responsibility" in evidence here? Take a sentence like At this agency [the Minerals Management Service—GKP], industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Obama's passive clause is clearly locating responsibility: whoever was in charge on any particular occasion at the Minerals Management Service, Obama is accusing them of toadying to oil companies and making sure no stringent supervision would occur. Or take the sentence And this fund will not be controlled by BP. It's a passive construction, sure; but it directly and explicitly takes responsibility, making a promise that whoever controls the fund it will not be BP.

Interpreting a raw frequency count of passive clauses as a measure of shiftiness or evasion is outright and obvious stupidity. But that's what Payack does. Parker merely stretches things to draw an even sillier conclusion (one that Payack cannot be blamed for) by confusing use of passive clauses with speaking like a woman.

We have said it before on Language Log, and I'll say it again now: when you find journalists and columnists telling you things that have anything to do with language, put your hand on your wallet, because honesty and integrity are about to go out the window. Where language is concerned, people simply make stuff up.

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32 Comments »

  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    Yet another instance of The WaPo's descent into tabloidism.

    We should discuss the role of the Dunning-Kruger effect in the proliferation of misguided amateur linguistics. This offers a simple explanation of what superficially appears to be a conspiracy.

  2. Alan Gunn said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    It's not just language. I've never read a story in a major paper other than the Wall Street Journal that dealt accurately with something I understood well. Journalists seem to be mostly people who have gone to journalism school, where they appear to learn little if anything. I suspect that the Wall Street Journal differs somewhat from the rest because it specializes in business and finance, so it either hires people who know something about those things or encourages them to learn about them after they're hired. What purpose could a journalism school possibly serve that would not be better served by a good education in a scientific or liberal arts field?

  3. Kutsuwamushi said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    the idiocy of assuming without evidence that females use the passive voice more

    When I read the article, I was enraged by this part! I was blown away by the two-fold idiocy of assuming that the passive voice equals passivity in demeanor, and that being passive is, of course, feminine.

    /irony

    If anything, my guess would be that males have a slight edge on the passive voice, because they may have a slight edge on jobs that I associate with frequent use of it (politics, journalism, middle management). This may be totally untrue, but hey, at least it's a guess based on reasoning that has something to do with reality, rather than high school grammar mis-teachings and this bizarre need that some pundits have to try to characterize Obama as "girly" and therefore "weak."

  4. Kyle Gorman said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Good, as always. But, you guys need a louder megaphone or bigger pulpit.

  5. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    I have found that this misunderstanding of what the passive voice actually is and what it's used for — and what it's good for and not good for — is really prevalent, even quite remarkably among writers, including good ones! When they think a passage is not strongly written they'll say it's in passive voice. If the verb "to be" exists in the sentence in any form, they'll say it's a passive sentence. This includes sentences like "He is throwing a javelin" or "She is overwhelming me with force" or "They are here" or "I am afraid." Now, in context any of those sentences might be kind of paltry and unexciting — or they might not — but none of them are passive voice!

  6. Leo said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    If it's any consolation, I suspect that the number of people who don't know (or care) what the passive voice is, and just get on with the business of using language, is much greater than those who not only think they know what it is, but also believe it has tremendous psychosocial significance.

  7. Kylopod said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    @Lucy Kemnitzer

    I have noticed the same thing. A few months ago I saw it in a letter-to-the-editor of a Toastmasters magazine, complaining about passives into which the letter writer included some "There will be…" constructions. I also saw this sort of construction referred to by a book I read recently as "passivity."

  8. Dierk said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Wonderful piece of angry satire! I especially love the way you, Professor Pullum count as long as you've found the right way to meet the number in question. Really, I mean that, as it exposes the fraudulent ways in which mathematics and statistics are usually misused by ideologues and journalists.

    Unfortunately they won't recognise the joke.

    [This isn't very clearly expressed, and I'm not sure what you mean. But it's certainly true that I found myself recounting because two things were going on: (i) I was trying to figure out what would be a sensible way to count the percentage of passives in a text, and (ii) I was trying to determine whether there was some method of counting that would come up with approximately Payack's figure. Naturally, it matters very little which method you choose when you're comparing speeches by one president with speeches by another; as long as it is moderately reasonable (that is, related to the passives and actives in the text in some linear way), you just have to hold it constant across the texts compared. Notice, though, my main point here has nothing to do with statistics: it has to do with the total lack of any connection between the syntax and semantics of a text and the shiftiness or evasiveness or femininity of the person who wrote it (or approved it and read it out). —GKP]

  9. James Moughan said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    "when you find journalists and columnists telling you things that have anything to do with language, put your hand on your wallet, because honesty and integrity are about to go out the window. Where language is concerned, people simply make stuff up."

    I doubt this is anything specific to language.

  10. Cheryl Washer said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    "Are Payack and Parker completely brainless?" Mostly — at least the rational, ethical parts of their brains. The fame whore parts are functional.

    "Didn't they glance at the text of the speech and think about how men talk?"

    You are a sweet optimist. They thought about scoring political points and raising a fuss on the blogosphere.

    "Did the Washington Post truly imagine something serious was being said about men's as opposed to women's styles of speech?"

    No. WaPo imagined that there would be lots and lots of web hits. They were right.

  11. Jason Cullen said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    I agree completely with Alan Gunn.

    I just watched Maureen Dowd of the NY Times on television the other night and watched her make a mockery of her own education discussing her recent trip to Saudi Arabia.

    If you know any one area well and read newspapers, you will find so many laughable errors that you have to wonder if it's worthwhile to read any other articles.

    Journalists should first be required to train in a single discipline, a science or one of the liberal arts, before they begin dallying all over the anarchy of experience.

  12. Adrian Morgan said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    I'm more interested in the fact that my brain merged "rhetorical-testosterone" into "rhinoceros" during my initial scan. I think it's evidence of lack of coffee, to which I shall now attend.

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    The Dunning-Kruger effect seems to be rampant among journalists (based on anecdotal evidence only) who believe they are more expert than they are. On another note, I wonder if feeling superior regarding another's incompetence is itself a manifestation of the DK effect on some level.

  14. Kylopod said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    In her most recent column, Parker has responded to her critics…er, no she hasn't:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/02/AR2010070203335.html

  15. Garrett Wollman said,

    July 4, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    Since when do newspaper opinion columnists sully their prose with anything as crude as *facts*?

  16. Will said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 12:24 am

    In the article that Kylopod linked, Kathleen Parker says at one point:

    It's a column, not a dissertation. And my thesis, bouncing off the notion that Bill Clinton was the first black president, is serious only insofar as you really think Clinton is black.

    Implicit in her first sentence is the notition that her analysis is not backed by academia, and implict in her second sentence is the notion that her analysis is not backed by ovservation of reality.

    Therefore, I really really want to interpret this as a confession that she's aware her analysis has no basis beyond her imagination.

    Of course, that's not what this is, but the words are about right for it (what this actually is is a hand-wavy sort of defense against people that point out actual problems with what she's written).

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    @Mr Fnortner

    Once you start thinking of the recursive properties of the Dunning-Kruger effect, you will understand why psychologists have a hundred words for stupidity.

  18. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    Thanks, DL. (Now we're back to Eskimos, are we?)

  19. Jonathan Cohen said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    I have one minor and quite ignorant question regarding Alan Gunn's suggestion that journalists get a bachelor's degree in a substantive discipline before going to journalism school. I am not familiar with how journalists are educated — a lapse in my own education — but I had the impression that a degree in journalism was a postgraduate degree. Columbia only offers an MS, MA, or PhD in journalism. So, wouldn't journalists perforce have to have a BA beforehand?

  20. Jonathan Cohen said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Sorry. I meant, "Wouldn't journalists perforce have to have a bachelor's degree beforehand?"

  21. Alan Gunn said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    Jonathan Cohen:

    Columbia is the exception. Lots of schools offer a journalism major to undergraduates. Here is a piece complaining about the practice:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/03/28/journalism

  22. fev said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    J-schools at the undergrad level have been around for more than a century. Graduate programs are newer, and PhDs date to the mid-1930s. I can't think of any place besides Columbia that has a master's program without an undergrad program.

    There's a much broader discussion here than (I expect) our hosts want to tolerate, but for better or worse, journalism education has traditionally been a pretty good fit with the industry's express hiring interests. If newspapers wanted bright 22-year-olds with enough stats courses to challenge the pervasive incompetence in reporting about public opinion, they'd be asking for them. Those stories are still going to be assigned to people who've been writing them the same way for decades.

  23. Patrick Dennis said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    Whether it has been cleaned up by the author in response to comments on LL, or simply edited for length, I don't know, but the syndicated version of the column (at least that which was printed today in the Charlotte Observer) omits any reference to the passive voice.

  24. fev said,

    July 5, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    I saw that this morning and was working up a post about it. I'd bet against the syndicate or author having fixed it; it's almost certainly a space cut, but it's hard to tell whether the "passive" bit was executed at random or by choice. I hope to hear from some of the responsible parties, but ya never know.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    Judge for yourself the extent to which these phrases look as if they were "used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular 'doer' of an action" — Payack's version of a familiar but thoroughly ignorant claim about the function of passives:

    A challenge! I cannot refuse. I'm deleting the ones I have no comment on.

    Passive clauses (underlined) in Obama's post-oil-leak speech

    a relief well … that's expected to stop the leak

    Expected by who, I'd like to know. BP? The government? Outside industry experts? Obama has certainly phrased this to have no particular doer of the action, and I don't know why, but it makes me a little suspicious.

    millions of gallons of oil have already been removed from the water

    five and a half million feet of boom has been laid

    By who, again? (Or "whom" if you want.) President Obama said, "Because of our efforts". Is he using an agentless construction to take more credit for the government than he should?

    the second thing we're focused on

    No agent-concealing here, but I feel that this is a strange passive clause, since it has no active counterpart. It strikes me as different from the example in the CGEL, "Kim was said to be the culprit," since the Kim sentence can have an agent added (Kim was said by his detractors to be the culprit), but there's no *the second thing we're focused on by…. I'm tempted to call "focused on" a kind of adjective complement (I think) instead of calling "[a]re focused" a passive, but I probably just proved that I don't understand syntax and certainly that I haven't read most of the CGEL.

    the workers and business owners who have been harmed

    I suppose BP and its partners have been mentioned enough that we don't need to mention them again.

    the necessary precautions would be taken

    Here I would have liked an agent—"that oil companies will have the proper equipment in place and take the necessary precautions".

    a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves

    And here I would have liked a democratic we as the subject.

    industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight

    Oil companies … were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections

    Blatant examples of deflecting responsibility, in my opinion. Compare those sentences to "Mary Doe put industry insiders in charge of industry oversight" and "John Fulano essentially allowed oil companies to conduct their own safety inspections." In conjunction with the vague introduction "Over the last decade", Obama's passive verbs hide the agent and let listeners conclude that the Bush Administration made all the mistakes without Obama's committing himself to that statement. Of course, maybe he and his staff have been too busy to figure out exactly who was at fault. Or if it was all the Bush Administration's fault, this weak and uninformative expression might be a commendable attempt to avoid partisan politics. But if the Clinton Administration should take part of the blame, this use of the passive voice would strike me as less than honest. Of course, Obama could also have used the active voice without naming names.

    the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered

    Another passive with no active. Or is the agent God?

    the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor

    On whose part? Not the passive verb here but the following agentless construction looks to me like deflecting responsibility.

    there are costs associated with this transition

    Another passive with no active—I don't think we'd ever say X associates costs with this transition.

    the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II

    The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon

    In the two above, I think the younger President Bush would have been sure to say "doubters" or "skeptics" or maybe even "cynics". Here I don't mind Obama's suppression of the agent.

    Tell me the truth: can you truly say that you think phrases like seventeen were injured, [...], sound girly?

    No.

    Are Payack and Parker completely brainless? Didn't they glance at the text of the speech and think about how men talk? Did the Washington Post truly imagine something serious was being said about men's as opposed to women's styles of speech?

    No evidence either way, probably not, possibly.

    And girliness aside, is the alleged tendency to "deflect responsibility" in evidence here?

    Yes, in a few places.

    Take a sentence like At this agency [the Minerals Management Service—GKP], industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Obama's passive clause is clearly locating responsibility: whoever was in charge on any particular occasion at the Minerals Management Service, Obama is accusing them of toadying to oil companies and making sure no stringent supervision would occur.

    He could have located the responsibility much more clearly.

    Or take the sentence And this fund will not be controlled by BP. It's a passive construction, sure; but it directly and explicitly takes responsibility, making a promise that whoever controls the fund it will not be BP.

    I agree with that, though. Also, it and several other examples show that you didn't restrict your count to tensed verbs (unless I'm misunderstanding something).

  26. Kylopod said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    Good analysis. I think we can agree that passive constructions can be used to deflect responsibility, but they don't necessarily do so, and there are many other ways to use language to deflect responsibility.

    As I explained in an earlier thread, there is no general term for deflecting responsibility through language. "Agentless constructions" are more relevant than the passive voice, but it is sometimes legitimate not to mention an agent. The fact is that there is no single construction to blame–there are innumerable techniques in which people can manipulate language in this way.

    Still, I would be interested in seeing an analysis of how often Obama makes these responsibility-deflecting constructions (for lack of a better term) compared with other presidents.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    @Kylopod: Thanks! I'd say we agree on this (although I'm not as interested as you in comparing presidents' responsibility-deflecting utterances).

    I wrote, "I'm tempted to call 'focused on' a kind of adjective complement (I think) instead of calling '[a]re focused' a passive". In support of this, I'd like to mention a Google Books count of 10,200 for very focused on.

  28. Rick S said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    If Obama's speech had included more agency-identifying phrasing and stronger emotional content, Payack would have complained that he spent too much time blaming instead of being proactive and Parker would have called him childish instead of girly. The political columnist's job is to find fault. If they have to resort to creative fact generation and stereotyping to do so, you could consider that evidence that fault is hard to find.

  29. Hydriotaphia said,

    July 6, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    As admirable as your efforts at replicating Pullum's passivity analysis, I think he probably used a much simpler method: engaged the MSWord Readability Statistics on the text of Obama's speech. I did the same thing and came up with 14%. Similarly, he could have found a 'passive text analyzer' or somesuch online and used that. I highly doubt he's done anything as sensible as actually /count/ the passive sentences…

  30. Linda the Copy Editor said,

    July 7, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    I wonder if you Language Loggers have seen this interesting if depressing article on passive constructions:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100706082156.htm

  31. fireaway said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Kathleen Parker was a liberal until Susan Faludi messed with her husband…Faludi sent IM's to Gary Parker, but by accident, she used Kathleen's address…talk about language screw ups…
    No wonder Kathleen is a bitter washed up conservative.

    [(myl) For present purposes, it doesn't matter where Ms. Parker falls on various political dimensions; nor does it matter why she wound up there. The only question at issue is whether her linguistic arguments are factually and logically sound.]

  32. John Lawler said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    Another recent non-contribution to the issue, this time from the Atlantic, which ought to know better (or perhaps Max Fischer is simply cut from the same cloth as Parker and Payack):
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/opinions/view/opinion/Linguists-Debate-Does-Obama-Talk-Like-a-Girl-4228

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