Nate Silver knows his passives

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After so many posts by Geoff Pullum (ok, rants, but I agree with him!) about journalists who use the word "passive" without knowing what it means, it actually caught my eye just now to see "passive" used perfectly correctly! Has it come to this? Should I say "Congratulations to Nate Silver!"? Here it is:

First, Mr. Romney eliminated Rick Perry from the nomination contest. Of course, Mr. Romney got a lot of help from Mr. Perry himself. Maybe we should use the passive voice — Mr. Perry was eliminated from the nomination contest.


  1. Xmun said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    Yes you should. Thanks for the quotation.

    By the way, what you call Geoff Pullum's "rants" I call his "tirades". I'm not sure I could explain the difference, but I think "tirades" is more complimentary, and I look forward to the next one.

  2. Mar Rojo said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

    "Tirades", for me also.

  3. Shangwen said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 1:49 pm


  4. Brett said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    I would consider a "tirade" significantly worse than a "rant." To me, "tirade" has strong connotations of unreasonableness. The most positive-sounding (to me) synonym that comes to mind is "philippic." Others' views may differ.

  5. phosphorious said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    A rant is more passive than a tirade.

  6. Peter said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    “Rant” to my ear connotes incoherence. A “tirade” may or may not be justified, but it’s certainly articulate. “Screed” is another good option (a nice word that’s retained two quite disparate meanings — a protracted rant, or a board for smoothing concrete — while losing the older meaning that gave rise to both, a strip of cloth).

  7. KeithB said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    Maybe we can rank them by the amount of spittle produced. To me, rants produce a lot, tirades not so much. 8^)

  8. Bloix said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

    Except that Perry hasn't been eliminated from the nomination process. This isn't American Idol. He can't be eliminated, except figuratively – literally, he can continue to participate even if he receives zero votes. The only person who can decide that Perry is no longer running for the nomination is Perry himself. And he hasn't done so.

  9. a George said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    — isn't a tirade drawn-out?

  10. Brett said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

    @Bloix: Humpty Dumpty would beg to differ:

    Alice felt even more indignant at this suggestion. 'I mean,' she said, 'that one ca'n't help growing older.'

    'One can't, perhaps,' said Humpty Dumpty; 'but two can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at seven.'

    (Martin Gardner noted that this was one of the easiest to miss and also the darkest joke in the Alice books.)

  11. Rod Johnson said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    D. Boon called them "spiels."

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    @Bloix: this discussion isn't about the truth value of the sentence, it's about the syntax.

  13. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

    It's all a big misunderstanding! Journalists and editors do not impart the Knowledge by rational instruction, they do it by telling each other kōans. Some of these just have the appearance of incorrect grammatical discourse, that's all.

  14. Nelida said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary definitions of:
    1 a : a bombastic extravagant speech b : bombastic extravagant language
    2 dialect British : a rousing good time
    a protracted speech usually marked by intemperate, vituperative, or harshly censorious language

    'Phillipic' is offered, in this and other dictionaries (Babylon for instance) as a synonym for 'tirade'.

    How about "expostulations", or "remonstrative articles"? Or, more simply, 'argumentations' or 'argumentative pieces'? They would seem more suitable terms, since "speech" is not involved, but the written word is. Just sayin'.

  15. dporpentine said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    This Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon at least comes close to getting it right:
    It imagines there's such a thing as a "passive verb form"–presumably something like Matt Taibbi's "passive tense"–but at least it properly identifies the passive itself.

  16. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    Nate Silver's background isn't in journalism. He was a sabermetrics geek who went into political analysis blogging, applying his math skills to polling numbers. He made his name in political analysis in the 2008 election cycle by accurately predicting both the primary and general election results, while clearly explaining his methods. I knew in around February or March of 2008 that Obama was a lock for the Democratic nomination because of Silver. He called the general election with uncanny accuracy.

    So he isn't a journalist by training. Quite the opposite: he is an anti-journalist. The mainstream political press was pretending (or actually believed: I'm not sure which is worse) that these were close races. In the case of the Democratic primary, this was going on literally months after Silver had called it. He wasn't playing the same game as the mainstream press.

    I was surprised when the New York Times hired him, as the contrast with most of what they purport to be political analysis could not help but be embarrassing. I was pleased that he dumbed his work down only a bit to lower it to better fit with the Times' standards.

    So it is not surprising that he also has not absorbed the journalistic malpractice of aggressive ignorance about passives.

  17. DimSkip said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

    I make no claims to being a linguist myself nor of understanding what constitutes a passive voice, but I just came across this 5-page article by Larry Downes at Page 3 features some commentary of his regarding Best Buy's passive voice in explaining a rather embarrassing holiday snafu. I leave it to the Language Loggers (language lumberjacks?) to determine (if you care to) if Mr. Downes is anywhere near the mark in his passivity charges…

  18. Robert Coren said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    How about "polemic"?

  19. Jenny said,

    January 4, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    I love Geoff Pullam's "explanations" about how people misuse the term "passive." They always cheer me up.

  20. Adam said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    A post about passives with comments open — what a refreshing change!

  21. Adrian said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    @DimSkip Thanks, we can add Larry Downes to the list of journalists who don't know what the Passive Voice is. (Don't tell Geoff.)

  22. D.O. said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    I would like (or rather "unlike", because it does not give me any pleasure) to spoil congratulations for Mr. Silver a bit. Though he undoubtely correctly identifies the passive voice and, by implication, correctly identifies two previous sentences as written in active, he still somehow thinks that passive voice entails some vagueness about agency. And in his case it does! Which maybe actually to the worse — Mr. Silver clearly wants to tell that whatever happened to Mr. Perry he (Mr. Perry) did it unto himself.

  23. diogenes said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 6:59 am

    not only does Larry Downes not know what the passive voice is he is also an enthusiastic user of the passive voice while, supposedly, excoriating its use by others.

  24. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    @ D.O.

    I disagree with your interpretation of Silver's point. He is not assigning blame (or perhaps credit) to Perry exclusively. He is refusing to exclusively assign it to Romney. This could be stated in the active voice: "Romney and Perry, and perhaps other parties as well, eliminated Perry from the race." He instead chooses the passive, as this allows for the vagueness of agency to be more succinctly expressed. There is no evidence that Silver thinks that passives are always vague about agency, or that only passives are vague about agency. Merely that this particular use of the passive is vague about agency, which is entirely correct.

  25. Nickk said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    I read that passage earlier today and immediately thought of Prof. Pullum and Language Log! Didn't expect to see it mentioned here, though.

  26. Not My Leg said,

    January 5, 2012 @ 7:46 pm


    At the time Nate made his post it was in response to Perry having announced the suspension of his campaign. In political speak that almost always is code for "I am dropping out." Although, apparently not this time.

  27. Barbara Partee said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    @ DimSkip — as others have already noted, Mr. Downes is all wrong in the sentence where he mentions "passive voice". But his earlier uses of "passive" help show where this error comes from — probably in many other examples where the contrasting uses are not overt. So early on in the article he writes: "Let’s parse that sentence for a moment. The company “encountered a situation”—that is, it was a passive victim of an external problem it couldn’t control, in this case, customers daring to order products it acknowledges were “hot” buys. "
    His use of "passive" in "passive victim" is fine. And that's probably the sense of "passive" he has in mind when he mis-extends it later to "passive voice", which is really a grammatical notion. And you can already see it coming in that paragraph, when he started with "Let's parse this sentence for a moment." To a linguist, parsing means giving a grammatical analysis — identifying the subject and the predicate and all that. But as Webster-Merriam, for instance, notes, while that's the first meaning for "parse", there's a second meaning, "to examine in a minute way; analyze critically", with examples like "Economists parsed the census data." So I suppose it's not surprising that since "parse" has a non-grammar-related meaning that is an extension of its grammar-related meaning, and since "passive" has non-grammar-related meanings that are even older than its grammatical meaning, journalists and other non-linguists could consider it natural that even the technical term "passive voice" should have another meaning, using an existing non-technical meaning of "voice". We linguists don't think that "passive voice" has any such non-technical meaning. And actually I think it's sort of funny, on reflection, that dear Geoff Pullum in his rants?/tirades/jeremiads/gentle lectures (you can see I wasn't sure that 'rant' was right, since I hastened to add that I agree with him, to offset any possible negative connotation) against misuse of the term 'passive voice' is maybe being a prescriptivist and trying to halt a bit of language change in progress. Fun. Now that I work out the reasonableness of where it may be coming from, I think I no longer consider it simple ignorance, and maybe even not such a Bad Thing.
    Downes uses "passive" three times in that article. The first, noted above, was in "passive victim", which is perfectly common and fine. The second is in "It’s not as if the company did anything wrong, or, indeed, anything at all. … It’s all so passive. It’s also a transparent and truly feeble pack of lies." That's fine and normal too.
    It's only the third occurrence that gets him in trouble, when he totally misuses "passive voice" in what is for now its only accepted sense. "There’s a little more to the Best Buy’s press release: “We are very sorry for the inconvenience this has caused, and we have notified the affected customers.” Again, note the use of the passive voice—”this” refers to the “situation” that Best Buy “encountered.”" If he had said "note the passivity implied by their description", linguists would have no quarrel. And I'm sure that's what he meant.
    Well, today's misuse is tomorrow's language change, and I suspect Geoff won't be able to stop it.

  28. diogenes said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

    barbara…did you also count the number of uses of the passive voice by Downes – that is what makes it all so rich!

  29. Barbara Partee said,

    January 6, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    Well, sure, it makes it rich if you just want to dump on him. But it also adds evidence that he's not writing about using the passive voice, he's talking about what he might call writing "in a passive voice", or "in a passive tone", or "passively".
    I wouldn't put him in the same camp as some of Geoff's main targets, prescriptivists who inveigh against the use of the passive voice (and really think they mean the grammatical notion) but who don't seem to have a real handle on the active/passive voice distinction and who in addition use a lot of the passive voice themselves. Or journalists who really seem to be trying to talk about the passive voice in the grammatical sense but show that they don't know what it is. I think this guy just used the phrase "passive voice" in there almost by chance. And makes clear that he really means using phrasing that avoids any responsibility for one's causal role in what happened.

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:10 am

    I tend to see Pullum as more of a Cassandra than a Jeremiah. Agreeably in touch with his feminine side, short on thunderbolts, and as certain to be right as he is to go unheard ;-)

    @Barbara Partee: very possibly true. And grammatical terminology seems to contain diathesis as an equally good substitute for voice, one which is probably fairly safe from being messed up by casual misappropriation of this kind.

  31. Xmun said,

    January 7, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    This is the first I've heard of Jeremiah having thunderbolts.

  32. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 8, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    Linguists study language change. I submit that that's what this is, and the polemics or rants or jeremiads or whatever you want to call them won't change that nor stop it.

    It is hard for professionals to accept when a term that they use in a technical, precise way becomes a sloppily-applied "generic" in popular speech.

    For example, as a computer science geek who works with network hardware, I know what a "Modem" is. The word's etymology goes back to the mouthful "Modulator/Demodulator" which refers to Modulating a digital signal for transmission over an analog line and Demodulating an analog signal on the same line into a digital signal. Back when we were setting up DSL services, we were happy to be getting rid of modems – they were a source of transmission errors. Instead of modems, we were going to use DSL network bridges. A network bridge, of course, is a different piece of hardware that transfers signals between two different digital networks.

    So imagine my annoyance when people incorrectly referred to DSL network bridges as "modems." After the first couple of months, even the people who sold them started calling them "DSL Modems" — a flat contradiction in terms as there is no analog side to the link and thus no need to modulate or demodulate signals. Within a year, the changed meaning of the word "modem" had even come back into the technical community, so now even when talking to each other we have to distinguish between "analog modems" and "digital modems" — the former being redundant and the latter a contradiction in terms according to the older, more precise, usage.

    Eventually I got over it. I realized that the word has lost its precise technical meaning and, in the mouths of the masses, and now even in the mouths of technicians, has come to mean any box that connects some kind of outside signal to your local data network. It is no longer a technical term of a community that uses it precisely and consistently. It is now a word, and the arbiters of its meaning are the members of the much larger community currently using it, not the small technical community who originally gave it a meaning.

    My rants of that time about the misuse of the word "modem" remind me of Geoff's more recent rants about the misuse of the word "passive".

    The technical meaning of the words "passive voice" are no more clear than the technical meaning of the word "modem". They will probably hold out a bit longer before language change catches up with them, simply because the terminology has been in use as technical language with a precise meaning for a longer time and there's a large body of literature and a larger and longer-established technical community that uses them in that precise way. Also, linguists don't have to deal with hardware manufacturers intentionally misusing the terminology so Homer Husband and Harriet Housewife can be comfortable with a new technology.

    But now that a community larger than the set of all linguists have a concept of "passive construction" — even though it's not the same as the established linguist's concept — linguists are a minority in its usage, and the minority who gave the term meaning is no longer the arbiter of its meaning. Within a decade, I predict a need for another technical term, even for linguistics literature, to distinguish "real" passive voice from "passive voice as commonly understood" — the same way network techs now have to use use "analog modem" to refer to something that is actually (according to the original meaning) a modem, and accept "digital modem" or "network bridge" interchangeably for a digital network bridge.

    Without a context that definitely identifies which piece of hardware we're talking about, network technicians can't use just the word "modem" any more. And in the same way, I think linguists would be well advised to start being very precise in their papers about what they mean when they use the term "passive voice" if they want their papers to be intelligible, even to other linguists, a decade from now.

    When people who aren't linguists use the term, we can't expect them to apply the rigorous technical meaning that linguists apply. Nor can we really expect the meaning of a phrase in a living language to remain exactly the same forever. It just doesn't happen, and linguists know that it doesn't. Just as a "modem" is fuzzily defined to the majority now using the term as any box you plug your network cable into, "passive voice" is fuzzily defined to the majority of the people now using the term as any way of talking about something that avoids clearly giving agency to the action of interest.

    This is a good opportunity to study this bit of language change as it happens, and the gnashing of teeth over it instead doesn't seem to be getting much linguistics done.


  33. Ben Hemmens said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 7:00 am

    Well, maybe not thunderbolts specifically, but a fair amount of smiting, erasing from off the face of the earth, etc. I haven't noticed Pullum threatening anyone with smiting.

  34. Mar Rojo said,

    January 9, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    After reading Geoff Pullum's description of the passive in English, I thought I knew my passive. Now I'm not sure. A few commenters on a certain language forum have claimed this as passive:

    "For many children, damage has been suffered before the first day of school."

    Is it?

  35. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 15, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    To Mar Rojo: I've responded to your question on my blog, here.

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