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.
— PwC LLP (@PwC_LLP) February 27, 2017
The statement was rightly lambasted on Twitter.
the award for best use of passive voice in an apology goes to…. https://t.co/RGHvHOQfaR
— Gerry Doyle (@mgerrydoyle) February 27, 2017
And the Oscar for mealy-mouth apologies goes to PricewaterhouseCoopers, with 4 (count em!) passive verbs! https://t.co/HO5rQ8asc2
— (((Ron Lieber))) (@ronlieber) February 27, 2017
Have never seen a greater painstaken use of the passive voice in an apology. https://t.co/jNl8b2YyWk
— katie rosman (@katierosman) February 27, 2017
That second sentence is a train wreck of grammar and obfuscation. https://t.co/l8ldR8LZdO
— Carlos Lozada (@CarlosLozadaWP) February 27, 2017
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.