Trying to avoid the passive?

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It is clear that *Kansas hasn't had executed anyone since 1965 is ungrammatical. What was responsible for the editing mistake that led to its appearing in this page on the Wall Street Journal's law blog? Quite possibly, suggested Victor Steinbok to the American Dialect Society mailing list early this morning, a sentence-planning botch that resulted from an attempt at obeying the Strunkian imperative to use the active voice.

The hypothesis would be that the author, Amir Efrati, first wrote Kansas hasn't had anyone executed since 1965; then realized that (despite the lack of the copula) had anyone executed is an instance of the passive construction; then noticed that it could be avoided, since for a State having had someone executed and having executed someone are just about the same thing (for a corporate entity, causing it to happen by getting someone to do it is basically the same as doing it); then decided to switch to active voice, and moved the word executed to precede the direct object anyone, producing the final ungrammatical result; and left it there, failing to notice that the causative had now had to be deleted. Ths is just a guess. We cannot know (this is real-time sentence planning in someone's mind that we are talking about), unless Amir Efrati helps by contacting Language Log. Amir, you can help linguistic science by letting us know whether that was the sequence of events (to the extent that you can reconstruct it, which may of course not be possible). Add a comment below, or write to my Gmail account (the username is my surname).


  1. Nathan Myers said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    Doesn't asking someone to report results of introspective reconstruction threaten your membership in academia? I suppose it might be safe enough if you refused to take his report at face value, and announced that you were really studying the process of introspective reconstruction as a psycholinguistic phenomenon. I wonder how closely one could map one discussion to the other, actually talking about the one but in language that suggests the other. Probably east-Europeans are better at that than we are.

    [I was specifically wondering about the conscious sentence-planning and editing processes that took place here. It is fine to ask people to report on such processes, as long as you keep in mind that (i) they could lie about it, and more seriously (ii) they could think they're telling the truth but actually be wrong about their own past internal processes. What is not appropriate is to take people's reports as veridical — as infallible reports of a perceiving subject concerning the contents of what Descartes called the glassy essence of the mind. —GKP]

  2. Paul said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 5:54 am

    Isn't "asking someone to report results of introspective reconstruction" part of what generative syntax has been doing all this time? I've certainly been at a few syntax talks where the question session has ended up as a discussion of whether certain sentences constructed by the author of the paper are "good" or "bad" for those present. And I've read a few Language Log postings where some of the comments do much the same.

    Of course, not being a syntactician, it's likely I've failed to properly understand how syntax arguments are constructed; no doubt a syntactician will jump in to get me educated about their methodologies.

  3. kip said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I don't know if you can really blame this on S&W though (not that I'm defending S&W in a general sense). I personally think "Kansas hasn't executed anyone since 1965" is a better phrasing than "Kansas hasn't had anyone executed since 1965", and not because I universally abhor the passive voice. An editor might have reasonably come up with the same opinion, even without S&W telling them so. Surely editors rearrange sentences all the time, and every now and then they make a mistake when doing so.

  4. Richard Dougherty said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Dear Dr, Pullum,

    With all due respect, I cannot fathom your constant attention to Strunk and White. As an undergraduate three decades ago a senisible teacher of history recommended me to read The Elements of Style as a starting point when I confessed some confusion as to what was expected in academic writing, way back when something was actually expected.

    Even thirty years ago, the little book was not considered a bible. I agree with your recommendation of the works of the late Joseph Williams and his collaborators and try to incorporate them into my teaching, But in fact both Strunk and White were better skilled writers, though the difference may understandably be obscured to some–especially those on an academic track. Williams poked at Strunk for statements like "Omit needless words" or "Be concise."

    His prescriptions still stand. I don't always follow them, but it would be a joy if more did. "Be concise." How more concise can you be?

    Richard Dougherty

    [Richard: You fail to see why I am concerned that a book should sell ten million copies and frighten generations of college-educated Americans with bad grammar advice? I don't know what to tell you. But I will just point out that in several recent speeches Sonia Sotormayor has told her audiences: "If you have read Strunk and White, Elements of Style, reread it every two years. If you have never read it, do so now." You can tell me you like the vapid style advice and bad grammatical information in this little book if you like, but don't tell me it's not highly influential and revered by millions, because it is. It's out there doing damage and spreading misinformation right now. —GKP]

  5. Jan Freeman said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    I agree with Kip; editors (and writers editing themselves) make this kind of revision all the time, not with "avoid the passive" in mind but with "shorter, more direct" in mind. (And every day you see mistakes like this, resulting from an incomplete edit, in newspapers.) But in years of editing, I don't think I ever articulated (mentally) a rule like "avoid the passive" — one's sense of what would make a sentence better is (or should become) thoroughly internalized, like balancing a bike. It's true, some editors never get beyond their mechanical avoid-this checklists, but they are not good editors.

  6. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    This doesn't look at all like passive-avoidance to me. Rather, I suspect that the original ("had anyone executed") triggered a split-infinitive avoidance reflex, which has been shown (including here, IIRC) to have been extended to prohibit all modal-mainverb splittings, at least among lawyers, thanks much to the Texas Legal Style Guide's influence.

    So, if you gotta unsplit "had executed", the easy copyedit is to move that apparently-modifying "anyone" to after the verb.

    This sort of transformation ("when in doubt, move it back", or is it "Yoda Movement") might explaining help why lawyers are prone frequently to write documents incomprehensibly.

  7. dveej said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

    OK, I'm maybe stupid…but what exactly about "to have someone executed" is passive? Causality, I see. Please enlighten us, o linguistically aware.

    [You're not stupid. The subject is not that complex, but in fact very few people grasp it well enough to explain it clearly. Let me have a try. In an example like They executed McVeigh (or They had executed McVeigh) the grammatical subject is understood to be the executing authority. In McVeigh was executed (or McVeigh had been executed) the grammatical subject is understood to be the condemned man. Now consider They had McVeigh executed. Again, executed is understood to have the condemned man as its grammatical subject, not the authorities. That's the semantic test. And there is a syntactic test too: you can add an agent phrase with by to a passive clause. Hence They had McVeigh executed by a properly trained executioner is grammatical. But with an active you can't add an agent complement: *They executed McVeigh by a properly trained executioner is not grammatical. —GKP]

  8. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    Sorry, yes, it WAS Prof Liberman who fingered the Texas Law Review Manual of Style for the legal modal-splitting aversion that might also have led to the botched oath of office.

    I guess i already knew that, but I can't edit the above to add:

  9. rkillings said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Wait, this construction — "hasn't had executed anyone" — is *ungrammatical*? Rather than merely gratuitously unusual word order?

    Leave aside that there is no excuse to say it this way in this case. How is it different from these not-unusual examples of legal writing:

    (1) "is not offered for sale and has not had incorporated into it any drug"

    (2) "the applicant has not had revoked any permit or license"

    (3) "The Vendor has not had prepared any environmentally related audits"

    (4) "the commission has not had disclosed to it any index of statements taken in Monaghan"

    What am I missing?

    [What you're missing is the postposing of heavy constituents (see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pages 1371-1372. A direct object that is particularly long or weighty can be shifted to the right of other material in the verb phrase. Your examples illustrate that. It is not an issue in what I was talking about, because anyone is an extremely short NP that could never pass for weighty. So I didn't think anyone would bring this up. But you did! Your example (3) — I have added reference numbers for convenience —, namely has not had prepared any environmentally related audits, should be regarded as a version of has not had any environmentally related audits prepared with the underlined phrase shifted to the end of the VP. Your examples in general show that lawyers tend to use this device rather a lot — and in the case of example (1), I think the result is rather ungainly. Note that there is also a construction called delayed right constituent coordination in CGEL (pages 1343-1345), and that can also give rise to a direct object to the right of where they would have been expected. —GKP]

  10. marie-lucie said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    These constructions are indeed exactly the same as the one from Kansas, but they seem new to me. Perhaps they are peculiar to lawyerly style, as has been suggested? the contexts seem to confirm it.

  11. rkillings said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    marie-lucie said,
    "Perhaps … peculiar to lawyerly style"

    Yes, but is that style subject to different rules of grammar?

    Here's an example from a motorcycle forum:

    "Have you fitted or had fitted any after market kit like a can, pipe, K&N type air filter?"

    Would it be ungrammatical to answer, concisely, "No, I have not fitted or had fitted anything"?

    Back to "have had executed anyone", let's see how compactly we can have formulated for us the rule of grammar that applies. :-)

    [Here we see an example of delayed right constituent coordination, which I mentioned in a remark below the previous comment by rkillings (again, see CGEL, pages 1343-1345). A sentence of the form Have you fitted or had fitted X? should be regarded as a version of Have you fitted X or had X fitted? with both X's removed and a single copy of X stuck at the end: [Have you fitted ___, or had ___ fitted,] [any after market kit like a can, pipe, K&N type air filter]? It's certainly grammatical; but it simply isn't relevant in the case that I was discussing. —GKP]

  12. Noetica said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    To dveej:

    … but what exactly about "to have someone executed" is passive?

    I raised an eyebrow at the same point. I was not sure whether Geoffrey Pullum had wished to advance the view that it was passive, or had simply wished to attribute that view to someone else. His wording:

    … then realized that (despite the lack of the copula) had anyone executed is an instance of the passive construction

    The interpretation hinges on how we understand realized: "A knows P" entails "P is true" (or just P). I had thought that "A realizes P" also entails P.

    In fact, it is quite reasonable to consider "to have someone executed" passive. A parallel active construction would be "to have someone execute someone", yes?

  13. marie-lucie said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    "To have someone executed" could be paraphrased as "to give the order that someone (should) be executed", where the clause after "that" is a passive one. This is what makes the whole construction passive.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    June 10, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

    p.s. "This is what makes the whole construction passive"

    I think I wrote too fast, because this is a complex construction involving deletion: the first part (underlyingly the main clause) is active (someone-1 had …) and the second part (underlyingly the complement clause) passive, but the form of "to be" is understood to be deleted (someone-2 [be] executed).

    @rkillings: "Have you fitted or had fitted any after market kit like a can, pipe, K&N type air filter?"

    This sounds OK to me (a non-native speaker), but I think that it is because the complement of the verb is quite long: "any after market kit like a can, pipe, K&N type air filter". The original example Kansas hasn't had executed anyone since 1965 sounds strange because one would expect the one word anyone to come before executed: Kansas hasn't had anyone executed since 1965.

    So I think you are right about the original sentence being an instance of "merely gratuitously unusual word order", although "gratuitously" may not be the right word: perhaps the writer is used to this word order working with longer complements.

    [Basically Noetica and marie-lucie have got all of this right. See my comments on rkillings above. The examples rkillings gave are not ungrammatical (though they could be criticized for awkwardness), but they are not really relevant either. —GKP]

  15. Charles Richardson said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 12:11 am

    I think Dan Scherlis has got it: "hasn't had anyone executed" would have been a reasonably natural way of making the point in the first place, but someone – due to the same sort of grammatical ignorance that makes people see phantom passives everywhere – has then picked "had executed" as an infinitive that shouldn't be split, and shifted the "anyone" backwards. The result may not quite be ungrammatical, but it's deeply peculiar, yet for many people that seems less of a problem than splitting an infinitive (even a nonexistent one).

  16. Tim said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 2:36 am

    Assuming that this is a case of passive-avoidance, there's still the question of the motive. Was it a fit of Strunko-Whitism, or does it have more to do with the change in tone? After all, "to have someone executed" implies more detachment than "to execute someone". Perhaps the author changed it less for style and more for meaning.

  17. CWV said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    My first thought was that the sentence-planning botch was that the author initially intended to say "Kansas hasn't had executions since 1965."

  18. John Cowan said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    To sum up, then: the botch results from postposing a non-heavy direct object (viz. anyone) under the influence of the mistaken notions that (a) had executed is a past perfect here, and (b) that auxiliary plus main verb constructions must not be interrupted by any other words.

  19. Dan Scherlis said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    John Cowan very competantly summarizes the aux/main-split phobia that I was trying to express above, and that (yes, marie-lucie) has indeed been shown to be a highly lawyer-specific trait. (Including by LL's M Liberman, per my round-about hyperlinking above, which I do apologize for while blaming my iphone's lack of copy/pasting.)

    So I'm disagreeing with Prof Pullum; I don't think that this is passive-aversion at all. Not that it amounts to much of a difference. Similar pathologies.

  20. rkillings said,

    June 11, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    Explanations gratefully received. Lay teachings on grammar leave unexplained much about heavy constituent extraposition and delayed coordination.

  21. Richard Dougherty said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    Dear Dr. Pullum,

    Thanks for responding to my comment. I am glad that you were willing to respond to my comment, Most professors slough their e-mail off to grad sudents. But I will hold to my point in this case, with apologisies for typos. Sotormayor's viewpoint is beside the point, and only appeared very recently in most people's knowledge. This is in my opinion a junk arguement. Split infinitves and sentences ending with prepositions are dead meat, but still straw men in junk writing within the fields of linguistics and language teaching. Fuhgetabaout it!


    Richard Doughety

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