Active agent avoidance

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In a long list of LLOG posts over the years, we've observed the widespread (and false) folk-linguistic view that the grammatical term passive means "vague about agency". (You can learn what it really means from Geoff Pullum's 2011 post "The passive in English".)

This confusion arises partly because passive verbs can sometimes be used to sidestep embarrassing questions about agency, as in the famous example "Mistakes were made" — and perhaps also partly because of a broader confusion about "passive" being passive and thus somehow, well, unmanly and generally weak.

But avoiding embarrassing questions about agency is a garden of many paths. And in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN yesterday,  U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley offered a tour of several of them. For example:

Regime change is something that we think is going to happen, because
at- all of the parties are going to see that Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.

More of the exchange, with some other lovely examples of active agent avoidance:

JakeTapper: Is regime change in Syria
now the official policy of the United States?
NikkiHaley: So there's multiple priorities
It's- getting Assad out is not the only priority
It- and so what we're trying to do is
obvious- obviously defeat ISIS
Secondly we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there
Thirdly get the Iranian influence out
And then finally move towards a political solution because at the end of the day this is a complicated situation there are no easy answers
and a political solution is going to have to happen but we know
that it is not going to be-
there's not
any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime, it just-
if you look at his actions, if you look at the situation it's going to be hard to see a government
that's peaceful and stable with Assad.
JakeTapper: Well
of course it's hard to but is it the position of the Trump administration
that he
cannot be ruler
of Syria anymore, regime change is
the policy?
NikkiHaley: Well the-
regime change is something that we think is going to happen, because
at- all of the parties are going to see that Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.



  1. Ed M said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    Ms. Haley's mouth is running too fast for her thinking — it sounds as though she is trying to remember what she was directed to say, cannot, and so her speech overruns the intended answer. Not the mark of a good diplomat, who listens, pauses, and replies tersely.

  2. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    Translation – "It's something that we want to happen, but of course it's not our POLICY and we aren't going to MAKE it happen, but of course I can't say THAT, because by the rule of diplomatic/corporate/bureaucratic/political non-speech, I can't say ANYTHING."

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    This is all neat etc., but what's with the glottal stop for /d/ in secondly? I've been watching quite a lot of American news lately (you can imagine why), and I've been discovering all kinds of unexpected things about American English. One of those things is glottalization of /d/. Mostly in Southernes, it seems. It would be quite unusual in most of the other accents I'm more familiar with, notably in England. So far I've usually seen it cited mainly for AAVE. And yet here we are with Joe Scarborough and his didn't [dɪʔn̩t]!

    [(myl) Syllable-final /nt/ often turns into nasalization of the preceding vowel along with final glottalization, with or without a coronal closure. Here /nd/ seems to be coming out the same way.

    This example is about 15 seconds into the clip, and about 9 seconds into Ambassador Haley's first response, so it's unclear whether I'd collect on my 10-second over/under bet.

    In any case, it's worth looking into how common this pattern is in other sources.]

  4. AntC said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 5:27 pm

    … Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.

    Having put together "Assad" and "leader", that sentence then needs a major swerve to avoid attributing agency. But how did Haley end up with "taking place"?

    Perhaps she meant "… not the leader that needs to be in place"?

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

    Jarek Weckwerth: My natural pronunciation of second ends with /t/, not /d/, and I hear it with /t/ all the time. That's not true of beckoned, etc.

  6. D.O. said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

    I don't understand it. Quite obviously Trump administration does not have a clear policy in Syria (not that Obama administration was much better). Why not just say so. Everyone already knows it. To tie my expressly political comment to a linguistic blog, let's say, what makes people want to use evasive language if they are not really evading anything?

  7. Jason said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 11:00 pm

    We need a neat capsule term for when someone is using the device of merely "predicting" a contingency as cover for advocating or endorsing that contingency. Like Enoch Powell's "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood". He's not /calling/ for race war, he's just filled with foreboding /about/ the coming race war.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 5:43 am

    But is that really what the device is usually for? Enoch Powell was probably using the literal meaning (though I can't be sure), and not _advocating_ a race war (or whatever).

    But the 'device' is usefully vague, as it is here – it's most likely that the Trump administration has not come to a firm decision about whether to take out Assad, and her statement leaves both options open without allowing going into more detail than they would have discussed in public. As AntC observes, 'taking place' makes no sense here, so the words could not have been just scripted.

    D.O.: I think the administration just wants to sound threatening to Syria, even if they're not actually going to take action. It would be hardly unprecedented.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. AntC said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 7:02 am

    @Jason, Enoch Powell was a very savvy political operator. In almost exactly the way the Trump administration isn't.

    In Powell's … I am filled with foreboding … , he knew exactly what he would be stirring up; and equally knew that au pied de la lettre he had made no threat nor departed from the Tory party line. Nevertheless, Heath had to sack him. Too clever by half for any democracy.

    Powell's style of tergiversations [a vogue word at the time] are very reminiscent of Trump's campaign pronouncements: to be taken seriously, but not literally.

    Haley is by no means as adept at it. Even if she were, any Diplomat/competent politician would see it coming a mile off. So Putin's plan is clear: he wanted Trump as President, not because Trump's policies would favour Russia, but because there would be 4 years of incompetence during which Russia could extend her influence.

  10. Keith said,

    April 11, 2017 @ 7:25 am

    Enoch Powell was highly educated, brilliantly intelligent and a very eloquent orator.

    Without checking her biography, I'm prepared to assume that Ms Haley is educated to at least US college degree level and is of reasonable intelligence. But her apparent lack of preparation for this interview and her appalling lack of eloquence makes her look like a dim-wiit.

    Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.

    That sounds, to my ear, like a failed hypercorrection; she's talking above her reading level.

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