"Experience is different"

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Zoe Williams, "With the NHS, reality has finally caught up with Theresa May", The Guardian 1/8/2018 [emphasis added]:

“If you look across the NHS, experience is different,” the prime minister flailed, as if the fact there wasn’t a stroke victim waiting for four hours in an ambulance outside every hospital was proof of her competence. “Experience is different,” she repeated, taking a moment’s refuge in a new evasive tic, of turning everything into a passive voice where nothing is the consequence of anybody’s actions. We’re just a nation of people having a set of experiences which are all different, and everybody’s working very hard because we all want things to be good.

This is far from the only example in this week's Google News index of passive confusion. Thus Albert Berneko, "ESPN: It's Bad That We Keep Squeezing Juicy Quotes Out Of LaVar Ball", Deadspin 1/10/2018:

“There’s always oxygen somewhere,” reads an article on ESPN.com this morning, criticizing the Los Angeles Lakers’ front-office muckety-mucks for their radio silence on the antics of hot-taking sports dad LaVar Ball, “and a firebrand like Ball will always find it.” This seems a bit rich, coming from the bellows. […]

The Lakers have a problem now, in ESPN’s formulation. ESPN reporters think the Lakers must do a better job of preventing LaVar Ball from making, to ESPN reporters who follow him to Lithuania, stick a microphone in his face, and ask him for his opinions on issues related to his famous sons, statements that those ESPN reporters may then parse for their most incendiary content and package as inflammatory on ESPN’s various platforms. Why are their executives so silent on this issue? What is wrong with the Lakers that they have not stopped us from making an entire factory out of the hot takes of this famous gasbag? Don’t they know that [extremely appropriate passive voice] there is always oxygen somewhere?

"Experience is different"? "There is always oxygen somewhere"? Several years ago, I published an obituary for the passive voice — "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 3/12/2009:

I'm afraid that the traditional sense of passive voice has died after a long illness. It has ceased to be; it's expired and gone to meet its maker, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It's an ex-grammatical term. Its ghost walks in the linguistics literature and in the usage of a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals. For everyone else, what passive voice now means is "construction that is vague as to agency".

Or sometimes, just "insufficiently decisive phrasing" — George Hostetter, "Scharton on City Council run: 'I think I’m going to do it.'", Central Valley Observer 1/3/2018:

Slowly but surely, Craig Scharton is losing the passive voice when discussing his political future.

I asked Scharton last week if he’s going to run this year for the Fresno City Council District 3 seat.

“I think I’m going to do it,” Scharton said.

That’s not exactly a Patton-like call to arms. But as you may recall, Scharton’s response last September to my same question was: “I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question. It’s something I’ve certainly thought about.”

Some of my colleagues continue to hope that the general public can be educated to use this term correctly — see for example Geoff Pullum's valiant tutorial post "The passive in English", 1/24/2011.

Perhaps things will change some day, in a conjectural future when schools again routinely teach grammatical analysis. For now, those of us who retain the old fashioned usage can enjoy the irony of passive-voice complaints about passive-voice usage, e.g. David Sharman, "Editor slams county’s newspapers as he launches bid to hire journalists", Hold The Front Page 1/12/2018:

In a message to potential investors, he said: “We say Somerset has been poorly served by local newspapers. Newsprint titles around here don’t look much further than their town boundaries. They are tabloid in look and tabloid in style.

“Too often ‘news’ coverage simply doesn’t ask difficult questions, it is usually written in the passive voice, it rarely dares to express an opinion or challenge what is happening. Often we read pieces that are thinly disguised press releases.



  1. Milan No said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 8:27 am

    I wonder if that change in meaning was or is being accompanied by a semantic reanalysis of "passive": Away from the meaning Merriam-Webster describes as "acted upon by an external agency (or) receptive to outside impressions or influences" (describing the subject of the sentence) to the meaning they describe as "lacking in energy or will: LETHARGIC", interpreted metonymically as describing the speaker. Lethargic seems to be an apt description of prose that "rarely dares to express an opinion or challenge what is happening"

  2. D.O. said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    Maybe linguists should change the technical term to something else? Chances are small, academe is really conservative, but that might have been an interesting experiment. And yes, don't tell anybody that that is what would have been known previously as "passive voice". Or make it into a retronym "grammatical passive voice" as many already do.

  3. Zeppelin said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

    I've noticed people using "short-term memory" to mean "inability to remember long-ago things", so that "having a short-term memory" is a failing as opposed to a precondition for normal mental functioning.

    I wonder if this annoys brainologists as much as the "passive voice" thing annoys linguists.

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    @Zeppelin: I'd never heard this before, but googling "have a short-term memory" shows very clearly that it's Out There. Looks like it's often used in the context of talking about sports, where it seems to be regarded as a Good Thing (see e.g. http://www.espn.co.uk/blog/miami-dolphins/post/_/id/26854/coming-off-poor-game-dolphins-xavien-howard-must-have-short-term-memory).

    If I were a "brainologist", I think my first reaction would be confusion rather than annoyance.

  5. Zeppelin said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

    @Bob Ladd: It came to my mind as I read this post because I'd come across the phrase again in a video game (published in 2007) just the other day. It's used there to describe the public's poor memory for history and politics.


  6. DWalker07 said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    Yep, most people who complain about the "passive voice" ought to instead complain about "passive statements" or "passive phrases" or "weak phrases" or "meaningless mumbo-jumbo" instead of using a technical term.

    Or maybe we ought to accept the obituary for this term — being the good descriptivists that we are!

    To me, this is in line with people using "calculus" to mean something like "calculations", as in "this new political (whatever) needs to be factored in to the calculus". That's not what calculus means.

    Also, optics. Yuck.

  7. Brett said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

    @DWalker07: Except the meaning you don't like is the older meaning of "calculus" (in both English and Latin). What is commonly referred to as "the calculus" takes its name from Leibniz's paper, which was titled in Latin, but in English translation means: "A new method for determining maxima and minima, as well as tangents, which is impeded by neither fractional nor irrational quantities, and a singular type of calculus for them."

  8. Ellen Kozisek said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

    Sometimes "passive voice" seems to mean anything with "is" in it.

  9. maidhc said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    So to keep our linguists happy, should we distinguish three types of voice–active, passive and copula? "Experience is different" doesn't seem very active to me, but of course it's not a passive.

    Or is copula just lumped in with active by definition?

    [(myl) In traditional grammar, "voice" was a set of options available to (nearly) any verb for how to structure the expression of its arguments. Or as the OED puts it, "A category used in the classification of verb forms serving to indicate the relation of the subject to the action. Traditionally used of the opposition between active and passive; however some languages, for example classical Greek, also have a middle voice".

    Copula is defined as "That part of a proposition which connects the subject and predicate; the present tense of the verb to be (with or without a negative) employed as a mere sign of predication". In English, this usage dates to the middle of the 17th century:

    1649 H. Hammond Vindic. Addresse 25 It belongs to the Copula, or word [Is].

    And in that sense, the copula is clearly not at all a grammatical voice, and you certainly won't make linguists happy by calling it one.]

  10. DaveK said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

    People needed a less-clumsy term for "statement deliberately vague about agency" so they appropriated one from grammar. If grammarians want to keep " passive voice" restricted to its technical meaning, the best way is to use redirection and come up with a new, snappy term for the evasive construction we're talking about.

    [(myl) I wish that "people" were as precise as that — the actual usage suggests a range of meanings from "deliberately vague about agency" through "not as specific about agency as I think they should be" to "not as forthright and specific in general as I think they should be" to "kind of vague and flabby".

    I did once suggest giving up on passive, due to its penumbra of associated flabbiness, and substituting the winner in a Rename the Passive competition ("When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006):

    Perhaps we should start with a lexical make-over. We could try replacing the word passive with a completely new borrowing from a classical language, like the "hyptic voice". (Greek ὕπτιος meant "laid on one's back; turned upside down; backwards", and was also sometimes used to refer to the passive voice of verbs.) This might work — hyptic is a little weird, but there are useful resonances with hip and hypnotic. Or we could try a positive-sounding name based on the value of the passive in focusing different thematic roles –"thematic verbs" or "the focusing voice". We could say, "use thematic verbs to maintain the velocity of your narrative". Or, "seize and hold your readers' attention with the focusing voice".

    I'm not very good at this naming business, so let's have a Rename the Passive contest. If you've got a great idea, let me know. The winner gets a year's subscription to Language Log, a lifetime supply of by-phrases, and other exciting prizes.


  11. Michael said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

    As further evidence of the futility of fighting for the original meaning, I offer the following: My nephew (11) read to me from a book called "Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View." The story or essay he read was a snarky takedown of the original opening crawl in which a critical narrator identified the phrase "It is a period of civil war" as being in "the passive voice." This is what 11-year-olds are now learning from their popular media. It's over.

  12. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 12, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

    I think there is lots of evidence that people still think the passive voice is a grammatical form. This is shown by the way they point to a few words, 'there is' or whatever, and say 'look, passive voice!'. If they were using it simply to mean 'vagueness about agency', it would be clear that a sentence has to be assessed in context in order to decide whether it is passive or not. 'My house has fallen down' may or may not be deliberately vague about agency, depending on what caused it to fall down. But while people think it is a grammatical form, there is no consensus, or even consistency by single speakers, about what grammatical form it is. So, I don't think we can just 'accept the new meaning' in this case; there is no definite new meaning.

  13. John Walden said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 3:14 am

    From my very amateur knowledge of these things I wonder if a new term could be anything like 'object fronting' or 'object preposing' or 'agency optional'.

    Longer terms border on explanations: something like 'default subject-object switching' when there is an agent stated: 'David was kissed by Mary in the park' and something like 'unstated default subject' when it's agentless: 'Mary was often kissed in the park'.

    Not exactly snappy. But something will be needed if 'passive' is bleached of any exact meaning.

    (It would have helped if the absurd strictures against its use hadn't turned the term into a generic term of criticism of sloppy writing)

  14. Geoff said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 6:24 am

    'passive construction'?
    To some extent grammarians have brought this on themselves by using the confusing word 'voice'.

  15. ~flow said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 7:55 am

    I must agree with Geoff and literally, virtually, and figuratively with like everything that has been posted above. I mean take physics. There you have mass, power, force, inertia, momentum, energy, and so on and on. Do you think that 'sheer mass of evidence' (zero except you weigh the ring binders), 'the force awakens' [sic], 'light bulbs account for a good part of our energy consumption' (where 'energy' is never 'consumed') should all get censored?

    When we were kids my brother used to point out that when you move that heavy thing from over there to over here you haven't done any 'work'. Clearly, he was right in certain respects; now, when someone gets paid for their work, shouldn't we just go and measure how much mass they managed to distance from our planet's core? Crane operators (and physicists maybe) will like it.

    Speaking of which, why is it that 'passive (voice)' triggers the grammarian's reaction? I can relate to it because I cringe a lot when it comes to Asian names in the news, or to how many people are seemingly unable to separate the concepts of 'letter' and 'sound'.

    Still, given that you complain about "'experience is different' is an example for the passive voice", shouldn't we fully expect you to also complain about 'they were subjects of the King of France'? or 'the object of her desires'?

    Thing is, science borrowed lots of terms and imbued them with very precise, technical meanings. I think this is fine, if sometimes a little puzzling. When they do that, I think we ordinary people can go on using those words in our ways. There are more than a few cases where that scientific usage filters back into the main stream and suddenly not all phrases using 'energy' are considered correct anymore.

    In the case of 'the passive voice', there used to be 'passive' and 'voice', and for whatever reason grammarians thought it appropriate to put those together and tack a rather precise, confined meaning to that new composite term. As far as modern English is concerned, 'part of speech' and 'passive voice' and not very happy choices, but maybe that's OK because using fossilized or Greek expressions can help to make the term stand out and signal 'beware technical usage' to the listeners.

    Now the papers strike back and use 'passive voice' for linguistic objects (Sprachgegenstände) that are sometimes quite transparently not 'passive' in the technical sense. I think that's fine, but it's also confusing, of course. Does the general public have the authority to even do that? I mean appropriate technical terms and use them in unsolicited, new and interesting ways? I'd certainly like to think so.

    Let's think about it this way: Grammar's hard, and naming things is hard. Grammar's hard not least because everyone thinks they're a specialist; in a way that's true, at *least* in the way that flowers and salt are specialists in being flowery and salty; that's why when people say "ain't" and stuff, it's the linguists to assert that that's fine (when and if). So why is it that some linguists get upset at people using 'passive voice' when they're totally cool with people say'n shit like, y'know, "ain't", "they", "yall", "lol" (now my spell checker is getting angry with me).

    I think in the first place linguists shouldn't get angry. The despair is quite understandable, but OTOH there's also a usage to get analyzed, and maybe a technical term to toss out of the window. Let's imagine we can agree on not using 'passive voice' in the technical sense anymore and replace it by, say, 'agency reversal' or even 'c22' for the time being (like we number streets in new suburbs until someone comes up with a good name). It's never been a terribly appropriate term in the first place. 'Passive participant', 'passive income', 'passive transport', contrast those to 'passive voice'. 'I use passive voice' = 'my voice is passive'?

    "[W]hat passive voice now means is "construction that is vague as to agency"" – exactly, and it's a good thing.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    January 13, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

    @ ~flow; @Andrew (not the same one):
    ~flow is surely right that linguists need to acknowledge that ordinary usage is no longer in line with technical usage, but I think Andrew (NTSO) is right that it's not just a case of "accepting the new meaning", because there ISN'T one – certainly not anything as specific as "construction that is vague as to agency".

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    @ ~flow
    The usages you refer to differ from the folk uses of "passive voice" in that in the case of the former, speakers presumably don't think that they're using a technical term, while in the case of the latter, they do.

  18. M.N. said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 5:33 pm

    Geoff Pullum considers the "this is what passive means now, language changes, get over it" argument and argues against it in section 3 of "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive". He concludes that "there is simply no
    unified meaning for the term ‘passive’ that could possibly encompass all of the data…What is going on is that people are simply tossing the term ‘passive’ around when they want to cast aspersions on pieces of writing that, for some ineffable reason, they don’t care for." http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf

  19. ~flow said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:44 am

    I have to admit that, in spite of my earlier post, I must agree that when writers go and count first-person pronouns in the speech of one American president to demonstrate (in demonstrably wacky ways) that president's degree of egomania—there's hardly one part in 'personal pronoun' that the could have possibly gotten wrong and certainly also no other valid measure than the established textbook version of what constitutes a pronoun, and no valid popular or general meaning of 'pronoun' that those accounts would or should allowed to make sense in.

    Likewise, insofar as 'passive voice' is meant to instill in the unsophisticated reader a feeling of 'oh man this is hard science so it's true and look how those celebs are doing it wrong in the face of that evidence', then writers who say 'passive voice' should also say 'B' and *either* keep to the established textbook version of what 'passive voice' means in the trade, not on the street, or else pick another term like 'constructs with unclear agency' or whatever. None of these two is likely to occur, though. We're closer to the Orville's Majority Rule episode than we'd like to believe.

  20. Oliver Cromwell said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 10:12 am

    So let me get this straight in my mind: when you take a term which is obviously being used in a non-technical sense, and interpret it as being used in a technical sense, the result is technically incorrect? Fascinating, and so very unlike anything else I've ever seen here or elsewhere. I wish there were more prescriptivist grammarians around like you to keep these people in check!

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