A few days ago, Ben Goldacre, or someone pretending to be him on twitter, tweeted
dear everyone, when i read your passive sentence constructions i sort of have to convert them into active ones in my head because i'm thick.
As Geoff Pullum recently observed
I despair when I see this kind of drivel. What on earth comes over people when they write about language? It’s not just their ability to use dictionaries that disappears, it’s their acumen, their numeracy, their common sense.
The despair in this case is especially intense, because Dr. Goldacre is unusually well supplied with acumen, numeracy, and common sense, and is an accomplished practitioner of "The noble and ancient tradition of moron-baiting". So it's with a heavy heart that I turn to the first paragraphs of his most recent three Bad Science posts, noting the "passive sentence constructions":
While the authorities are distracted by mass disorder, we can do some statistics. You’ll have seen plenty of news stories telling you that one part of the brain is bigger, or smaller, in people with a particular mental health problem, or even a specific job. These are generally based on real, published scientific research. But how reliable are the studies?
Now, there are dozens of different ways to quantify the jobs market, and I’m not going to summarise them all here. The claimant count and the labour force survey are commonly used, and number of hours worked is informative too: you can fight among yourselves for which is best, and get distracted by party politics to your heart’s content. But in claiming that this figure for the number of people out of work has risen, the BBC is simply wrong.
I made a documentary about prospective cohort studies in epidemiology, they’re the tool we use to find out if one thing is associated with another, where trials are impossible. It’s really good. Instead of reading about it, listen here:
Or listen live when it’s repeated tonight on Radio 4 at 9pm
I make that six "passive sentence constructions" in 19 or 20 tensed clauses, depending on how you count, for a rate of 30% or so. No doubt in a larger sample there would be some regression to the mean, but this is an unusually high percentage. Quoting Geoff Pullum again ("The passive in English", 1/24/2011):
As mentioned on Language Log here and elsewhere, the people who criticize the passive the most tend to use it more than the rest of us. George Orwell warns against the passive in his overblown and dishonest essay "Politics and the English language". E. B. White does likewise in the obnoxiously ignorant little book he coauthored with Strunk, The Elements of Style. Both of these authors have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: around 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.
In this case, I didn't limit my calculation to the proportion of passive in "clauses with transitive verbs", but also included copular sentences like "the BBC is simply wrong", and intransitive verbs like "fight among yourselves for which is best". There are actually only three transitive tensed verbs in this sample that are NOT passive — so in six of the nine cases where a passive tensed verb construction was available, Goldacre went for it. A couple of these are arguably "adjectival passives", but still…
I should note here that Ben Goldacre is mistaken here, not just hypocritical. In my opinion, none of these examples of "passive sentence construction" would be improved by being recast in the active voice. Nor do I feel the need to "sort of convert them into active ones in my head" in order to understand them — and I don't believe that he does either.
So why is he carrying on about his difficulties in understanding passive-voice sentences?
Well, his twitter account may have been hacked by operatives of the fish-oil cartel, or by minions of Baroness Greenfield, aiming to undermine his credibility as a critic of pseudo-scientific nonsense.
Or perhaps hypoglycemia was to blame. Subsequent tweets in the same series veer off into dystopian science fiction and irrelevant echoes of Mark Twain on German syntax, before concluding with a pathetic search for scraps of food:
actiually, someone could build a website that converts passive sentence constructions into active ones. i'll shut up now.
but it's like reading german and waiting for the verb. okay, i've really shut up now.
what was that Swift line? "if i the architect of the german language was, i the verb in a slightly less irritating position would put"
something like that anyway. i'm so hungry i can barely think. there must be some stale ryvita somewhere.
I swear I'm not making this up.
But the most likely diagnosis, I'm afraid, is temporary idiocy brought on by reckless indulgence in unprotected linguistic analysis. The patient's system may have been weakened by prior exposure to Orwell.
[Tip of the hat to andrewjshields]