Archive for passives

The passive in English

Numerous Language Log posts by me, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky among others have been devoted to mocking people who denigrate the passive without being able to identify it (see this comprehensive list of Language Log posts about the passive). It is clear that some people think The bus blew up is in the passive; that The case took on racial overtones is in the passive; that Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened is in the passive; and so on.

Our grumbling about how these people don't know their passive from a hole in the ground has inspired many people to send us email asking for a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I'll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay; I can't make things simpler than they are. There is no hope of figuring out the meaning of grammatical terms from common sense, or by looking in a dictionary. Passive (like its opposite, active) is a technical term. Its use in syntax has nothing to do with lacking energy or initiative, or assuming a receptive and non-directive role. And the dictionary definitions are often utterly inadequate (Webster's, for example, is simply hopeless on the grammatical sense of the word). I will try to explain things accurately, and also simply (though this is not for kids; I am writing this for grownups). If I fail, then of course the whole of your money will be refunded.

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The finance world tackles the passive: 0 for 2

An anonymous informant deep within corporate America ("I work at a large financial institution", he says guardedly) has seen the corporation's style guide for communications with customers, and its advice includes (guess what) this gem of cluelessness:

Use active voice rather than passive voice. Active voice is easier to read. Instead of "we have decided," write "we decided." Instead of "we will be implementing a program," write "we are implementing."

They think these are passives! And people disagree with me when I point out such things (over and over again, like a CD that has gotten stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuc- stuck), and ask rhetorically where on God's green earth knowledge of elementary English grammar terminology disappeared to in the late 20th century. People — writing advisers, in fact — are scoring zero on identifying a grammatical construction they feel a need to warn other people not to use. I know I have already pointed this out a time or two, but really, this is an utterly insane situation.

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CSI psycholinguistics

From the Fox TV forensic psychology police-procedural show Lie To Me (Male Investigator is talking to Female Investigator about a suicide note she has decided is fake):

Male Investigator: Let me ask you something: how can you tell if this thing is fake if it's been typed?

Female Investigator: Word choice, repetition, and the use of passive or active voice can tell you a lot about the person who wrote this.

Of course! Passive versus active voice. Why didn't I think of it. That should tell us what we need to know about who wrote the note.

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Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues

A commenter named bloix here on Language Log recently pointed out yet another case of passive allegations:

First Read, a reliable purveyor of Beltway conventional wisdom, tries out the passive voice: "As for the media, we've allowed this story over race [to] bury one of the more consequential weeks of Obama's presidency thus far (the financial reform legislation becoming law, Senate passage of the jobless benefits, and Kagan clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee). Whether it's Sherrod, Gates, or Jeremiah Wright, the topic of race pushes the media's buttons like no other issue."

The facts: there are seven verbs between the quotation marks, and not a single one of them figures in a passive construction. Yes, zero for 7 (following zero for 4 here and zero for 5 here). If passives were UFOs, the country would be frantic over all the sightings, but the Air Force wouldn't be scrambling any jets.

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Resume depassivization — this time, zero for 4

Doostang is a job-search platform and advice service that, for a fee, will try to help you get a job. It provides on a blog such helpful things as tips on spicing up your resume. And one of the things it suggests is that you should avoid (are you ready for this, Language Log readers?) the passive voice! So here we go with another piece of expert advice on passivity from someone who is a real authority on language because he went to college and therefore doesn't need to know anything about actual grammatical structure, he can just make stuff up. I quote:

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught to write "formally" in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying "Responsible for management of three direct reports" change it up to "Managed 3 direct reports." It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

Now, you are a Language Log reader, and you know my methods. Do some counting. How many of the examples given in the quotation are indicators of the passive voice?

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More passive complaints — misidentifying 5 passives out of 5

A stunning case of public grammatical incompetence from blogger Brad DeLong (pointed out to Language Log by Paul Postal). DeLong quotes a passage by Wolfgang Mommsen (about whether Max Weber was prepared for the start of World War I), in English translation, and comments:

It is never clear to me to what extent the fact that faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency to nos Anglo-Saxons is an artifact of translation, a reflection of truth about German habits of thought, or an accurate view into authorial decisions. The use of the passive in the translation of Mommsen:

  • "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe…"
  • "the Reich had to face a superior coalition…"
  • "the war turned out to be…"
  • "the catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany…"
  • "It was above all the bloody reckoning…"

cannot help but strike this one forcefully…

Yep, you see it too: he gets an almost incredible zero for five on identifying uses of the English passive here.

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More on the stupidity of Kathleen Parker

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.

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Justice Kennedy interprets the passive

Anita Krishnakumar posts at Concurring Opinions on November 2 about a Supreme Court judgment by Justice Anthony Kennedy that turned quite crucially on the distinction between active and passive voice in the language of criminal statutes, only (you're ahead of me already aren't you, Language Log readers?) Justice Kennedy doesn't know his passive from a hole in the ground, so the claims made are nonsense. I see no way to read what he says that does not involve assuming that he thinks if serious bodily injury results and if death injury results are passive clauses. And the point is a general one, crucially tied to grammar: Kennedy thinks that in general "criminal statutes use the active voice to define prohibited conduct" and use the passive voice to specify mere sentencing factors associated therewith, and courts should pay attention to that distinction. Only there isn't a distinction in the statute he cites. I won't go on about it, since a couple of sensible commenters do my work for me right after the post, citing Language Log, where so many posts have been devoted to this topic (I aggregate them for reference here). But heavens above: You can get to be a Supreme Court justice, and write about actives and passives, without having any clue how that distinction is normally defined by grammarians, and without giving any alternative definition? Could we perhaps organize a few lunches at which linguistics department chairs meet with law school deans or something?

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Puzzling passive

Every so often I come across a passive sentence that puzzles me: why did someone write this? Last month I posted about one such case on my blog, but there you could imagine how the sentence arose. My most recent find just looks perverse, and it has an awkward adverb placement as well.

This is the caption to a photograph (of an aged woman smoking a pipe) on a postcard:

Ralston NB: 92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that five pipefuls of tobacco are daily smoked by her! 

(The photograph, dated 1925, is credited to Underwood and Underwood, with copyright by Underwood Photo Archives, Ltd. in San Francisco. The postcard is from Pomegranate Communications, Inc.)

Why this, rather than:

92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that she smokes five pipefuls of tobacco daily.


92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to smoking five pipefuls of tobacco daily.

Meanwhile, though I have nothing against "split verbs" (see my recent blog posting, with links to earlier Language Log postings), "are daily smoked by her" strikes me as more awkward than "are smoked by her daily".

So it's a thorough puzzle.

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Insufficient agency!

On her blog, Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky reports an encounter between her daughter Opal (now 5) and the passive voice:

Jun 23, 2009 Our worst moments today came with the best language. This morning Opal did not get to open the garage door, after an interaction she found unfair, and while she howled with fury I said to her "You feel cheated." She said, outraged, "I was NOT cheated. YOU cheated me." Ah, the importance of indicating agency.

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"Passive construction" means… nothing at all?

OK, I give up. I admit that I was wrong. I thought that the grammatical term passive had developed a spectrum of everyday meanings like "vague about agency", "listless writing, lacking in vigor", and "failure to take sides in a conflict". But I've now reluctantly concluded that for some members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".

The evidence that drove me over the edge? Hank Stuever and Wil Haygood, "Parsing The Book Of Mark", Washington Post, 6/25/2009:

Wow. Was that a press conference or was that a press conference? That genteel lilt of hubris, sorrow, guilt! But other than a very slow, meandering build to I just needed a little strange, what did it all mean? What language was South Carolina's Republican governor speaking yesterday as he forlornly told the world of his travels and travails, of how sorry he is to his wife, to his sons, to his staff, to "the Tom Davises of the world" (not the Virginia one, all the other ones)? Is it a new Pat Conroy novel? Is it a megachurch sermon? Is it the language of couples therapy? The metaphysics of Oprah? Shakespeare? The psychobabble of cheating husbands? (Note all the passive constructions, the avoidance of first person.) [emphasis added]

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He doesn't know what the active voice is either

From Charles Krauthammer, "Obama Hovers From on High", Washington Post 6/12/2009:

On religious tolerance, [president Obama] gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the "divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence" (note the use of the passive voice). He then criticized (in the active voice) Western religious intolerance for regulating the wearing of the hijab — after citing America for making it difficult for Muslims to give to charity. [emphasis added]

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Krauthammer: another writer who has no idea what the passive is

You readers are not going to like this, because you've heard too much on the topic already, and you are begging for relief; but I am going to report it anyway. My job is not to be merciful; my job is to get stuff out there, on the record. Charles Krauthammer, whom the Financial Times in 2006 described as the most influential commentator in America, is yet one more major figure who doesn't know his passive from a hole in the ground. His June 12 column in the Washington Post, "Obama Hovers From On High", says:

"On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the 'divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence' (note the use of the passive voice)."

No, Mr Krauthammer, we do not note the use of the passive voice: clauses of the form X has/have/had led to Y are in the active voice. Now, your defenders, I know, are going to say that all you meant was that Obama did not specify the agents of the tragic violence. But tragic violence is simply a noun phrase, like mythic affluence or comic indolence. The passive has nothing to do with it. If you are noting a reluctance to come out and say who commits violence, then say that. Don't lurk behind a putative linguistic observation because you think it will sound more like someone who went to college. Did you want Obama to make the agent fully explicit? Did you want him to stand there in Cairo and say, "divisions between Sunni and Shia have led you dogma-crazed towelheads to unloose brutal violence and large-scale war on each other, killing millions of your own people, you insane bastards"? Then just say so. (And recommend a comparable-sized bit that he could have cut: this version is about 20 words longer.) Because I am getting really tired of these mealy-mouthed, misinformed, pseudo-syntactic grumblings about the passive voice. And Language Log readers, I know, are getting really sick of me saying so.

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