Bad newspaper prose (yes, with passives)

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Those who want a clear example of truly dreadful prose, dreadful in large part because of the use of the much-loathed agentless passive, should look at examples like this, from the UK Daily Mail website on Sunday, July 12:

The medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures are unnecessary, it has been reported.

Sir Bruce Keogh is said to have described waste in the health service as "profligate" and called for it to be reduced.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, the former heart surgeon estimated that up to 15% of the NHS budget is spent on treatments that should not take place.

The first paragraph relies mainly on an active transitive that has nothing wrong with it, but is then undercut by a disastrously inept and utterly uninformative agentless passive postscript "it has been reported", which admits vaguely to presenting hearsay but does not reveal anything about the source. (The syntactician John Robert Ross dubbed this construction Slifting, meaning S-lifting, i.e. lifting a subordinate clause to give it prominence and the start of a sentence. The syntax is basically that of It has been reported [that] the medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures are unnecessary, but the subordinate content clause that has been lifted out and preposed so it opens the sentence. What is syntactically the original main clause is left dangling at the end. It would be a clumsy sentence either way, but the Slifting version is particularly klutzy.)

The second sentence again admits to presenting hearsay: not "Sir Bruce Keogh described waste…" but "Sir Bruce Keogh is said to have described waste…": a second concealment of the source (they can't say he said it, because he didn't say it to the Mail, and they weren't at the conference of senior doctors and managers where he said it).

Only in the third paragraph does it finally come out: if you wanted this anti-National-Health-Service story you should have bought the Sunday Telegraph instead of the Mail on Sunday, because they've simply lifted the story from a rival newspaper of higher quality.

This is bad and evasive writing (from, incidentally, what I believe is the most successful newspaper website in the world — go figure). And the use of the passive construction does have something to do with it. But if you want to identify what makes the writing so terrible, you shouldn't just condemn passive clauses themselves, as so many have ineptly tried to do. You have to dig deeper and look at the rhetorical structure of paragraphs and sequences of paragraphs. The sins here are the evasiveness and clumsiness, not the use of passive clauses.

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