New type of headlinese passivization

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From Olive Long:

Here's a post containing an interesting passivization on the site formerly known as Twitter ("Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr. was a pedestrian struck by a motor vehicle in Center City"). This sort of 'split' passivization ("X was a Y V by Z" from "Z V X[, a Y].") seems at least infelicitous when X is known in the context ("The table was a piece made by Sarah" seems fine). It seems like an awkward attempt for a sports writer to put Oubre, who readers presumably care/are aware about, at the front, while still conveying that he was walking. I think "… Oubre Jr. was struck while walking by …" is obviously better, but maybe this doesn't adhere to some headlinese guidelines?

Also maybe of interest is the broader push by safe-streets advocates to report collisions without passivization: "A vehicle struck Oubre" or even "A driver struck Oubre with their vehicle" would be preferred by them here.

I googled on

Kelly Oubre Jr struck by vehicle

and found many outré instances of headlines reporting this incident.


Selected readings



  1. Cervantes said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 7:45 am

    Of course passive voice is perfectly proper when you want to make the person who is acted upon the focus of the story, as in this case. The awkwardness comes from the writer also wanting to work in that he was a pedestrian. The other headlines simply omit that fact. "Oubre was struck by a vehicle while walking in Center City" would indeed be more felicitous. Our knowledge of the world makes it unambiguous that it is Oubre that was walking, not the vehicle, so this is perfectly fine.

  2. Philip Anderson said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 9:02 am

    For me, “struck by a vehicle” implies that he was on foot. “Knocked off his bike” or “in car crash” would be more likely for other situations.
    But I’m surprised by “motor vehicle”, rather than a more specific vehicle type.

  3. Joe said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 10:36 am

    Well, at least they didn't say he was in an "accident".

    I agree that "was struck while walking" is elegant and clear, and I don't like "A vehicle/driver struck Oubre", even though I agree with the political intention behind it, because Oubre is the real subject of the story – this is exactly what the passive voice is for.

    If you want to raise the policy issue that he was a victim of anti-pedestrian infrastructure, you do that by shading it with some background info like statistics about collision injuries or history from that particular neighborhood; you don't make the unidentified driver into the subject. Imagine trying to raise awareness of America's similar gun problem with headlines like "gun shoots children at preschool" or "shooter shoots children at preschool" – the passive version already implies that the shooting was done by a shooter using a gun, or that the car that struck him was driven by a driver, and in this case that's the only fact we have yet while the victim is already newsworthy.

  4. Joe said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 10:58 am

    I wonder if this is an overextension of the recent trend toward "people-first" language. Some well-meaning writers and speakers may have learned the wrong lesson from that: when you say "people with autism" instead of "the autistic" or "enslaved people" instead of "slaves", you're changing their unchosen condition from an identity (noun) to a descriptor (adjective or prepositional phrase). Now you're free to attach that descriptor to other identities to convey more information ("guests with autism", "enslaved Africans"). But it defeats the purpose if you turn this back into an invariant, clunkier noun-phrase of identity. In this case we may be seeing two whole verbs (was walking, was struck by a car) desiccated into a noun-phrase (pedestrians struck by cars), a category instead of an event.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 12:53 pm

    Yes, it was poorly phrased. But the thing that struck me most about the post was (a) the comma, and (b) the lack of the indefinite article, in "Oubre Jr., is currently in stable condition". Why not "Oubre Jr. is currently in a stable condition" ? Same character count, better English.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 12, 2023 @ 2:35 pm

    In the US at least, "stable condition" (without the article) is standard medical jargon for a specific gradation on a scale of possible prognoses ("guarded", "critical", etc.). To say that someone is in "a stable condition" would be like saying the military is on "a red alert".

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 6:25 am

    I was not aware of that, Gregory, as you will undoubtedly have realised. But what surprises me more is that the usage also (¿ occasionally ?) occurs in Northern Ireland ("A man in his 40s is currently in stable condition after he was shot in the legs and back in north Belfast"), although not, to the best of my belief, in Great Britain. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English correctly reflects the difference in usage between the two sides of the Atlantic (NI excepted).

  8. Michael Watts said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 9:20 am

    Now you're free to attach that descriptor to other identities to convey more information ("guests with autism", "enslaved Africans").

    I'm not sure I see the informational advantage over "autistic guests" or "African slaves".

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 11:05 am

    A follow-up story states: "The search continues Monday for a vehicle and its driver after Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr. was hit by a car Saturday night. Police said they are searching for a silver vehicle that was seen leaving the scene." I had wondered if the clunkier "vehicle" in the original phrase under discussion was due to uncertainty as to whether Oubre had been stuck by a car or a truck or some third thing (since the vehicle in question had apparently fled the scene), but this writer thinks enough is known that "car" is also appropriate. So maybe just "elegant variation"?

  10. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 1:50 pm

    I suspect the point of saying he was a pedestrian was to dispel the impression that he was wearing football pads that readers might get from identifying him by his football position and reporting an injury in the sports section. His job is, after all, to get into collisions, but this collision wasn't job-related.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 2:45 pm

    In a sports-headline context, the headline-writers may generally assume that their target audience knows which sport the Sixers play (hint, not football …) and thus don't need to be told, but obviously that assumption does not scale up to 100% of Anglophone potential readers.

  12. John Swindle said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 3:13 pm


    "A 20-year-old man was seriously injured after plowing into a tree in Mililani overnight, officials said on Monday…."

    The source for the story, Hawaii News Now, a TV news website, finally mentions "the vehicle" in the third sentence of the story. So there was a vehicle involved. Was it a plow? Maybe, maybe not. Changing to active voice wouldn't help as long as it's the man plowing.

    (Block capitals substituted for bold print because I don't know the markup language.)

  13. Doctor Science said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 5:02 pm

    @Michael Watts:
    There's a great advantage to saying "enslaved Africans" instead of "African slaves". "African slaves" implies that being a slave is some quality of the Africans, that it comes from them; "enslaved Africans" emphasizes, rightly, that being a slave is something that is actively done *to* them. That's why the standard terminology among historians has flipped decisively in the past 10-15 years, talking about "enslaved people" is more accurate and directs everyone's attention in the right directions.

  14. Bloix said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 5:51 pm

    Doctor Science – I understand that this is the argument. I just don't find it persuasive. Choose a word other than "slave." University graduates, say. Is there anything misleading or offensive about "African graduates" that would be remedied by "graduate Africans"? How about African cyclists vs. cycling Africans? African film-makers vs. film-making Africans?

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 7:15 pm

    In Doctor Science’s sentence “being a slave is something that is actively done *to* them”, could you really substitute “graduate” or “cyclist” for “slave”? Was being a slave just another lifestyle choice?

  16. Arthur Baker said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 10:23 pm

    This is a side-issue.

    I posit two possible reasons for Olive Long referring to X as "the site formerly known as Twitter" (without actually mentioning X):

    (a) Because the text of her following statement included an entirely different X?

    or (b) because one has to go through the "formerly known as Twitter" rigmarole these days to ensure everyone understands what you're talking about?

    Or maybe both?

  17. Michael Watts said,

    November 14, 2023 @ 4:02 am

    Philip Anderson, for a more precise parallel, you might compare "French-speaking aristocrats" to "ennobled Francophones". Nobility is a legal status of precisely the same kind as slavery, though obviously it is usually a more desirable one. (Interestingly, the two are not mutually exclusive.)

    The argument, though, didn't appear to rest on anything particular to slavery. Is being a graduate similar to being a guest?

    (The fad for replacing references to "slavery" with "enslavement" also seems to purposefully obscure the difference between enslavement, which is an achievement, and slavery, which is a state.)

  18. Doctor Science said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 9:19 am

    @Michael Watts:
    Nobility is a legal status of precisely the same kind as slavery
    Insofar as this is true, it is a *terrible* way to discuss slavery on the level of, say, US high school history classes, or tours of Monticello.

    seems to purposefully obscure the difference between enslavement, which is an achievement, and slavery, which is a state
    Slavery is an *institution*. It is not a state that people will naturally rest in once their enslavement have been "achieved". Talking about "enslaved people" is way of emphasizing that keeping people in a state of slavery requires ongoing effort.

    Thomas Jefferson wasn't a slave owner in the way he was book owner: he didn't buy human beings and then file them away. He had to keep enslaving them, over and over again: raping them, ordering people to beat them, forcing them to work for no pay, selling their children, ensuring that they couldn't leave. They weren't slaves because of anything about them, only because of what he chose to do. He was an enslaver.

  19. Tom said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 10:03 am

    Use commas.

    The undersigned, a European, would use a comma …

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