The disembodied implied passive

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Tom Scocca, in Slate magazine, is full of scorn for the language of the New York Times. It is not always easy to discern his meaning (he uses a metaphor of lard in pie crusts, which I didn't quite follow), but he seems to think the Times is desperately concerned to "preserve its sacred function (or the appearance of its sacred function) of neutrally and modestly recording events, not judging them" — it struggles so hard to be neutral that it becomes vapid. He is incensed that the phrase "showed just how broadly" in the print edition was replaced in a later online edition by "raised new questions about how broadly", in this passage about the reported deaths of Gaddafi's son and grandsons in Tripoli:

And while the deaths could not be independently verified, the campaign against Libya's most densely populated areas raised new questions about how broadly NATO is interpreting its United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

Scocca's bitterly scornful remark about the language involved is this:

There: in the disembodied implied passive, questions were raised. About the interpretation of the mandate. And just like that, we have bounced gently away from the bomb crater to a discussion about the understanding of a policy.

The disembodied implied passive? What is this, exactly?

He's talking nonsense, of course. The extraordinary thing about Scocca's charge is that the Times uses raise in an active transitive construction, but gets dinged for a passive anyway. Raised is not a passive participle, so Scocca accuses it of being an "implied" passive. You're damned if you do, and damned for implying it if you don't!

To be more precise about the Times's language, there are two passive clauses in the quotation; they are underlined in the following:

And while the deaths could not be independently verified, the campaign against Libya's most densely populated areas raised new questions about how broadly NATO is interpreting its United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

The first one is the ordinary kind of subjectless passive clause in the complement of the copular verb be (it is understood with the deaths as grammatical subject); the second is a subjectless passive clause used as an attributive modifier of the noun areas. And of course neither of those bears any guilt for the evasiveness about agency that is the usual charge of the deluded critics who think every passive is evil. If something is unverifiable you are not under any obligation to say who was incapable of verifying it: everybody was. And if an area's population is dense you are not under any obligation to explain who populate it: all the people who live there do. Asking for every verb in a text to have an explicit subject (which is what banning the agentless passive construction demands) is lunacy, and it doesn't get any more sensible by being endlessly repeated by misguided writing tutors and toxic books of prescriptive nonsense like The Elements of Style. Scocca rightly objects to neither of these locutions.

But the verb raised is used in the active and has an explicit subject in the passage. The subject is the noun phrase the campaign against Libya's most densely populated areas. Yes, certainly, campaign is an abstract noun, not a human-denoting concrete one. But what is the suggestion here? Is the Times supposed to observe the rule that no abstract noun phrase can be the subject of a verb (in addition to the rule that it must never use a passive)? Are we never to be allowed to read that a campaign has energized the populace, or appalled the general public, or done damage to a president's image, or achieved an eventual success?

Tom Scocca does appear to know what's a passive and what isn't — at least he knew that this wasn't one. But the accusation of a "disembodied implied passive" makes his remarks about the language of the Times just about as stupid as most other analysis of language in today's media.

And let me just point out one final piece of stupidity: although the verb raised is not used in the passive in the Times sentence, the verb implied in Scocca's prose is a passive (a one-word subjectless passive clause functioning as an attributive modifier of the noun passive). If you want the full statistics: Scocca's piece contains 13 occurrences of transitive verbs, and 6 of them (discussed, formalized, obscured, delegated, rewritten, and cut) are used in the passive, a staggering 46 percent. (10 to 12 percent would be more typical of English prose.) A man accusing the New York Times of some kind of slippery hyper-neutrality connected with the passive construction uses it himself in almost half the cases where he reaches for a transitive verb. Ironic indeed. But par for the course in a world where journalists and columnists think they can prattle about the passive without really knowing what it is.

[Thanks to Marc Naimark in Paris for spotting this piece and pointing it out to be. I hope the fact that I have not opened comments will not give rise to the charge of an implied passive.]



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