"The Museum of the Passive Voice"

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An audio clip is here:

And the whole statement is here on CSPAN.

LLOG has often written about the "passive voice", what it is and isn't, why using it is good or bad, etc. But my reaction to this (social and mass) media kerfuffle is to reflect on the many cases of less toxic false beliefs adopted and spread over the years by respected figures, in the media, in politics, and in academia.

One of my favorites is the Obama-uses-too-many-first-person-singular-pronouns meme, a totally false claim frequently promulgated by George Will among many others — see "Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2009. (And see "Pronouns again", 3/1/2017, for a summary and a list of other relevant past posts.)

The pronouns nonsense is somewhat different from Ms. Greene's Jewish space lasers and cannibalistic satanist pedophiles. On one hand, it's less preposterous; but on the other hand, it's easy to check and disprove. So why did George Will repeat the lie* so often? And why did Michael Gerson and David Frum and Marty Peretz and Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer and Stanley Fish and Mark Levin (and literally dozens of others) promote the meme, without (as far as I know) ever apologizing or even acknowledging their error? And why did none of them ever suffer any consequences for these efforts to degrade our political conversations?

*Update: It's probably more accurate to call the pronoun meme "bullshit", in the philosophical sense, rather than a "lie".

Update #2: The cartoon version


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 8:29 am

    There is clearly something overtly political lurking just below the surface, but as someone who has no familiarity whatsoever with any of the protagonists (Messrs Greene, O'Brien, Silberman et al.) involved, it seems to me that "being allowed to believe things that weren't true" (and even "aren't true") is a perfectly possible scenario. Almost every child of my generation could say, with complete justification, "As a child, I was allowed to believe that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy were real".

  2. Ralph J Hickok said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:05 am

    @Philip Taylor:
    I think it would be more accurate to say "As a child, I was LED to believe that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy were real."

  3. Terry Hunt said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:11 am

    Certainly there are possible scenarios, such as those children, but this is not one of them. We are discussing an adult woman in her forties who claimed she believed, and aggressively promulgated said beliefs, that other politicians (such as Hillary Clinton) were part of a world-wide conspiracy of baby-eating satanist paedophiles, that forest fires were caused not by global warming and (observed) lighting strikes but by secret Jewish space lasers, and that various mass shootings of adults and children never happened but were staged by actors to promote gun control, (amongst other things).

    In this case, the context does matter. Sane adults who run for election to the US Congress (successfully, as it happens) are usually expected to have active agency over their own assessments of the world, rather than "being allowed to believe" things, particularly when those "things" are bizarre conspiracy theories that heve been frequently and very publicly refuted. Ms Greene did not believe these "things" through others' neglect to disabuse her, she deliberately clung to them in the teeth of all rational evidence. Whether she truly did believe them or merely used them as a convenient political weapon remains to be established.

    That you have no familiarity whatsoever with any of this is itself difficult to believe. Do you purposely shield yourself from all international news reports?

  4. Laura Morland said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:24 am

    @Terry Hunt

    This is Language Log, not Political Log.

  5. Rodger C said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:47 am

    @Laura Morland: I find Terry Hunt's comment a perfectly appropriate reply to Philip's, which is linguistically misguided because it 's politically ignorant.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:54 am

    I would be very grateful, Rodger, if you could explain how something can be "linguistically misguided because it [is] politically ignorant". Is knowledge of another nation's politics really germane to linguistic discussions ?

  7. greg said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 10:27 am

    Philip, to say "[this] is a perfectly possible scenario" and admit a lack of knowledge about the specific scenario that led to the use of language in question seems to not really add anything to the discussion. The meaning of the sentence used cannot be divorced from the context in which it was said.

    And as an aside, Marjorie Taylor Greene is not a "Messr".

  8. Bloix said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 10:57 am

    Philip Taylor, who is English, does not follow American politics at all. And it's usual for British people to have no knowledge of the news in the US, just as Americans do not follow events in Britain. (Quick, why was Captain Sir Tom Moore in the news lately?)

    I spent a few minutes the other evening trying to explain the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland to two highly educated and well-informed people – and they simply didn't believe what I was telling them. Northern Ireland is in the UK, isn't it? I must be mistaken.

    Ultimately I gave up – all I was doing was damaging my credibility with my friends.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 11:05 am

    @Terry Hunt: "Whether she truly did believe them or merely used them as a convenient political weapon remains to be established."

    Or, rather, "cannot be determined". And/or, perhaps, "is beside the point".

  10. Rodger C said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 11:58 am

    Not much to any point, but I'm an American and I knew who Captain Sir Tom Moore was. And I understand what's going on in Ulster because I'm an Ulster Scot, or its American transform a 'Scotch-Irishman." To be sure, I probably take more interest in Britain than most Americans do.

  11. Vincent Daly said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 12:03 pm

    I'm an American and I thought that he had become Major Sir Tom. Moore by the time he died. Could be wrong about the Major. Off to google.

  12. Vincent Daly said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    OK, I was wrong. He had been made an "honorary colonel", I guess something like Colonel Sanders. I don't know if that entitled him to call himself Colonel Moore.

  13. Michael Gilbert-Koplow said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    Passive shmassive, who cares? If she had actively voiced "People allowed me to believe things that weren't true," would the statement be nonproblematic?

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 1:00 pm

    Michael Gilbert-Kopolow: The statement would still have been objectionable, but the passive construction seems evasive since Rep. Greene might have hoped some people wouldn't wonder who did the allowing. Also, the original version allows Tim O'Brien's interpretation that it was one part of Greene's mind, not people, who did the allowing.

    Since this is Language Log, maybe "I'll be allowed" to note that neither the American Heritage Dictionary nor Merriam-Webster's includes the common recent sense of "problematic" whose negated version you used. (Let's see whether I got the links right this time.) Both amplify the "posing a problem" sense with "difficult to solve", but I don't think you meant that Greene's sentence posed a problem that was difficult to solve.

  15. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 1:25 pm

    (1) Let’s forget about what is or isn’t “passive voice”. When non-linguists complain about “passive voice”, what they (okay, “we”) are complaining about is “deflection of responsibility”, i.e. that the bad thing associated with me is something that happened to me, rather than something for which I, myself, am morally culpable.

    (2) Yes, Mark Lieberman is socially liberal, so he will make fun of social conservatives. We shouldn’t expect “equal treatment”. He doesn’t have to pillory one liberal for every conservative he locks up in the stocks. That’s one of the perks of having one’s own blog.

    (3) The people who are chiding the socially conservative Englishman in this thread for not keeping abreast of American news/tabloid just happen to be socially liberal, and the people who are defending him just happen to be socially conservative. This should come as a surprise to precisely no one, so let’s at least be honest about what we’re all up to vis-à vis championing of doctrinal orthodoxy, yes?

    [(myl) FWIW, I should get some credit for many LLOG posts objecting to the "Bushisms" industry, as well as objections to the absurd application of reading-level metrics to Donald Trump's speech transcripts.

    Also, you could take my point in this post to be that many of the people who are pillorying MTG have themselves been guilty of helping to spread equally false (if less preposterous) memes.]

  16. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 2:27 pm

    MYL is right. I’m painting with too broad a brush in the service of making a point. We _should_ credit him for performing the linguistic equivalent of “fact-checking” the media whenever it (thinks it) sees some sort of linguistic phenomenon, and then runs with it without undertaking the same level of statistical and mathematical rigor that would be expected of an actual linguist performing the same exercise. “Bushisms” aren’t really a phenomenon any more than the “Obama-first-person-overuse” thing isn’t really a phenomenon.

    I’d love to live in a world where the media left linguistics to the linguists, physics to the physicists (oh, the abuse of “relativity”), and law to the lawyers (yes, that’s _my_ ox that’s been gored). But, we don’t, and until we do, we’re gonna keep hearing about all the different Eskimo words for snow until people like Mark Lieberman call them out on it! So, thanks, Mark. Keep up the good fight!

  17. Yuval said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 4:05 pm

    Is "cannabalistic" a play on "cannibalistic" and "cabal"?

    [(myl) Not nearly so clever — just a slip of the fingers, now corrected.]

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 4:35 pm

    Jerry Friedman: I think there's a strong implicature that "I was allowed to believe" without specifying the agent in a construction like "I was allowed by X to to believe" does NOT mean Tim O'Brien's "I was allowed by myself to believe." There are plenty of perfectly cromulent reflexive constructions of the form "I allowed myself to VERB," but it would in most circumstances I can imagine be disingenuous to rephrase any of those as "I was allowed to VERB" without saying explicitly "I was allowed by myself to VERB," which sounds a bit odd to my ear but not necessarily evasive. (Maybe "allowed by my own lack of self-control or something like that would sound better if one was trying to make to point Tim O'Brien assumes?)

    In other words I largely agree with the point here that the issue with the "I was allowed to believe" construction is not that it's vague about agency, but that by fairly strongly shifting agency away from the first-person speaker for her own beliefs. Shifting accountability away from herself is what matters; who it is imputed to instead is not necessarily relevant. One can imagine other contexts where that passive construction would be much less problematic, e.g. if one were referring to ones childhood in a time and place where various false and pernicious beliefs were commonplace and ones parents and teachers had not sought to steer one away from them.

    I think this is thus meaningfully different from the classic "mistakes were made" formulation, which deliberately neither confirms nor denies that the speaker was the (or a) maker of the mistakes. But in the "I was allowed" formulation, the syntactic subject of the passive-voice sentence is the object (maybe "patient" is better if one is focused on the semantic roles) of the active-voice equivalent, and the usual semantics of "to allow" in English assume an allower who is distinct from the allowee unless self-allowance is explicitly specified.

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 5:10 pm

    I don't think MGT ever mentioned "Jewish space lasers." She did include "the Rothschilds" among those she blamed for the forest fires, but this may just be a meme that she saw somewhere, and she may well be too ignorant to know about the Jewish background of the Rothschilds.

  20. Haamu said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 8:10 pm

    @MYL: "Equally false" is a thought-provoking phrase, both in the abstract (are there levels of falsehood and are they equatable?) and in this particular context. To the latter, I always took the "Bushisms" meme to be making a fairly vague assertion, in contrast to some of the very specific allegations pushed by QAnon et al.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 8:26 pm

    @Coby Lubliner – yeah I think her kooky-sounding conspiracy about the space lasers required five or six conspirators, a minority of whom may have been Jewish, so there was maybe a little bit of rhetorical overkill there, not to mention the mild implication that an anti-Semitic angle rather than the "wildfires being deliberately caused by space lasers" angle was what was most notable. It is a matter of public record (which plays into the conspiracy) that one of the board members of PG&E, which took the blame for the wildfires on the conventional-wisdom account that does not involve space lasers, was the Vice-Chairman (not himself surnamed Rothschild!) of Rothschild Inc., which is apparently one of the American parts of the broader international range of Rothschild-branded companies. I guess we don't have hard data if she would have found the same conspiracy theory equally compelling if the Wicked Wall Street Banker character was a guy from some more goyischely-named firm like J.P. Morgan, but it's not clear to me that she wouldn't.

  22. Haamu said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 8:27 pm

    What qualifies this example for the Museum is exactly what J.W. Brewer identified: it isn't an attempt to be vague about agency, but to deliberately misdirect about it.

    It's also worth asking which sense of allow is at work here: (1) to make possible, or (2) to fail to forbid? Or both? It makes a subtle but possibly important difference.

    Ultimately, I'm left to wonder whether the Museum should showcase statements that are remarkable for being passive, or statements that merely happen to be passive but are remarkable for other reasons. This one qualifies on either count.

  23. Jon W said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 9:50 pm

    @JW Brewer: In Greene's post, the reference to a PG&E board member being Vice Chair of Rothschild Inc. is in there to demonstrate the PG&E's web of connections with Really Bad Guys, and the likelihood of its doing something really monstrous like starting fires with space lasers. Given the presence in other QAnon messaging of explicit anti-Semitic conspiracy theories featuring the Rothschilds and their plans for world domination, I don't think it's sound to assume that her point was simply that one PG&E board member is a banker.

  24. DaveK said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 10:52 pm

    The usual mea culpa is “I allowed myself to believe…” and Green may have be planning to say this but then chickened out and decided to separate the mea from the culpa.

  25. Peter Erwin said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 1:14 am

    @ Coby Lubliner and J.W. Brewer:

    What Greene said was "I find it very interesting that Roger Kimmel on the board of directors of PG&E is also Vice Chairman of Rothschild Inc. international investment bank." Since she's explicitly pointing out that it's an international bank, I'm more than a little skeptical that she's "too ignorant to know about the Jewish background of the Rothschilds."

    And then she goes on to accuse Senator Diane Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, of being involved as well. (Are Feinstein and Blum both Jewish? Yes, they are.) Moreover, there are other anti-semitic things she's said or supported in the past, so this isn't really some innocent, isolated thing.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 2:25 am

    OT, but of personal interest, so clarification sought. I am intrigued by Benjamin's classification of me as a "socially conservative Englishman" and Mark Liberman as "socially liberal". Apart from the fact that I would classify myself as a Briton and a European long before I would classify myself as "an Englishman" (a phrase I have probably never used, and certainly not of myself, except in jest when affecting an upper-class accent), neither the phrase "socially conservative" not "socially liberal" are in my idiolect, so I had to look them up. For "socially liberal" I found (for example) "Social liberalism implies a passionate support of social justice". Now even knowing as little as I do about American politics, I was 100% behind Barrack Obama's "Healthcare for all" programme, and equally 100% behind his (sadly never fulfilled) plan to close Guantánamo Bay. And I was 100% against Donald Trump's plan for a Mexican Wall. And even more relevant, perhaps, 100% against my own government's "hostile immigration policy" and its policy of Brexit. So if I may, I would like to ask Benjamin (through the Chair, of course) why he sees me as "socially conservative" ? It is not that I object to the phrase, nor of Benjamin's use of it to describe myself — I simply don't see myself as being one or the other. I am, in my own mind, "a free thinker", one who prefers to make his own judgements about each and every case rather than being aligned with the left, the right, or even with the middle.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 10:15 am

    If any space laser allegedly created by a conspiracy in which a non-zero number of members of the alleged conspiracy are Jewish and/or work for a company historically owned and/or managed by Jews counts by definition as a "Jewish space laser," then the paraphrase is accurate by definition. But one of my teenagers has recently been covering the Andrew Jackson era and the bank controversies therein in her US history class, which imho provides a useful reminder that vitriolic and conspiratorial rhetoric against banks and bankers has been a recurrent feature of populist political discourse in the U.S. all the way back to when the Wicked Cosmopolitan Bankers were extremely goyische and Protestant fellows like Nicholas Biddle and Stephen GIrard. Obviously anti-banker themes and anti-Semitic themes often can and do co-occur and overlap and that may well be the case here, but the former can be sufficient on their own. (Similarly, "international" can be and has been a pejorative word in populist discourse without necessarily or inevitably being a euphemism for "Jewish.")

    On the other hand, one of the other alleged conspirators here is Jerry Brown, who was educated by the Jesuits and considered becoming a Jesuit himself and may well, one might speculate if one were conspiracy-minded, still be a Jesuit agent. So given the extent to which the Jesuits have historically figured in conspiracy theories maybe this could also be labeled a Jesuit space laser?

    Finally, to Benjamin Orsetti's original concern, imho no assumption about Mark Liberman's politics and how they affect his blogging policies should be made without consulting this vintage post about an enlightening encounter he had early in his life with a fellow from a different ideological/regional/class background who, among other things, was interested in conspiracy theories. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/myl/languagelog/archives/000109.html

  28. Thomas said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 2:54 pm

    As a non-native speaker, “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true.” sounds perfectly fine, albeit somewhat political and diplomatic to me. As soon as I try and translate it into my native language, I fail, because the hollowness of the sentence becomes immediately apparent.

  29. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 3:31 pm

    Thomas: Seems like it's pretty hollow in English too. I'd suggest that it's the word "allowed" that guts the sentence of any real content. If you got up in court and begged for mercy because you were "allowed to take money that wasn't mine", I'm not so sure that would mitigate your sentence for embezzlement all that much.

    It's a "weasel word" — if you say you were "led to believe" something, then you can be called out by the person whom you accuse of having "led" you to believe something or other. Saying "allowed" means you don't have to point to any specific person, but it also means that your sentence no longer really means anything; or anything exculpatory, anyway.

    See J.W. Brewer's comment above for fuller discussion.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 7:24 pm

    For the more spacious Museum of Misidentified Sentences That Are Not In Fact In the Passive Voice, this jaw-dropping example by an author who is alleged to be a "distinguished professor of history": 'Trump later sent a tweet in the passive voice, "Stay peaceful!"' Mislabeling a direct command in the imperative mood as "passive" seems like it might be a new low?


  31. chris said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 7:30 pm

    To say that someone was allowed to *do* something implicates that there is someone who could have either prevented or forbidden it, but didn't. Calling attention to that person's inaction implicates that it was noteworthy — that they might have been expected to act, or might even have had a duty to act.

    The prevention interpretation isn't really possible for belief (unless there are orbital mind control lasers in addition to the fire-starting ones?) so that leaves me wondering who, exactly, Greene expected to forbid her from believing these falsehoods? Who left the door to her brain ajar so that lies could take up residence unhindered?

    As has been discussed here before, this sort of implicating the existence of an agent while saying little or nothing about the nature or characteristics of the agent is exactly what critics are often getting at with complaints of the "passive voice" — whether or not the statements being criticized are actually in the passive voice at all.

  32. Jenny Chu said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 12:37 am

    @chris – I agree with your point that the implication is that someone failed, through inaction, to prevent Greene from doing something (namely, believing untrue info). But I disagree that belief is different from other actions.

    Let's say I received a piece of information from a source I found credible, a piece of information presented as fact. Example: I read in USA Today that Eskimos have 100 words for snow. And frequently thereafter, I went around quoting this "fact" to people. Nevertheless, although I was surrounded by those who knew better (say, Language Log readers), none of them ever hinted that this "fact" was not true.

    Hence, in this case, the sentence, in either the passive voice ("I was allowed to believe") or the active voice ("People allowed me to believe"), would be justified.

    So the implication here is that Greene, having absorbed information from a source she found credible at the time, now having concluded that the info is untrue, supposes that those who surrounded her knew the info was untrue, and did nothing to disabuse her of the ideas.

  33. DaveK said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 1:26 pm

    @Jenny Chu:
    I think your interpretation is the right one but what people are ridiculing her for is the implied denial of responsibility. She was elected to represent 800,000 people in the United States Congress, and you would expect someone who had sought that responsibility not to believe political allegations that a few minutes research would tell her were false—that is if she didn’t reject them as absurd on their face. In other words, it was her own job to check out the assertions before repeating them.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 3:19 pm

    I am not going to enter into the political side of this debate, mainly because I know nothing and care even less about American politics (and only a little more about British) but it seems to me that while one might reasonably "expect someone who had sought that responsibility not to believe political allegations that a few minutes research would tell her were false", one might also reasonably expect that whatever fraction of that 800 000 people voted for her would have exercised due diligence in the run-up to the election and decide whether she was in fact fit for office before voting her in.

  35. Philip Anderson said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 6:56 pm

    I think we British get a lot of American news in general and politics in particular in our news, more than vice versa (and probably more than the English get about the other UK countries).
    Philip Taylor, I would describe you as “conservative with a small ‘c’”, more an attitude than politics.

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