He doesn't know what the active voice is either

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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]

This is a reference to two passages in Obama's recent Cairo speech. The first one is this:

Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith.  The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.  (Applause.)  And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

As Geoff Pullum just explained, Mr. Krauthammer is apparently as confused as most others are, these days, about  what the term "passive voice" has meant for the past seven centuries or so. The usual error is to interpret "passive voice" as something like "insufficiently clear about agency". Geoff suggests that  perhaps in this case it really means something like "insufficiently vigorous in assigning blame to people that I don't like":

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.

But maybe for Krauthammer, at least in this passage, "passive voice" means "not taking sides". The cited passage certainly exemplifies the role that Krauthammer wants to tag the president with: the "great transcender", "[hovering] above the fray", since in this case, as an American and a non-Muslim, Obama really is above the Sunni-Shia fray.

There's some evidence for this interpretation in the way Krauthammer uses the opposing category, "active voice" to describe the following passage, which immediately follows the just-quoted paragraph:

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.  We must always examine the ways in which we protect it.  For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation.  That's why I'm committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.  We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

The phrase that Krauthammer references without quoting ("it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens … by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear") is of course  in the active voice, in the traditional sense of that term, just as the phrase that he called "passive voice" was. But Obama's discussion of tolerance for religiously-associated clothing also shares the property of being very abstract and mostly impersonal — it evokes the controversy about headscarves in French schools, but doesn't explicitly say so. So isn't it therefore also "passive" in the same sense as the Sunni-Shia controversy phrase?

What "active voice" means for Krauthammer in this case, I think, is that Obama takes sides, even if he does so in a rather vague way, without being explicit about the agents of the debate and their specific actions. Rather than simply noting the existence of a controversy, and implying that all parties should be more tolerant of the views of others, he says plainly that governments shouldn't "dictate what clothes a Muslim woman should wear", so that by implication, the French shouldn't forbid the wearing of head scarves in schools.

Krauthammer makes this fit the "great transcender" theme in the following way:

[…] it borders on the obscene to compare this mild preference for secularization (seen in Muslim Turkey as well) to the violence that has been visited upon Copts, Maronites, Bahais, Druze and other minorities in Muslim lands […]

I'm not trying to make a political point here. As far as I can see, Krauthammer is correct about the relative intensity of current official and unofficial religious suppression in Islamic countries compared to those dominated by other religions. However, his attempt to turn the grammatical choices of Obama's speechwriters into an emblem of "transcultural evenhandedness" is both passively and actively confused.


  1. John S. said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    How about this article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/world/europe/13italy.html?hp that says, "[Amanda Knox] spoke in both English and fluent Italian, with a command of the subjective voice that allowed her to navigate the many hypothetical clauses in her testimony."

    You'd think snooty Times reporters would know better!

    [(myl) I noticed that — but we don't know whether it was the reporter (Rachel Donadio) or an editor who is responsible for the malapropism "subjunctive mood" → "subjective voice".

    As it happens, command of the subjunctive has played a role in (reporting on) another relatively-recent murder trial: "Il fallut que j'accusasse: the morphology of serial murder", 3/27/2008; "Fourniret mailbag", 3/30/2008. ]

  2. John said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    As a lapsed linguist myself, I admire Language Log for its attempts to bring linguistic science to a broader audience and to do it in a fairly apolitical way (it does keep me coming back – thank you guys for a stimulating site). I couldn't but be struck, though, by the discrepancy between your pouncing on Krauthammer, the dominant conservative columnist writing now (and doing it with some ferocity, I might point out), and your apparently ignoring the grammatical wisdom of our Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, as expressed in such gems as:

    “I found out that my Latina background had created difficulties in my writing that I needed to overcome. For example, in Spanish we do not have adjectives. A noun is described with a preposition…. My writing was stilted and overly complicated, my grammar and vocabulary skills weak.”

    When I first saw this stuff on the web, I expected the usual robust Language Log deconstruction of it. Forgive me if I missed it – I'm a casual reader – but it would have been nice to have seen something.

    [(myl) If she'd said something about the passive voice, we'd have commented right away. I saw her comments about the use of nouns as modifiers, and didn't find that I had a lot to add to the comments or others. But I'll take another look at it. ]

  3. Scott AnderBois said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    I assumed based on the passage provided that Krauthammer saw a string of the form [AUX + -en] "has led" and assumed that indicated the verb was passive. From there, then the rhetorical step he takes is essentially an appeal to the "Passives often lack attribution of agency" meme, ignoring the fact that this "passive" in fact has an agent and even expresses it as the subject.

  4. JimG said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    The Language Loggers have twice found my quibble-button today.
    You could have gone all day without using 'reference' as a verb, and I'd have been happier as a result.
    And Prof. Pullum had earlier upset my pepsia by writing that he was going to ruminate over lunch, although he was probably going to ruminate the lunch itself while he was thinking.

    Keep up the Good Fight!

  5. James said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    Jim G,
    From the OED online:
    Ruminate, To muse, meditate, ponder. (With a citation from Shakespeare, and one earlier.)

    Wow! Can you give us a web site with that shocking Sotomayor quotation?

    [(myl) You can see some discussion and links here. She was commenting on the difference between "cotton shirt" and "shirt of cotton", etc. The difference that she was talking about is clear and reasonable, but her terminology is indeed pretty bad. ]

  6. Be-less passives and be-ful non-passives « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    […] From the very first posting on passsives, the Loggers have noted the inclination of a great many people to identify as passive voice any clause that is "vague on agency" (by failing to assign responsibility for some situation to a specific human agent). (Sometimes it's clauses denoting situations that are not activities that are so identified.) The agency tradition continues, in two postings today, from Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman, on Charles Krauthammer, here and here. […]

  7. Mike Maxwell said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    Well, I for one am puzzled. The original version of Obama's speech (as quoted by you) did indeed have a passive, in the first of two clauses:

    "…fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence…"

    But the passive is not in the clause quoted by Krauthammer, which is the second clause above. Maybe someone pointed out to him the passive in this sentence, and he (or possibly a later editor) chose the wrong clause?

    [(myl) I doubt that this is the explanation. Discussions of passive-vs.-active usually hinge on the clarity of attribution of blame for some wrong-doing such as an act of violence or oppression, and the phrase that Krauthammer quotes, "divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence", is exactly of that type. ]

  8. dr pepper said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    Ok, i have only one quarter of spanish from some years back, but i seem to recall there were plenty of adjectives.

    [(myl) Indeed. Except that the English examples of the type that Ms. Sotomayor cited generally don't involve adjectives either, but rather premodification by nouns. (The specific example given as typical , as I recall, was English "cotton shirt" vs. Spanish "camisa de algodón".)

    So her grammatical terminology, as I said, was apparently rather confused, though the underlying issue is a real one for learners of English whose native language is Spanish. ]

  9. John S. said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    Wow, the article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/world/europe/13italy.html?hp has changed more than Amanda Knox's alibi has! First they corrected "subjective" to "subjunctive"; then they decided to chuck the grammatical terms altogether. Now it says "She spoke in both English and fluent Italian, which allowed her to navigate the many hypothetical clauses in her testimony."

    Could you imagine them saying the same thing about an Italian defendant in a US court? "She spoke fluent English, which allowed her to navigate the many hypothetical clauses in her testimony."

    No way. For the reporter, the Italian language is exotic, like a hothouse flower. It has all these interesting "moods" and "tenses" that English lacks. The Italians can speak of hypothetical things, what ifs and maybes, while we provincial Americans — Sorry! North Americans — can only deal in the simple past, present and future (and for the latter we use *auxiliary verbs*, how gauche!!)

  10. Geoff Pullum said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 4:23 am

    Lots of people have suggested that by "using the passive voice" some people mean merely "using a form of words that manages to avoid specifying the identity of an agent"; there are some signs that S&W took the meaning to be "not writing vividly or emphatically enough"; numerous others, perhaps misled by S&W, seem to think it means "using a construction that includes some form of the copular verb"; Mark now proposes that for some people it means "failing to take sides in a dispute they are discussing or alluding to"; and Scott AnderBois in a comment above suggests that some people might think it means "using some auxiliary verb, not necessarily the copula". Evasiveness? Wimpiness? Contains be? Neutrality? Contains an auxiliary? You can decide what you think is the commonest misconception here; but hey, don't anybody tell me that I overstate the degree to which America is utterly and totally at sea about what this term means. I understate it. I can't think of any term with a definite meaning that is as widely misunderstood as this one.

  11. Mary Kuhner said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Geoff Pullum writes:

    "I can't think of any term with a definite meaning that is as widely misunderstood as this one."

    I nominate "statistically significant".

  12. wonderclock said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that the Language Loggers are being highly prescriptive about this issue. If everybody outside of the field of linguistics believes that "in the passive voice" means "insufficiently clear about agency," doesn't it now in fact mean that? I don't think America is confused. The language has evolved, while linguists try to cling to the old meaning.

    [(myl) That was the point that I argued here. Geoff Pullum has made a slightly different point, namely that the term has not fully made the transition to ordinary language, but instead inhabits a sort of terminological limbo, where many people feel that it's supposed to refer to something bad, and that some authoritative people must know exactly what the cited sin is; all of which leaves them in a state of "nervous cluelessness" about this aspect of grammar. Since the status of the rest of traditional grammatical terminology is similar, such people suffer from a general superstitious dread of breaking important but largely mysterious rules every time they write or speak. When such people find themselves in a position of authority, for instance as a writing teacher or a columnist, they feel that they have to pretend to understand what the rules are, so as to enforce them. Since the resulting efforts are of course capricious and incoherent, this creates a positive feedback loop that further promotes the general state of nervous cluelessness, and is a Bad Thing. ]

  13. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    Then, of course, there is "clueless nervousness," which is a state of anxiety all of its own marked by certainty that nothing one has written is correct.

  14. Quibbling « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    […] By arnoldzwicky Commenter Jim G on Mark Liberman's recent Language Log posting about Charles Krauthammer and passive/active voice: The Language Loggers have twice found my […]

  15. Nick Barnes said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 6:06 am

    > "statistically significant"


  16. Rachel said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    This ignorance about what "passive voice" means is not unique to English speakers. In the Latin American Literature class I took in college, which was conducted entirely in Spanish and taught by a native Spanish speaker from Argentina, the professor was talking about the story "Nos han dado la tierra" (They have given us the land) and said that the title was an example of the passive voice, which illustrated the characters' lack of agency. (I didn't say anything.)

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