Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe

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I'm grateful to Peter Howard and S. P. O'Grady, who within an hour or so both mailed me a link to this extraordinarily dumb article by James Gingell in The Guardian. As Howard and O'Grady pointed out, Gingell's wildly overstated rant illustrates a point I have made on Language Log many times before: that when language is the topic you can pother at will in a national daily despite visibly having no knowledge or understanding of your subject, and failing to get your facts right, and lacking any defensible point. No editor of a national newspaper would let drivel of this sort get by if it were about politics or sport; but on the topic of language they all will.

Gingell's thesis concerns those whose role lies in what used to be called personnel and is now called human resources. He is interested in what George Orwell, if he were alive today, would have thought of the crimes against the English language that HR people commit.

What are these crimes? I'm so glad you asked. One of his major points is that HR people use (yes, I think many of you are ahead of me here) lots of passives!

And can he tell passives from actives? At this point, since you know about my previous findings on this point, I want you to all chant together like the audience at a children's pantomime: "Oh, no he can't!"

Gingell gives three examples:

  1. Company policy is unable to support that.
  2. We are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X.
  3. The decision has been made.

The first is not a passive at all; unable is a predicative adjective, the complement of the unpassivizable verb be, and the support clause is an active transitive. It is fairly clear, then, that Gingell doesn't really know what the linguistic term "passive" means.

In the second example, the ask, remember, and comply clauses are all active voice, but the main clause with minded might be regarded as an agentless passive main clause. However, if so, it's one that couldn't be rendered active: when you say X is minded to do Y you don't mean that some other person Z has minded X to do Y, you mean that X feels inclined to do Y. There are other apparent passives that have no corresponding actives: X is rumored to be Y has no active version: you either use the verb rumor in a passive or you don't use it at all. Accusing verbs like this of being used in the passive is a bit unfair: they have to be in the passive.

(One could argue that a word like minded would be better treated as an adjective, in which case this example would not illustrate the passive at all. That wouldn't get rid of passives that lack active counterparts, though, because there are uses of say, make, and other verbs that can only be passive: compare He is said to be untrustworthy and We were made to do it by soldiers with *People say him to be untrustworthy and *Soldiers made us to do it.)

Only the third of Gingell's examples is a clear, simple, short passive clause. One clear hit and a highly dubious possible other, out of three. As a score, that's about 50%. Not a passing grade.

Someone who talks contemptuously about HR professionals' language in a major print publication, alleging addiction to the passive voice on the part of a whole profession, ought to be able to pick three uncontroversial passive examples if he knows what passives are. Writing about the topic and being unable to cite good examples is like being allowed to publish a major article about British politics in The Guardian without knowing the difference between the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer. It is not so much unprofessional as simply ludicrous.

So what else has he got? These are the phrases with which he insists HR people are dragging us all down into the pit of hell (the glosses are mine):

rightsizing (adjusting numbers of staff, typically downward, often by laying off multiple employees)
offboarding (managing exit procedures for someone who is leaving the organization)
annual leave (contractually allowed vacation time for the year)

And that's it, really, except that he suggests that the phrase human resources might itself be some kind of Orwellian joke.

Basically he's citing two euphemisms relating to the sometimes unpleasant business of removing someone from their job, and one technical term for yearly time off, and that is the totality of his evidence for "language crimes" that HR people commit as they "deliberately misuse language as a sort of low-tech mind control to avert our eyes from office atrocities and keep us fixed on our inboxes."

It is difficult to believe he is serious, but he is apparently trying to be. This isn't satire; it's standard-issue Orwellophilia, though even more over-the-top than the dreadful original essay.

I am glad I read Gingell's article, though, because it made me realize something about Orwell's undisciplined and dishonest rhetoric which I had never seen so clearly before. I won't lay it out here, because this post is long enough, but I've written about it over on Lingua Franca, q.v. (here, to be precise).

[Post partially rewritten during 1–2 August 2015. Thanks to Edmund Levin for a useful email.]

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