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

« previous post | next post »

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.

[Thanks to Geoff Nunberg for the tip-off.]


  1. Devon Strolovitch said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    As a lapsed linguist, this kind of critique never gets old for me. What would we do if ostensibly smart commentators actually did command the language of linguistics?

  2. Dave M said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    It's pretty clear that Mr. Krauthammer did indeed go to college. Seventh grade, not so much. And the only reason I'm tired of hearing about this is because I'm tired of it happening, not because I disapprove of your making a stink about it.

  3. Vicki Baker said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    Well, yes, now that you mention it, I am getting a bit tired of all the posts about nobody understands the term "passive voice."

    The solution is obvious: you're just going to have to re-brand! If it works for large corporations like AIG and Blackwater, why not for grammatical terminology?

    And you needn't spend thousands hiring a consulting firm to come up with a new name and ad campaign; Language Log is ideally posed to crowd-source a new brand identity for this misunderstood term.

    Don't they teach you linguists any marketing skills?

    And while you're at it, there's obviously a huge market for a snappy, handy term for what these people really do mean by passive voice. So just invent one, patent that sucker, and the money will start rolling in!

    Oh, wait…

    [(myl) We're way ahead of you, at least in terms of re-branding the passive: see "When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/3/2006:

    I'm not seriously advising composition students to increase their use of passive verbs. They should write clearly, and let the verbs fall where they may. But the passive voice definitely needs some better PR, if only among writing teachers.

    Perhaps we should start with a lexical make-over. We could try replacing the word passive with a competely new borrowing from a classical language, like the "hyptic voice". (Greek ὕπτιος meant "laid on one's back; turned upside down; backwards", and was also sometimes used to refer to the passive voice of verbs.) This might work — hyptic is a little weird, but there are useful resonances with hip and hypnotic. Or we could try a positive-sounding name based on the value of the passive in focusing different thematic roles –"thematic verbs" or "the focusing voice". We could say, "use thematic verbs to maintain the velocity of your narrative". Or, "seize and hold your readers' attention with the focusing voice".

    See also "The direct and vigorous hyptic voice", 8/4/2006.

    So far, no rolling (or even oozing) of money has occurred. ]

  4. Sili said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    "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"

    It would be so nice if you ran for MP – or just MEP for that matter.

    I'm not fed up. Outrage by proxy makes me feel good.

  5. R Thomas Berner said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    You'd think Krauthammer would remember the most famous passive voice sentence of them all: Mistakes were made.

    [(myl) Perhaps he does. The trouble with associated examples like that is that they are simultaneously examples of many different things — in that case: (1) a passive sentence; (2) a sentence with a tensed form of the verb to be; (3) an agentless sentence; (4) a sentence about a blameworthy issue that fails to assign explicit blame; etc. ]

  6. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    I noticed the same sentence and sent Krauthammer an email earlier today pointing out his error and suggesting he read Language Log for an explanation of why he was wrong. And lo …

    Meanwhile, this coming Sunday's NYT Book Review (not online yet; I get it early by snail-mail subscription) contains a letter from a crank inveighing against the split infinitive. It's worth reading for his "reasoning," which is so transparently specious I won't waste time here pointing out how and why. I do wonder why the Times, which (as the crank himself points out — complainingly) has no fear of the SI, publishes such nonsense. Could they be self-conscious about following the advice of just about every respectable usage commentator who has addressed the issue?

    Perhaps the solution is to deny the priviliege of commenting on English grammar to anyone who hasn't passed a formal exam on the subject — administered by the LL Educational Wing, of course. Think of the revenues from the exam fee. Think of the drudgery of grading. Think of the absurdities that could be used as raw meat for future postings.

  7. David Lupher said,

    June 12, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    Krauthammer's error leaped out at me as well. It has been occurring to me that this common misidentification of the passive voice is triggered (note the use of the passive voice) not only by the presence of an impersonal subject (in this instance, "divisions"), but also by the combinaton of impersonal subject with intransitive verb (in this instance, "have led").

    A notorious recent instance of this misidentificaton occurred (note the non-use of passive voice here) in Nancy Franklin's piece "The Dolor of Money" in the March 23 issue of "The New Yorker":

    “Two sentences later, Madoff said, ‘When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme.’ As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended upon him. Still, he had faith—he ‘believed’!—that it would soon be over. Yes , ‘soon.’ In most of the rest of the statement, one not only heard the aggrieved passive voice but felt the hand of a lawyer: ’To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties.’”

    In the next issue, a letter by Martha Kolln appeared (no passive here either) pointing out the error:

    “Bernard Madoff may be guilty on many counts, but—at least in the trial excerpts quoted by Nancy Franklin—using the passive voice is not one of them…Her point, however, is well taken. In one statement to Judge Chin, Madoff, instead of using ‘I’ as the subject, as the agent of his action, uses ‘my fraud’–as if it had a life of its own.”

    Kolln is quite correct as far as she goes, but I think it is not just the impersonal subjects—“it” and “my fraud”—that led Franklin to imagine the presence of the passive voice. It is also the fact that the verbs—“end,” “began”—were intransitive. I suspect that this pattern is particularly likely to lead to mistaken diagnoses of the passive voice.

    [(myl) We covered the Nancy Franklin piece here, and in some other posts as well. ]

  8. William said,

    June 13, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    All of which begs the question: When do you have to just suck it up and accept that people will appropriate terms and phrases that have specific and narrow definitions within the context of specific disciplines without strict regard for how practitioners of these disciplines use the terms?

    When it comes to the use of linguistic terminology in common parlance, you seem to come down on the "nothing is relevant" side, a view linguists abhor in other contexts.

    [(myl) The prescriptivists among us will complain, I think, that you mean "poses the question". As for sucking it up and accepting vox populi, I'll repeat my comment in another thread:

    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 put into a position of authority, as a writing teacher or a columnist, such people feel that they have to pretend to understand what the rules are, so as to enforce them. Which establishes a positive feedback loop that further promotes the general state of nervous cluelessness, and is a Bad Thing. ]

  9. PD said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    The original text says:

    "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."

    It is possible that CK included the full passage in an earlier draft, with the "passive" comment, but then inadvertently excised the relevant "must be closed" part with a clumsy edit.


  10. US said,

    December 29, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    Shouldn't the last line read: "And Language Log readers, I know, are getting really sick of my saying so" instead of "me saying so" ?

RSS feed for comments on this post