Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues

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A commenter named bloix here on Language Log recently pointed out yet another case of passive allegations:

First Read, a reliable purveyor of Beltway conventional wisdom, tries out the passive voice: "As for the media, we've allowed this story over race [to] bury one of the more consequential weeks of Obama's presidency thus far (the financial reform legislation becoming law, Senate passage of the jobless benefits, and Kagan clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee). Whether it's Sherrod, Gates, or Jeremiah Wright, the topic of race pushes the media's buttons like no other issue."

The facts: there are seven verbs between the quotation marks, and not a single one of them figures in a passive construction. Yes, zero for 7 (following zero for 4 here and zero for 5 here). If passives were UFOs, the country would be frantic over all the sightings, but the Air Force wouldn't be scrambling any jets.

The full details, lest anyone down here on planet Earth cares, which apparently they don't:

  1. 've = have: auxiliary verb used to form an active perfect tense construction with allowed.
  2. allowed: past participle, but used in active perfect tense clause.
  3. bury: plain form, used in an active infinitival complement clause.
  4. becoming: gerund-participle, active clause.
  5. clearing: gerund-participle, active clause.
  6. 's = is: copular verb be, but used to introduce a predicative complement NP, not in a passive construction.
  7. pushes: active transitive present-tense verb.

I know some of our commentariat think this issue is done to death in Language Log's pages, but I make no apology. I think it truly is extraordinary. A plague of UFO sightings when there is nothing in the sky. Why are people so unalarmed at this outbreak of mass insanity in the news media and the political blogosphere?

As usual, the sentences complained about not only don't have passives, they don't have evasions of blame or agency either. Look at the data: "we've allowed this story…" makes it explicit who has done the allowing; "this story … bury one of the more consequential weeks…" says the story has done the burying (the bury clause is an active transitive); "the financial reform legislation becoming law" says what the legislation did; "Kagan clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee" says who cleared the Judiciary Committee"; "race pushes the media's buttons" says what pushes the media's buttons.

What on earth do these political commentators think they are doing when they whip out the grammatical snowclone of the passive voice allegation? It really does need some explanation. Which I'm sure no one will give; instead they will whine about me being uncharitably picky about metaphorical use of terminology or some such blithering idiocy. Of course I'm charitable! I let these people go on writing their slop, don't I!! I don't go to their homes and smash their keyboards!!! I'm a very charitable, tolerant guy!!!! I'm not working myself into a fury!!!!! Really I'm not!!!!!! Those veins in my neck are always like that!!!!!!!


  1. Chris Buckey said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    I shouldn't worry about any repetition. In fact these snipes at people who don't know what they're talking about (grammatically speaking) are some of my favorites.

    [I don't worry about repetition! I don't worry about repetition! —GKP]

  2. Graham Campbell said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    @Chris Buckley Agreed!!!!!!! I really rather enjoy these departures from breakfast experiments and other such bold science. Helps keep the tone light.

  3. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:42 am

    I don't mind such posts, but I find myself reacting rather passively.

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 7:41 am

    I think most of these examples fit the hypothesis that some people think that "passive voice" means any use of a past participle. (Passive voice in English always involves a past participle, doesn't it?)

    [It's almost but not quite true that English passives always have a past participle (and thank you for an intelligent question amid the UFOlogists). There is a "concealed passive" construction seen in Your windows need washing or This thing really needs looking at by an expect. The underlined part is a passive verb phrase (a prepositional passive in the second case — note the stranded at): it has the reversed argument structure (what would normally have been an internal complement in the verb phrase is in fact the subject), and in the case of the second example there is even a by-phrase. So a passive always has a participle, and it's usually a past participle, but not quite always. —GKP]

  5. Clare said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    Are their comments moderated by fascist idiots? I don't see a comment from any of the Language Log experts on the TAPPED site. I'm about to make one myself, but I think it would be more effective to have one from a pro — even if the article is old, the author will surely receive the remark(s) and they just might resonate.

    Here's my proposal: On *every* occasion one of these incorrect passive allegations is spotted, it's noted on Language Log and readers (and experts) are implored to engage in a comment campaign on their site. If we flood the blogosphere with corrections and advice about what really constitutes an instance of the passive, it might go some way to rectifying the current confusion, which (despite evidence to the contrary) I don't think is a lost cause.

    It will certainly be more effective than merely ranting about it here, where at best we're preaching to the (mostly) converted.

    [I hope you'll forgive me if I rant anyway, Clare. It's been a rough morning. I loaded a Powerpoint slide a colleague wanted me to look at and found that 7 out of 8 phonetic symbols were displaying incorrectly because of its horrible font-substitution behavior; then a Microsoft Update program started up and told me to download yet another security patch (apparently the XML converter was so dangerous it could kill), and while I was downloading it I was first warned not to download it because it could hurt me, and second, during the installation process the installer told me it could not proceed unless I quit the following program: Microsoft Update! The thing is too dumb to either quit itself or tolerate the installation. Every time I am forced to operate Microsoft products I feel I am living in a world where the tools provided for serious work are utter junk and the people are so insane they no longer care. Some days, if Scotty would beam me up to a UFO, I'd go. —GKP]

  6. John Lawler said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    The Wall Street journal (more precisely, Christopher Zinsli, blogging on the WSJ site) has a theory about all this passive stuff.

    "… the meaning of the term 'passive voice' is being extended these days to nearly any example of weak, wordy or evasive writing, a fact acknowledged by Language Log."

    So there you are. The meaning of the term "passive voice" has changed. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Isn't this linguistics stuff wonderful?

  7. Clare said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    I wonder if someone who can update wikipedia with formatting and stuff might want to go to the page on the passive and fix it? I don't know how. The introduction is really, really rotten.

    I notice there's a section at the end on "misidentified passives" with reference to Geoff Pullum but at the moment it needs to make reference to the very top of the article.

  8. Henry said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    Am I the only one who finds it somewhat humorous that when technical terms receive altered definitions when they are adopted by the public at large, the good folks at language log and their ilk can be counted on to document and explore the change along with some pithy comments about the evolution of language, but when it's a linguistic term whose meaning shifts suddenly we have rants, raves and multiple exclamation points?

    [You're a little behind the trend here, Henry, since multiple commenters have made this point below previous posts; and it doesn't get any more sensible with repetition. Once again: I have absolutely no interest in any uses by the public at large; they can use any of the ten meanings of "passive" (I listed them in this remark attached to a comment of Mark's) as they wish. What I am talking about has nothing to do with documenting change. It has to do with abuse by ignorant grammar pontificators of a syntactic technical term with which they seek either to intimidate writers into thinking there is something wrong with their writing, or to snow readers into imagining that they have fingered a weakness in some piece of rhetoric. —GKP]

    The term "passive voice" phrase in the quoted post has the obvious (to non-linguists) meaning of evasiveness of responsibility: the media didn't bury the real news of the week, they merely allowed the race story to do so.

    Now you know how logicians feel about "begging the question". Definitions change, language evolves, deal with it. At this point, I'm half expecting to see Lynne Truss join the LL blog soon.

    [Well, letting someone else mow the lawn while you lie in a hammock may count as passive in everyday life, but the person who wrote the post I'm talking about didn't say anything about the distinction between burying a story and "allowing" another story to bury it; what he said was that the passive voice had been used. The same phrase that ignorant writing instructors put in the margin of your essay to tell you to shape up and hear the word of Strunk & White. He was trying to snow you into thinking that he knows the terminology of grammatical analysis, instead of trying to say plainly what he thought the media were doing. As for definitions changing… don't make me repeat myself. Don't make me repeat myself. —GKP]

  9. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:36 am


    "The Wall Street journal (more precisely, Christopher Zinsli, blogging on the WSJ site) …"

    Did you notice anything funny about that article? I didn't, at first. (But I have to say I just skimmed through it then.)

    It's a good example of how natural the passive sounds.

  10. Outis said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    The only conclusion I can draw from this and previous posts on passive voice is that this word has taken on a new meaning completely detached from its grammatical definition. As descriptive linguists, perhaps we should try to describe this new meaning instead of suppressing it.

    Here's my go:

    passive voice (n.): perceived femininity, lack of assertiveness or desire to shirk responsibility by means of a grammatical voice, regardless of the actual usage of the grammatical voice. See also: spin, royal we, flip flop

  11. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    Prof. Pullum's reply to Henry put me in mind of another "popularized technicality" (in Fowler's felicitous phrase) — "learning curve." In business, a steep learning curve is very much a Good Thing. In popular usage, however, it seems to be thought of as an obstacle to climb, wherefore steepness is the opposite of a Good Thing. There's no simple way to differentiate the layperson's bad steep learning curve from the cognoscento's good steep learning curve, as there is when "voice" follows "passive" to indicate that the author is using the technical term in the technical sense. But context usually disambiguates anyway. And I've finally reached the point where misuse of the techincal term no longer automatically triggers my lecture on what "learning curve" ("improvement curve" might be a better label) really connotes.

    And besides, this is the Internet age, and everyone's an expert on everything — No?

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    In order to figure out what the blogger means by the passive voice here, it would be helpful to see his/her/its/their proposed alternative sentence as reworded to avoid the perceived passivity. But I can't for the life of me figure out what it would be. I mean, is the topic-setting, "As for the media" (sort of like the wa particle in Japanese) the problem, because somehow deemed evasive? Would the sentence seem "less passive" if it began "The media has allowed"? I really haven't a clue. Is it the X allows Y to bury Z? Maybe? Maybe not? The whole thing doesn't seem in any sense vague about agency/responsibility — First Read seems pretty clearly to be saying that the media didn't do what it should and that the fault for that lies with the media itself, right?

    I suppose it's possible that it's not even meant as a criticism of the sentence. Perhaps if the point of the quoted observation by First Read was to claim that the media had acted "passively" (by allowing itself to be suckered or stampeded by excessive fascination with story Y into failing to adequately cover story Z w/o having affirmatively intended that consequence), "trying out the passive voice" could be deemed a rhetorically effective way of making that point rather than a way of obscuring the responsible party or trying to exculpate them? But I still really haven't a firm sense of what was meant — I can't derive an alternative but coherent sense of "passive voice" that would enable me to predict what other example sentences would or would not be judged passive by the particular blogger.

  13. Henry said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    "It has to do with abuse by ignorant grammar pontificators of a syntactic technical term with which they seek either to intimidate writers into thinking there is something wrong with their writing"

    And many of the previous posts on LL fit this description. But this time, it simply doesn't.

    The post you linked to isn't from a grammar pontificator, it's from a political blog. The attack here is quite clearly not about grammar, but rather about the content of the quoted post. The point isn't that the quoted material "lacks punch" or any such thing, the point being made is that the media is avoiding responsibility for their actions.

    I'd suggest that a group of political bloggers fits the definition of the "public at large" pretty well. I agree with your previous posts about grammar pontificators, but that simply isn't what's happening this time.

    ['Tis too! So nyaaaaah! —GKP, running short of new ways to argue…]

  14. Jeff DeMarco said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    Can't help thinking of this xkcd classic:

  15. Dan K said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    Notwithstanding the annotations from GKP, I'm with Henry. I doubt that many people see the phrase "passive voice" used in this way and believe the writer is claiming to know "the terminology of grammatical analysis." They probably just believe (correctly) that the writer is claiming to know good writing from bad, and that this specific case has something to do with passivity, colloquially construed. Virtually nobody knows or cares that it's not "voice" nor that "passive" often isn't exactly right either. To most people, and especially most non-linguists, I imagine it's not that much different from, You could have written this better, it's too… I don't know, passive or something."

    I don't like ignorant pedants either, but it doesn't bother me any more when it's in my field than elsewhere. Of course, I'm a little more likely to catch it when it's closer to home. In either case, I think it's well established at this point that non-linguists don't know what "passive voice" means anymore, and of course that ignorant people often misbehave.

  16. JLR said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    I think it's well established at this point that non-linguists don't know what "passive voice" means anymore, and of course that ignorant people often misbehave.

    Well, we should just let the sloppy, ignorant loudmouths have their way, then.

  17. DonBoy said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    J. W. Brewer, and maybe others: the blogger's complaint is clearly (to me) the formation "we've allowed this story over race [to] bury one of the more consequential weeks of Obama's presidency." He/she (named "Mori", so I really don't know!) would prefer "We've covered this race in such a way as to bury one of the more…." That's the active/passive distinction that they're misdescribing as "passive voice".

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    @DonBoy: I think you're right. I was thinking it was "(the financial reform legislation becoming law, Senate passage of the jobless benefits, and Kagan clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee)" and Mori wanted something like "(Obama signs the financial-reform legislation, the Senate passes the jobless benefits, and the Senate Judiciary committee approves Obama's nomination of Kagan)". The original version is the kind of thing the prescriptivist Wilson Follett described as "the noun plague". If I'd been right, by the way, the score would have been 0 for 10. But no, Mori Dinauer must want the agent to be the media whenever possible when the topic is what the media has done.

  19. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    "some of our commentariat think this issue is done to death in Language Log's pages"

    I don't think that, for the record. I just thought my own passive-unrelated peeve was more interesting, at least in the DeLong case. That's the way with peeves.

    However I fully agree that the non-materialization of the announced passiveness in this particular passage is far and away its most salient feature.

  20. Greg B said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    I don't get the argument that 'passive voice' has taken on another meaning, where it means language which is evasive or denies agency, and all that is left is for good descriptivists to document this. Why don't I get that argument? Because in the examples I've seen on LL, even that definition doesn't apply! Accusations of 'passive voice' are not supported by the ostensible evidence, namely, what the target of the accusation has said. This seems to hold whether we apply the standard of a 'syntactic technical term' or the standard of 'gee whiz, that person sure was wishy-washy'. If I were accused of 'passive voice' in my writing according to this new standard, I would have no idea how to rewrite things accordingly (as J.W. Brewer similarly concluded). Except, maybe, to shriek "I did it! I did it! I confess, it was me, it was all me!!" I can only conclude that these uses of 'passive voice' are attempts to shore up an accusation of passivity with the objectivity (and thus authority) of linguistic analysis, not some coincidence of colloquial and technical language.

  21. Henry said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    @Dan K and others, I think the difference is that when I read this, I don't see Mori as saying anything about good writing style vs. bad writing style. I interpret the post as complaining that the media are being vague about agency regarding an event in which the media were clearly the primary agent. Any grammatical construction making that same point would have been described as "passive voice." And as LL has pointed out before, this is a common popular definition that does not correspond with the technical definition.

    That's what makes this completely different than, say, the resumé post from a few days ago. That writer was recommending that people say the same thing but in a different style. Tapped, however, is complaining about the content, using the (technically wrong) popular definition of a technical term to do so.

    GKP claims to have no problem with this usage, so I can only imagine that he interpreted the post to be about style and grammar also. I personally find that to be a strained interpretation but obviously interpretations can vary. I'd be very curious to know the evidence for this reading. In a more general sense, how does one distinguish between correctly using the popular definition of a technical term vs. incorrectly using the technical definition?

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    DonBoy may be right, but either a) it seems like a particularly petty quibble on the blogger's part (b/c the "allowed to" formulation really doesn't seem calculated to let the media off the hook; or b) it's an argument about the world, not the best way to describe it. It became clear toward the end of the thread on DeLong that his real beef was that the other writer had not written in a way that unequivocally agreed DeLong's own view that Germany was 100% to blame for the unfortunate events of 1914. Which is not a view everyone else thinks is, you know, actually true. Accusing someone else's prose style of being evasive as to agency or of obscuring responsibility etc. presupposes that the assignment of agency/responsibility in the particular situation is straightforward and undisputed and only the disreputable and wishy washy could wish to avoid talking about it. Depending on ones view of the "media" (itself of course an abstraction or reification, not an actual single entity capable of volition or moral agency) and how it works, it's possible that the rewrite DonBoy suggests (or suggests the blogger would suggest) would tend to make the sentence less accurate. To demand that prose style clearly assign responsibility and blame for every event when human activity is complex and lots of things happen as the result of multiple interacting causes w/o anyone specifically desiring or intending a specific result is . . . not necessarily a praiseworthy agenda.

  23. John Lawler said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    Y'know, I think the real problem is simply the use of the word voice as a grammatical term.

    The fact that voice has a specific grammatical meaning is about as relevant and familiar to most educated English speakers as the fact that argument has a specific mathematical meaning (i.e, not at all). For most people, voice has something to do with the personality expressed in a discourse; terms like patient voice, dispirited voice, and the like abound. So the phrase passive voice sounds, to those not acquainted with grammar (i.e, just about everybody) like it's describing a variety of discourse that is pretty close to what Outis describes above. They are probably aware that it has some grammatical sense, but that could only be important to "a bunch of nitpicking professors", to quote Christopher Zinsli.

    I've never been fond of using the term passive voice in English, which doesn't really have grammatical voice any more, and where there are several different constructions that can be called "Passive" (e.g, Bill got fired vs Bill was fired). This is yet another reason.

  24. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    I think the problem is this. People who use 'passive voice' in the newer sense don't, so far as I can see, just mean 'evasiveness about agency'; they mean something like 'language which is evasive about agency'. Although they are primarily concerned with evasiveness, they think they are pointing to a linguistic feature which shows that evasiveness. This was very clear in the de Long case, where he though he could demonstrate passiveness by pointing to small snippets of text extracted from sentences. It's less clear here, but I think it still applies; as others have pointed out, the text doesn't really leave us in any doubt about agency; it's just that it has a grammatical feature ('allowed the story to bury' rather than just 'buried') which makes the imputation of agency less direct than it might be.

    But this sense is inherently unstable, because language is not in itself evasive about agency. Statements, considered in context and in the light of what really happened, are evasive about agency. 'My house has fallen down' may or may not be evasive about agency, depending on what caused it to fall down and on whether that is relevant here. In debating the de Long case, it quickly became clear that to decide whether the language under discussion was genuinely 'passive', we needed to decide what the causes of the First World War actually were. If people want to give 'passive' a completely new sense unrelated to grammar (in addition to the non-grammatical senses it has already), fine. But I don't think we've reached that stage yet, and while we're in the limbo between we remain subject to confusion.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    I agree with John Lawler that a large part of the problem is the use of voice as a grammatical term, a leftover from Latin grammar. In ordinary speech "voice " has long had a metaphorical meaning, as in "vox populi" (= what the people are saying, or want to say), but more recently another one has been added, at least in American English: people wanting to write anything are urged to "find their voice", "speak in their own voice", etc, and these phrases have entered general usage, so the word "voice" has acquired a connotation "expressive of author's personality". This meaning of the term "voice" has nothing to do with grammatical structure, especially among people who have not received much instruction in grammar of any kind, so "passive voice" for many people means "expressing a passive attitude", hence weak, wishy-washy, etc. In this context, it is no wonder that some commenters to previous discussions of the passive reported seemingly perverse incidents such as being criticized for using "the passive voice" when grammatically they had not used a single passive form (as in the paragraph under discussion today), and even being corrected by having some of their active verbs turned into passive ones, in contexts where expressing the author's "voice" or personality was irrelevant (eg factual reports).

    So, much as I dislike the "Linguists, deal with it!" attitude, which seems to mean "Stop fussing and forget it!", I do think that linguists need to deal with the problem by finding a less ambiguous term than "voice" to describe the grammatical difference between "active" and "passive" forms of the verb, or forms of the sentence. For instance, would "passive construction" be a more suitable term? Thus far, people don't think "personality" when they hear "construction" (but of course, "construction" would not apply to languages where the passive is marked morphologically rather than syntactically). Why not just "passive form"?

  26. Clare said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    Oh, don't get me wrong, I love the rants! I just think we should be activists, too. I've mentioned before that this widespread misunderstanding of what the passive means is something I've only recently discovered through reading the Language Log (sorry — through reading Language Log). I suspect it's restricted to American English, for example. It can be stopped. I won't let it get to Australia.

    (And, nothing bugs me more than Microsoft Update, which this week lead me to accidentally delete Office 2003 in a fit of rage — while overseas without installation disks — after it silently installed a trial version of Office 12 and requested a 25 character product key every time I opened an Office Program. Difficult to restore. Wicked, wicked Microsoft Update.)

  27. anchorageite said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    I can't help wonder whether Virginia's anti-Health Care Act lawsuit will come down to a passive voice investigation. The Virginia law that supposedly protects residents from the federal law states:

    No resident of this Commonwealth … shall be required [by whom?] to obtain or maintain a policy of individual insurance coverage …. No provision of this title shall render a resident of this Commonwealth liable [to whom?] for any penalty … as a result of his failure to procure or obtain health insurance.

  28. Levi Montgomery said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    If I might make a suggestion…

    As a writer who is all about craft, I'm constantly butting heads with the admonitions so frequently given to writers by each other, including the thoroughly moldy chestnut about passive voice. When I send people off to the list of links I've built over the years (including many of yours), they seem to split into two camps: those who don't want to play in my sandbox anymore, and those who come back and tell me you simply have no idea what passive voice is.

    My suggestion would be this: since your attacks on the ufologists are so much easier to find than a decent definition of passive voice, with examples (although I've sent those to the naysayers, as well), perhaps you could include a link to your favorite definition each time you post one of these. No — scratch that. Not your favorite, just the simplest and easiest to understand definition of passive voice, along with an explanation of how ludicrous it is to call for its prohibition.


  29. Christy said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    Personally, I take these political rants about passive voice to mean the following:

    "Listen to me. I'm a better writer/speaker/editor than {insert other guy's name here} so I'm right on this issue and he's wrong." Sort of the grammarian version of the literature argument that goes something like this (reduced for absurdity):

    "Shakespeare was racist. I'm not. I'm better than Shakespeare."

  30. Spectre-7 said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:16 pm


    …I do think that linguists need to deal with the problem by finding a less ambiguous term than "voice" to describe the grammatical difference between "active" and "passive" forms of the verb, or forms of the sentence.

    Well, there was Mark Liberman's suggestion of adopting the Hyptic Voice. That wouldn't fix the voice issue, but the fact that hyptic has no other meaning to the average English speaker could do wonders in clarifying the whole issue.


    …they seem to split into two camps: those who don't want to play in my sandbox anymore, and those who come back and tell me you simply have no idea what passive voice is.

    Maddening, isn't it? I've personally dealt with the issue by adopting a strict policy of neither asking for nor offering advice on writing. There are simply too many witch-doctors out there, and most are perfectly impervious to reason.

  31. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    Scptre-7: the Hyptic Voice

    Too cryptic. A voice from the Hypt? The voice you assume under hypnosis?

    Levi: those who come back and tell me you simply have no idea what passive voice is.

    That's my point: most (= the vast majority of) people nowadays do not connect "voice" with a grammatical form. Next time, ask them what they mean by "passive voice".

  32. Adair said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Perhaps, people should check the meaning on Google first before they use a terminology if they are not sure about it. All I could find about "Passive voice" on the search engine were web pages talking about a terminology for grammar.

    Although Google is not the best solution for everything, I am confident to say that it has shown what the common sense is in this case.

    @Clare: Microsoft update is really annoying to me as well. It may help if you switch to 'manual update' rather than automatic update.

  33. Jonathan said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    It's not some mysterious thing. I looked it up in the dictionary that comes in my computer and it gave a very nice, straightforward definition, under passive: "2 Grammar: denoting or relating to a voice of verbs in which the subject undergoes the action of the verb (e.g., they were killed as opposed to he killed them). The opposite of active." I blame Orwell who attached that ethical stigma to the passive in "Politics and the English Language."

  34. D.O. said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    Well, here's what eminent Mark Liberman had already said about such a situation. Quote (internal citations ommitted):

    I thought that the grammatical term passive had developed a spectrum of everyday meanings like "vague about agency", "listless writing", "lacking in vigor", and "failure to take sides in a conflict". But I've now reluctantly concluded that for some members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".

    Wait for the pasive voice, excuse my French construction.

  35. John Lawler said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    @Jonathan –
    Not a straighforward definition at all, I'm afraid.
      First of all, English passive is not a "voice of verbs" in the grammatical sense; a "voice" is an inflection, and English doesn't have a passive inflection — it has several syntactic constructions, but no inflection.
      Second, passive has very little to do with a verb per se, but rather with the whole verb phrase and its grammatical relations (Subject, Object, etc.).
      Third, the definition is notional (it uses vague terms like "undergoes the action") instead of categorical.
      Fourth, it doesn't provide tests for recognition or differentiation of a passive from other constructions, like the following, which are not passive:
        a) I'm convinced he's lying
        b) She's scared of me
        c) It's loaded with buckshot
        d) They're all tired.
    Sorry, no cigar.

  36. David Margolies said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Comments on Tapped do not help. This article by Paul Waldman

    contained the following:

    "Instead, what we get is a lot of passive-voice construction about procedural matters and a hamstrung institution. The clearest case may be this ABC News article, which says the bill "failed to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate" and that "the bill has languished in the Senate because of partisan gridlock."

    I commented that whatever else one could say about the ABC statements, they were not passive-voice constructions. The comment was 'submitted to the author for approval' and never seen again.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    D.O.: … the dictionary that comes in my computer … gave a very nice, straightforward definition, under passive: "2 Gramma.r denoting or relating to a voice of verbs in which the subject undergoes the action of the verb

    Straightforward? perhaps for a person who has "the vocabulary of a Harvard graduate" (a formula you can still see in some ads – probably vaguely equivalent to "the mind of a rocket scientist") and who is quite familiar with grammatical analysis and grammatical jargon.

    "Denoting" (a word often misunderstood); "a voice of verbs" (??). If you are not familiar with the grammatical use of "voice", the precise meanings of "denote" and even "verb" (more people thatn you think do not know the latter), of grammatical "subject", the meaning of "undergo" in a grammatical context) and of "the action of the verb" (as opposed to its alleged "voice" ??), you are in the dark.

  38. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    (someething funny happened when I tried to post my 5:14 message – a whole slew of prevous comments were missing, the last one was Andrew's just before my previous comment, and it was cut off at the end of a line, so I had not yet seen John Lawler's comment on "straightforward", which agrees with this one.

  39. James C. said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Just wait until the vox populi starts using the term “antipassive”.

  40. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    Marie-Lucie: most (= the vast majority of) people nowadays do not connect "voice" with a grammatical form.

    I find this improbable. I think most (in either sense) people who have heard of the passive voice at all do think of it as a grammatical form, though they may not have a clear idea what grammatical form it is. Microsoft Word's grammar check checks for passive voice; it is not, I hope, checking for vagueness about agency. Teachers and editors censure people for using the passive voice on grammatical grounds, e.g. because they begin sentences with 'It is'. The recent resume discussion is an example of this. Grammatical features which may be considered passive include use of intransitive verbs, lack of a personal subject, use of the word 'was', etc.

    I don't think that when 'passive' is used to denote vagueness about agency this is a completely different use. There is an overlap – grammatical features are seen as signs of vagueness about agency, (which of course some of them are, to some extent, in some circumstances).

  41. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    Andrew, I said a grammatical form, not "a variety of grammatical features" such as the ones you mention, which so dilute the grammatical meaning of "paasive voice" as to make grammatically meaningless.

  42. marie-lucie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    Sorry, I wrote too fast: the end of the sentence should say "as to make it meaningless as a grammatical term".

  43. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Soon, someone will complain about Obama using the first person pronoun excessively while simultaneously weaseling out of responsibility for his actions with passive constructions.

    Now. Who can correctly guess the next languagey accusation that will be used against him? We better not discuss it out here in the open, in case we just give them ideas. Let's form a secret conspiratorial newsgroup – we could call it Lingolist or something ;-)

  44. 400guy said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Let me fix this.  When First Read wrote "the media … allowed [one story] to bury [other stories]", he obviously meant "the media made unwise, unconsidered decisions about what stories to cover; the public has been ill served."  There, a passive!

  45. John Lawler said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    Sorry, Marie-Lucie. It took me a while to post that, and apparently I kept my place in the queue. As you suggest, a dictionary is not a good source for figuring out grammar.

  46. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    The author wrote "First Read tries out the passive voice." That sounds like the author thinks he is using the normal grammatical meaning. Grammarians do use words like "voice" and "mood" in odd ways, but those ways are quite easy to spot, and one of them is in the phrase "passive voice". If people want to use "passive" in a non-grammatical way they are free to do so, but they do make themselves look stupid by using stock grammatical expressions incorrectly. If they were being intelligent (rather than just trying to LOOK intelligent) they could easily use the word "passive" in a way that wasn't confusing. For example: "First Read's style is very passive."

  47. groki said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    John Lawler: the following, which are not passive:
    a) I'm convinced he's lying
    b) She's scared of me
    c) It's loaded with buckshot
    d) They're all tired.

    [my comment is not specifically directed at John Lawler, but simply jumps off from 3 of the examples.] statements of a similar form that actually are passives:

    a) as DA, I'm convinced by the evidence he's lying about his whereabouts that night. (active: the evidence convinces me.)

    c) in the shell factory, it's loaded with buckshot by the guy in the green shirt. (active: green-shirt-guy loads it with buckshot.)

    d) when my friends camp in the back country, they're all tired by the first day's hike. (active: the hike tires them.)

    since "be-verb + past participle" is common to both usages, this sparked some questions:

    (1) linguistically speaking, what connection if any is there between the "copula + predicate-adjective" form of John Lawler's examples and the passive-voice form?

    (2) is it known which form came first, and did either or both come from older varieties of English or its ancestors?

    (3) did one form exist and then cause or influence the development of the other?

  48. Julie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:30 pm


    I think that any layperson's definition of "passive voice" must refer to the "by" phrase.
    For practical purposes I think you could tell them that a sentence using the passive voice can take a "by" phrase (whether or not it actually has one). That is, the agent of the participial verb, when specified, comes after "by." If it can't take a "by" phrase, it's probably not passive. If what comes after "by" is not an agent, it's probably not passive either.

  49. Jonathan said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

    Well, I guess the dictionary definition I gave works fine–but only if you already know what the passive voice is and are willing to overlook some finer points. In other words, not so much.

  50. susie said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    I wouldn't mind people using the term incorrectly if they didn't chide people for using the whatever they think the passive is.

  51. marie-lucie said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 2:07 am

    In some languages I am studying, there is a passive "voice", or at least passive morphology, but no by-construction, and even though UG-ists would be horrified, this is quite common among the world's languages. You don't say "The moose was killed by Bill", but literally "The moose was killed, it was Bill who did it".

    [I believe it is actually most (considerably more than half) of the languages of the world that have short passives but not long passives. And of course hardly any of them are afflicted with nutcases advising them not to use the useful construction in question. —GKP]

  52. John Cowan said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    OT, but the OP brought it up as well as some of the commenters:

    When Microsoft Office fails, or you don't have the $$$$ to upgrade it, switch to the better office suite, (and that's their website, too). It does all the things MSOffice does within reason, it doesn't have that stupid ribbon that makes it impossible to find anything, it's both free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech, it handles many document formats (including all the MSOffice ones) out of the box, it works the same way on Windows, Linux, and the Mac, and you can download it, order it on a CD, or (legally) fileshare it. Best of all, it completely lacks anything like MSWord's stupid grammar checker!

    Go You'll never look back.

  53. Mabon said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    Re: Open Office
    The Open Office web site is currently "down for …maintenance", apparently caused by all of us LL-ers flocking to it. [insert satire marker/snark sign]
    Oh, the power of this blog!

  54. Levi Montgomery said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    My usual response (at least as I (finally) begin to mellow, is to ignore them and go on. But I'm still looking for that definitive write-up, something even those in the Bean-Counter School of Literary Criticism can understand and accept. Well, maybe not accept. There's something unanswerable in "You used thirty-six adverbs and seven instances of the passive voice, therefore you're not a very good writer." Kind of like "Your car is green. Mine is red. Therefore I'm a better driver."

  55. Sili said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 5:59 am

    Those veins in my neck are always like that!!!!!!!

    Somebody should draw a LanguageLog manga.

    I seem to recall there being some saying about three exclamation marks being a sign of madness, while five is a sure indicator of all-out, knickers-on-the-head lunacy. No offence.

    [Oh, how could I take offense at being charged with a little thing like all-out, knickers-on-the-head lunacy… People overestimate my intolerance, they really do. Plus I'm going to kill you. If I could just get these knickers off my head… —GKP]

  56. Bloix said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Often, the people who incorrect use "passive voice" are actually criticizing the use of abstract or inanimate nouns as subjects. In the quoted passage above, we find that "the story over race … bur[ied]" more important stories, and "the topic of race pushes the media's buttons."

    So the actors are the abstract nouns, "the story" and "the topic." The media "allows" something to happen, and it gets its "buttons pushed" by "the story" and "the topic." The media itself does nothing, as if news comes into existence without the intervention of any human actors working for newspapers and TV shows.

    When action is attributed to an abstract noun, the human beings involved can appear to be passive – and that, I think, is the origin of the error.

  57. Bloix said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 3:03 am

    And it's worth noting that some of our most important rights are protected in the passive voice. From the Bill of Rights:

    4th Amendment:
    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …

    5th Amendment
    No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …

    7th Amendment
    … the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …

    8th Amendment
    Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

    15th Amendment
    The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

    19th Amendment
    The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

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