The passives of PricewaterhouseCoopers

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While we at Language Log bemoan how often the passive voice is misidentified, and how often passive constructions are wrongly scapegoated, last night’s Oscars debacle has provided us with a clearcut case of how agentless passives can serve to obfuscate. The official apology from PricewaterhouseCoopers for the envelope mixup, which led Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to announce “La La Land” as Best Picture instead of “Moonlight,” reads as follows (emphasis mine):

We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and the Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.
We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.


The statement was rightly lambasted on Twitter.


The folks at PwC don’t want to assign blame (yet) to the person who handed Beatty and Dunaway the incorrect envelope, so it’s not surprising the statement uses an agentless passive for “the error that was made” — reminiscent of the old “mistakes were made” political excuse. The second sentence again does not blame anyone in particular for the blunder: “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope…” But then the sentence goes off the rails with two more passives: “and when discovered, was immediately corrected.” Not only are these passive verbs lacking agents, it’s not even clear what the receiver of the action is: what was discovered and immediately corrected? If it had been phrased more explicitly, as “when the error was discovered, it was immediately corrected,” that would be a slight improvement. But as it stands, the apology reads especially poorly — almost like it was hastily drafted by a panicked accounting firm in the middle of the night.

Update, Feb. 27: At least now we know who the agent was in those agentless passives. PwC partner Brian Cullinan has owned up to the error.

Update, Mar. 2: Given the full extent of the accountants’ ineptitude, as detailed by The Wrap, the official apology appears even more pusillanimous.



35 Comments

  1. Lupus753 said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    Ron Lieber says there are four passive verbs, but I can only find three.

  2. GH said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    Presumably the fourth is “discovered”, interpreted as a passive verb with the auxiliary verb elided (ungrammatically, it seems to me – or rather, the elision of the subject is – it should be something like “when discovered, this was immediately corrected”, right?). Grammarians consider it… an adverb?

  3. Ellen K. said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

    “and when discovered, was immediately corrected” has two passives, “discovered” and “was…corrected”.

  4. Lupus753 said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

    @GH: I suppose I just overlooked it since I only thought to look for one passive verb for each sentence.

  5. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

    @GH: I think linguists would term that a bare passive.

  6. Jason Merchant said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

    Props to Ron Lieber for spotting that passive in the reduced “when” clause. But I still call foul on the continuation: “was immediately corrected”. This is either trying to be a null finite subject (which English can’t do here, so [ ] is ungrammatical) or a conjunct to “had been given…” which makes it an agreement error (*”The presenters … was … corrected”). Either way, #grammarfail.

  7. David Morris said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

    My eye was caught by ‘painstaken’ in Katie Rosman’s tweet. This is not on the Eggcorn Database, and surely she can’t mean ‘painstaking’. The meaning is more like ‘suffering from pain inflicted by a stake’.

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    Investigate how this happened… Regret that this occurred… are equally infuriating professional apologetics. So passives don’t suck at accepting responsibility, people suck at accepting responsibility.

  9. Ruth Maddeaux said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

    I worked as a proofreader for PwC before I came to grad school. Apparently I shouldn’t have left.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    The meaning is more like ‘suffering from pain inflicted by a stake’.

    It’s a past participle! :-o

  11. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

    Okay, let’s try that again with the correct link this time: bare passives.

  12. Levantine said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

    I really don’t see how the apology is evasive. An individual backstage handed the wrong envelope to the presenters. Would it serve anyone’s purpose to identify this individual? Unless they were playing a deliberate trick, we can attribute their mistake to human error and leave it at that.

  13. John Roth said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

    Yeah, the end of that sentence needs to improve. Drastically.

    It reads to me like it was drafted originally with the name of the person who discovered the error (kudos!), and then hastily “corrected” to eliminate that name before it was released.

  14. Ray said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

    faye dunaway was set up, having never been forgiven for an indelible portrayal of a hollywood legend, still under investigation. (passive enough?)

  15. RJB said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

    Isn’t this exactly when to use the passive—the author knows what happened, but hasn’t yet determined who made what happen, and/or who made it happen isn’t necessarily relevant and naming names could cause unnecessary harm I see this as a substantive choice, not a stylistic one, and it seems entirely appropriate to me. PwC will presumably follow up with more details when they have them.

  16. Guy said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

    @RJB

    Though there are problems with the apology (the …when discovered part apparently mistakenly thinking that “the error” was the subject of the sentence) I agree that not identifying someone to throw under the bus, especially while it’s still be investigated, hardly seems objectionable or surprising. In fact, suggesting that a specific person should be identified as a scapegoat seems kind of unbalanced. It seems this is one of those cases where people are mad about something and will be infuriated by any apology as insufficient because they want to remain angry.

  17. DaveK said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

    I agree with Guy. The alternative to the passive here would be a vague “we” that would be no more informative. A catastrophic mistake like this by an organization is almost always the fault of numerous people–managers and supervisors get paid to keep ordinary human errors from turning into disasters.
    (I’m not equating this with a true, life-and-limb disaster, but when your mission is to hand out envelopes, this was the worst result you could imagine.)

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 1:06 am

    I didn’t take the criticisms of the passive constructions as wanting to hear what individual to blame. Saying “we” would have sounded more like taking responsibility instead of dodging it.

  19. tangent said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 1:09 am

    I do some after-incident report writing, and I would always use a corporate “we” here instead of a passive. Or possibly a more specific functional agent, like “our envelope-checking process” if they have anything fair and substantive to say.

    The organization made this error, probably in hindsight through some type of identifiable flaw in their processes. The organization could admit that, and follow up to describe any faults, and say how they’re addressing them for the future.

  20. Levantine said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 1:20 am

    The text begins with “we” to denote PwC and includes the assurance, “We are currently investigating how this could have happened”. Would this really be better rewritten “We are currently investigating how we could have made such a mistake”? Does it help anyone to pretend the fault is collective when it’s a specific person’s error? The apology is perfectly clear: PwC (“we”) is acknowledging the mistake of one of its people (an unnamed individual obliquely referred to in the passive) and is taking responsibility for it. No buck is being passed!

  21. tangent said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:13 am

    I’m surprised that the contents of the envelope don’t state which award is being won. Combined with the process of having a “backup” stack that will be the wrong envelope! But that’s hindsight.

    It’s good that they had a stated procedure for response to this situation. It wasn’t followed, particularly, and probably the people didn’t know it, unless they trained regularly.

    If I were their client, I’d sure like to hear them talking about the idea of process changes. Statements of responsibility butter no parsnips. Maybe they’re talking in private.

  22. Levantine said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:20 am

    tangent, the card in the envelope did state the prize being won, but only at the bottom in rather small text: http://a.abcnews.com/images/Entertainment/RT-oscar-21-as-170226_12x5_1600.jpg. Presumably, the card wrongly given to Beatty and Dunaway had “Best Actress” similarly inscribed, though they failed to spot it.

  23. Jason said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 3:46 am

    Ironically, if Hollywood types had designed the cards instead of PWC, there wouldn’t be any possiblity of error, because they’d read something like:

    Beaty (reading): THE AWARD FOR “BEST PICTURE” GOES TO:

    (beat)

    MOONLIGHT

    The moral of the story is: Never send an accountant to do a script supervisor’s job.

  24. RP said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 4:04 am

    To be fair, even though the name of the award might not have been prominent, it ought to have been obvious that the card for Best Actress couldn’t be the one for Best Picture. The Best Actress card must have read either “Emma Stone in La La Land” or “Emma Stone, La La Land”, making it clear it was an individual award. However, based on the image linked by Levantine, it’s likely that Stone’s name was in the same font and size as the film name, whereas the former ought to have been larger and more prominent.

  25. Èric Vinil said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 6:36 am

    RP,

    It’s my understanding that Beatty noticed that he got the wrong envelope, and so hesitated in announcing anything. As the extended silence got more awkward, he showed the card to Dunaway, like, “Hey, check this out, I got the wrong one; what do we do?” However, she glanced at it, interpreting Beatty’s action as a prompt for her to read the winner, and seeing the film’s title, immediately announced “La-la Land.”

  26. Stephen said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 9:13 am

    Re: Whether it is clear which award is being announced.

    I saw (on the net) a clip of this that slowed down and zoomed in on the envelope, and that did make it perfectly clear that it was the Best Actress rather than the Best Picture award.

    So when Beatty passed it over to Dunaway he should have put that rather than the card on top.

    On the original point, I agree with tangent (1:09 am) that a corporate “we” rather than a passive would be better.

    To my ear, the ‘mistakes were made’ line does not sound at all like avoiding a scapegoat but does sound like avoiding responsibility – along the lines of, “someone made a mistake and we are in charge so we have to apologise but we are not really at fault”.

  27. bfwebster said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 11:17 am

    Here’s the obligatory Matt Groening panel from his “Life in Hell” comics:

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/42713896436447017/

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

    Levantine: Usually part of an apology is admitting that one is responsible for the problem, not that an error was made or that something occurred. It doesn’t look like a coincidence that in PwC’s apology above, all the places where they could have said “we made an error” are agentless, either passive or “this occurred”.

    I think PwC should have said something like “We sincerely apologize to […] for our error during the award announcement for Best Picture. We mistakenly gave the presenters the wrong category envelope.”

    For comparison, the Academy, which I’d say is far less to blame, has made a statement beginning “We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation of the Best Picture category during last night’s Oscar ceremony. We apologize to the entire cast and crew of La La Land and Moonlight whose experience was profoundly altered by this error.” Can you tell from PwC’s apology that they have much more to apologize for?

  29. Levantine said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I suppose it’s a matter of interpretation. For me, it’s eminently clear that PwC is acknowledging that one of its own — the person (not) specified by the passive — caused the blunder. The Academy’s error, by contrast, makes no mention of procedural errors or the need to investigate them and is clearly

  30. Levantine said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

    Damn phone! I’m about to post the correct version of what I meant.

  31. Levantine said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

    Jerry Friedman, I suppose it’s a matter of interpretation. For me, it’s eminently clear that PwC is acknowledging that one of its own — the person (not) specified by the passive — caused the blunder. The Academy’s apology, by contrast, makes no mention of procedural errors or the need to investigate them, and so reads as a more generalised expression of regret. Even though I don’t see PwC’s statement as evasive, however, I do accept that enough people find it objectionable that it might have been worded differently to preempt such criticism.

  32. Bloix said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 4:58 pm

    This is PwC Tim Ryan, yesterday:

    “At the end of the day, we made a human error,” Ryan told USA Today. “We made a mistake. What happened was, our partner on the left side of the stage, Brian Cullinan, he handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty. And then the second we realized that, we notified the appropriate parties and corrected the mistake.”

    Not a passive in the bunch.

  33. David Morris said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 5:38 pm

    If anyone at PwC is interested, my first fix to the procedure is to have the name of the category on the part of the card which is visible when the envelope is opened. My second is that as the presenter opens the envelope which the first PwC employee has given them, the second PwC employee opens their envelope to check the name, and in this case, alert the stage manager or host *as the ‘winning’ producers are walking to the stage*. (This also means that the envelopes for the categories already awarded have had their seal broken.)

  34. philip said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 4:42 am

    My fix is to tell the presenters who won and to have it on their teleprompter, and to have blank cards inside the envelopes, or cards which only identify the category, not the winner. For example: Winner of Best Picture, Winner of Best Actor. That way the winners can keep the card as a souvenir if they want to.

  35. Narmitaj said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 10:40 am

    Emma Stone did have her card afterwards as a souvenir, though I think from her comments in the link above she wasn’t immediately aware that there are duplicate cards.

    I wonder if in future announced winners will sit in their seats until someone else comes forward and confirms the result!

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