It's time once again for our semi-regular feature, "Mr. Payack Bamboozles the Media." Paul J.J. Payack, as Language Log readers know, is the assiduously self-promoting president of the Global Language Monitor who has managed to hoodwink unsuspecting journalists on a range of pseudoscientific claims, most notably the number of words in the English language. (He now claims we're 2,248 words away from the millionth word, a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.) During the U.S. presidential election season, he's attracted media attention for "linguistic analysis" of key debates and speeches. Last month, CNN trumpeted his findings about the Biden/Palin vice-presidential debate: Palin spoke at a tenth-grade level and Biden at an eighth-grade level, and Palin used passives to deflect responsibility. That nonsense went unremarked here (except briefly in the comments), but Payack's latest round of flapdoodle, pegged to Barack Obama's victory speech on election night, is deserving of mention, even if it helps to fuel his cynical promotional machine.
Once again CNN is the easy mark for Payack's pronouncements, which are uncritically repeated under the headline, "Linguist deems Obama's speech a winner." For starters, Payack is not a professional linguist — he often boasts of a Harvard degree, which turns out to be some coursework in comparative literature that he took through Harvard's extension program. But no matter: I'm firmly of the belief that amateur linguists can often make signal contributions to the study of language, as long as they take the time to learn the basics of contemporary linguistic scholarship. To no one's surprise, that's not the case for Mr. Payack.
Payack once again peddles his "grade level" analysis, saying that Obama's victory speech was at grade 7.4 level, down from 8.3 in his 2004 Democratic Convention address, indicating that "he has learned to speak more directly and more succinctly when he's giving a major address." On this point I have nothing to add to the critique made by Gabe Doyle on his Motivated Grammar blog, referring to Payack's similar scoring of the vice-presidential debate:
Let me start off by addressing the idea that grade-level in speech, as measured by readability tests, is a meaningful measure of anything: IT’S NOT. Payack’s analysis assigns grade levels based on a modified version of the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. George Klare, all the way back in 1963, pointed out that most studies have shown that listener comprehension is not significantly affected by readability values from Flesch-Kincaid and similar tests. Furthermore, Klare’s lack of effect was based on testing the comprehension of someone listening to a speaker reading pre-prepared text; presumably listener comprehension of an extemporaneous speaker would be even less well-correlated with readability of the transcript. …
Even if readability scores were appropriate for assessing anything about extemporaneous speech, the reported distinction is almost certainly less than the margin of error for the readability test. No matter how you cut it, the distinction is illusory.
Besides his meaningless readability scores, Payack also creates specious analysis of the use of active and passive voice. For the veep debate, he said, "Passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility; Biden used active voice when referring to Cheney and Bush; Palin countered with passive deflections." Gabe Doyle took up this assertion in another Motivated Grammar post:
Kudos, GLM, for being honest and stating that passives aren’t by definition bad. But there’s one minor tripping point to this analysis: Palin didn’t use passives to deflect responsibility when Biden mentioned Bush or Cheney. OOPS!
After searching through the transcript and coming up empty-handed, Doyle was puzzled about what Payack might have been identifying as Palin's passive constructions, since he didn't specify any of them. This time around, with the Obama speech, Payack does give CNN an example of a supposed passive:
Though most of Obama's verbs were in the active voice, 11 percent of the sentences were in the passive voice, a dependable method of deflecting responsibility, Payack said. He cited Obama's "There will be setbacks and false starts" as an example.
"He's spreading the responsibility around," Payack said. "He didn't say, 'I will have setbacks. I will be wrong. I will make mistakes.' He used the passive voice for those types of constructions."
So it appears that Payack's definition of "the passive voice" is a bit, shall we say, expansive, including active-voice existential clauses like "There will be setbacks and false starts." Payack is not alone in identifying existential clauses as passive — Geoff Pullum noted an example last year from NPR's Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an interview with U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan:
Let's put it in the passive tense: there was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan with some members of the Taliban at one time. Is that something you would pursue if the opportunity came up?
Inskeep committed a double-oops by referring to "the passive tense" rather than "the passive voice." Payack at least gets the "voice" part right, but again, he's seeing a passive construction where there isn't one. The Inskeep example led Geoff to ponder the question, "What on earth do people imagine the passive construction is?":
A tentative answer, of course, is that they mostly think a passive clause is one that is vague about agency, nothing more and nothing less. Which is of course untrue in both directions: you don't have to be vague about agency in a passive clause, and you don't need a passive clause to be vague about agency.
Lay discussions of the "passive" can tell us a lot about folk-linguistic beliefs (see, for instance, the treatment of "folk grammaticality" in Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis R. Preston's 1999 monograph Folk Linguistics, pp. 270ff.). But in the CNN article we have a self-styled "linguist" throwing around words like "passive" in a spectacularly uninformed fashion. We've set the bar pretty low if we're listening to an "expert" whose knowledge in his professed field of expertise wouldn't get him very far on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?".
[Update: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joins the Bamboozle Train.]