There will be passives

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It's time once again for our semi-regular feature, "Mr. Payack Bamboozles the Media." Paul J.J. Payack, as Language Log readers know, is the assiduously self-promoting president of the Global Language Monitor who has managed to hoodwink unsuspecting journalists on a range of pseudoscientific claims, most notably the number of words in the English language. (He now claims we're 2,248 words away from the millionth word, a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.) During the U.S. presidential election season, he's attracted media attention for "linguistic analysis" of key debates and speeches. Last month, CNN trumpeted his findings about the Biden/Palin vice-presidential debate: Palin spoke at a tenth-grade level and Biden at an eighth-grade level, and Palin used passives to deflect responsibility. That nonsense went unremarked here (except briefly in the comments), but Payack's latest round of flapdoodle, pegged to Barack Obama's victory speech on election night, is deserving of mention, even if it helps to fuel his cynical promotional machine.

Once again CNN is the easy mark for Payack's pronouncements, which are uncritically repeated under the headline, "Linguist deems Obama's speech a winner." For starters, Payack is not a professional linguist — he often boasts of a Harvard degree, which turns out to be some coursework in comparative literature that he took through Harvard's extension program. But no matter: I'm firmly of the belief that amateur linguists can often make signal contributions to the study of language, as long as they take the time to learn the basics of contemporary linguistic scholarship. To no one's surprise, that's not the case for Mr. Payack.

Payack once again peddles his "grade level" analysis, saying that Obama's victory speech was at grade 7.4 level, down from 8.3 in his 2004 Democratic Convention address, indicating that "he has learned to speak more directly and more succinctly when he's giving a major address." On this point I have nothing to add to the critique made by Gabe Doyle on his Motivated Grammar blog, referring to Payack's similar scoring of the vice-presidential debate:

Let me start off by addressing the idea that grade-level in speech, as measured by readability tests, is a meaningful measure of anything: IT’S NOT.  Payack’s analysis assigns grade levels based on a modified version of the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.  George Klare, all the way back in 1963, pointed out that most studies have shown that listener comprehension is not significantly affected by readability values from Flesch-Kincaid and similar tests.  Furthermore, Klare’s lack of effect was based on testing the comprehension of someone listening to a speaker reading pre-prepared text; presumably listener comprehension of an extemporaneous speaker would be even less well-correlated with readability of the transcript. …
Even if readability scores were appropriate for assessing anything about extemporaneous speech, the reported distinction is almost certainly less than the margin of error for the readability test.  No matter how you cut it, the distinction is illusory.

Besides his meaningless readability scores, Payack also creates specious analysis of the use of active and passive voice. For the veep debate, he said, "Passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility; Biden used active voice when referring to Cheney and Bush; Palin countered with passive deflections." Gabe Doyle took up this assertion in another Motivated Grammar post:

Kudos, GLM, for being honest and stating that passives aren’t by definition bad.  But there’s one minor tripping point to this analysis: Palin didn’t use passives to deflect responsibility when Biden mentioned Bush or Cheney.  OOPS!

After searching through the transcript and coming up empty-handed, Doyle was puzzled about what Payack might have been identifying as Palin's passive constructions, since he didn't specify any of them. This time around, with the Obama speech, Payack does give CNN an example of a supposed passive:

Though most of Obama's verbs were in the active voice, 11 percent of the sentences were in the passive voice, a dependable method of deflecting responsibility, Payack said. He cited Obama's "There will be setbacks and false starts" as an example.
"He's spreading the responsibility around," Payack said. "He didn't say, 'I will have setbacks. I will be wrong. I will make mistakes.' He used the passive voice for those types of constructions."

So it appears that Payack's definition of "the passive voice" is a bit, shall we say, expansive, including active-voice existential clauses like "There will be setbacks and false starts." Payack is not alone in identifying existential clauses as passive — Geoff Pullum noted an example last year from NPR's Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an interview with U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan:

Let's put it in the passive tense: there was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan with some members of the Taliban at one time. Is that something you would pursue if the opportunity came up?

Inskeep committed a double-oops by referring to "the passive tense" rather than "the passive voice." Payack at least gets the "voice" part right, but again, he's seeing a passive construction where there isn't one. The Inskeep example led Geoff to ponder the question, "What on earth do people imagine the passive construction is?":

A tentative answer, of course, is that they mostly think a passive clause is one that is vague about agency, nothing more and nothing less. Which is of course untrue in both directions: you don't have to be vague about agency in a passive clause, and you don't need a passive clause to be vague about agency.

Lay discussions of the "passive" can tell us a lot about folk-linguistic beliefs (see, for instance, the treatment of "folk grammaticality" in Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis R. Preston's 1999 monograph Folk Linguistics, pp. 270ff.). But in the CNN article we have a self-styled "linguist" throwing around words like "passive" in a spectacularly uninformed fashion. We've set the bar pretty low if we're listening to an "expert" whose knowledge in his professed field of expertise wouldn't get him very far on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?".

[Update: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joins the Bamboozle Train.]


  1. Mark P said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

    I think pretty much all bars are set low by the broadcast media.

    One might expect the print media to work to a higher bar when it comes to linguistics. I wonder if one might be disappointed.

  2. Lance said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    So I got curious and decided to search Obama's speech for passives. I took the simple route of asking Word to search for forms of "be" and identifying the results by hand, so bear in mind that I may have missed some, e.g. those in reduced relatives like, in his second sentence, "It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools…", if one is inclined to count "[that was] told" as a passive.

    I identified:

    those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical

    Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington

    It [i.e., the campaign] was built by working men and women

    I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years

    Our union can be perfected.

    many stories that will be told for generations

    the times we were told that we can’t

    At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed

    a democracy was saved

    a world was connected by our own science and imagination

    where we are met with cynicism

    That's 11 passives (assuming that last one is even a passive). There are 77 periods in the transcript I used, so that's more than 11% of the sentences, but then, very few of his sentences have a single verb in them, so to refer to a sentence as being in the passive already misses a point. (His first sentence, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer", contains eight verbs.)

    At any rate, looking at the passives above, very few if any "deflect responsibility". Some of them include a "by"-phrase, so it's quite explicit who's responsible; in some, he's glossing over not his own responsibility but those of unnamed villains ("women's voices were silenced"—we know who did the silencing, and we needn't name them); some are in larger contexts where the agent is made quite clear ("a democracy was saved" occurs right after the observation that "a generation [rose] to greatness" in WWII).

    In other words, and this should be no surprise, Payack is making assertions that have absolutely zero evidence to support them.

  3. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

    Actually, the problem isn't that Payack is making unsupported assertions so much that he is making assertions that are demonstrably false, and trivially demonstrated as such.

    The journalists that eat up this bovine excrement are exactly as culpable; how reasonable would it be if a journalist reprinted some self professed expert's inane explanation of why the moon is purple without at least first looking out their window to see if the moon actually *is* purple in the first place?

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 3:54 am

    Is this an example of language change in action? If most English speakers equate "expressions vague about agency" with "passive voice", then that is now what "passive voice" means, and you tiny minority of specialists will just need to pick another term for it. Sorry, I doesn't makes 'em, I just notes 'em.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 3:57 am

    … I note in passing that if linguists had provided us with an name for sentences that are vague about agency, "we" wouldn't have needed to hijack another, less obviously useful, term to use in its place.

  6. Lance said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 4:43 am

    Is this an example of language change in action? If most English speakers equate "expressions vague about agency" with "passive voice", then that is now what "passive voice" means…

    I think this falls under Pullum's "Everything is acceptable" fallacy. A technical term's a technical term; I don't think general misuse indicates a change in the actual meaning of the term. Compare "schizophrenic": some people may use it to mean "having a split personality", but it's still a technical term that doesn't just get abandoned. On the contrary: the conclusion of the psychiatric community is not "well, the word's taken on a new meaning", but "we have to educate the public about what the word really means". The same holds true here.

  7. CIngram99 said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 4:45 am

    Nathan Myers

    What about 'impersonal'?

  8. Beijing Sounds said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    What Nathan said.

    For the record, Beijing Sounds has long and publicly supported the use of the passive voice (as understood by linguists) anywhere it makes sense. All the prohibitions are idiocy and LL is right to tilt against them.

    But it's time to recognize the popular meaning of "passive". Recent surveys say that 99.9% of English speakers who have heard of a "passive construction" of one sort or another believe that it means "vague about agency". (Yes, yes, I'm making it up, but you get the idea). Any linguist who claims that they therefore don't understand what a layperson means is participating in the same intentional obtuseness of the person who claims not to understand "less than 10 items".

    Lance, I feel your pain that it's a technical term you want to keep around, but just wanting isn't enough. Seconding Nathan again: if you want to spread the technical understanding of "passive voice", you're going to have to offer something positive — a useful and memorable term for "vague on agency", a category that is clearly useful for armchair language critics. What we've got now is just esoteric criticism that, to most folks, sounds a lot like sniping ("come on, you know what he meant…").

    And in the interest of not just sniping, here's my potential solution…

    What if you started off with something like, "What Mr. P probably meant to say is that 11% of constructions were 'vague on agency'" (or a better term).

    Having set the stage, you could then either conclude that he misused a technical term, "passive voice", or tear to shreds because in fact XX% of constructions were "vague on agency" and not the 11% he indicated.

  9. sharon said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    But Payack claims to be an expert, not the 99.9%. The point of the post is that his misuse of the technical term demonstrates (1) his unfitness to be talking about linguistic matters and (2) the ignorance of journalists who are taken in by him (their stock-in-trade is words; they shouldn't really be in the 99.9% either).

  10. Andrew said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    Nathan Myers: Is it reallly linguists who should be supplying us with a term for 'vague about agency'? Two sentences can be perfectly similar grammatically although one is vague about agency and the other is not. Perhaps the issue of vagueness is more one for students of rhetoric, or the like.

    Lance: Surely what are originally technical terms do sometimes take on new meanings? For instance, 'realism' is a technical term in philosophy, but has a quite different use in normal speech; and philosophers don't go around trying to stop people using it in this way. I'm not sure where to draw the line, but I don't think we can just say the experts are always right. (One criterion might be whether ordinary speakers think they are using the term in a technical way; if so, and their usage doesn't actually fit the technical usage, clearly they are getting something wrong. It seems quite likely that they do think this in the case of 'schizophrenia'; I'm not sure about 'passive'.)

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

    About "vague on agency": this term, or something like it, would be appropriate for clauses denoting events in which an agent might be involved, but none is expressed in the clause. (Even in such cases, you might want to object to "vague" on the grounds that it embodies a value judgment — unexpressed agents are in general a bad thing — that thoughtful commentators on style reject.)

    As far as I can make out, what people who complain about "passive sentences" are getting at is not unexpressed agents, but non-agentive subjects. Thus, they deprecate genuine passive clauses even when agents are expressed in them; even "agentive passives" (like "We were attacked by wolves") are deprecated. And they deprecate clause types that denote situations in which no agent is involved, like existentials ("There are no snakes in Ireland").

    More generally, objections to what is sometimes called "passive style" are based on the idea that writing is most effective when it describes actions (and not states) — an idea that several of us talked about here in our early discussions of Avoid Passive. (It's tied to images of forcefulness, power, and even masculinity.) (Note that I'm not putting down action clauses.)

    The terminological problem is probably insoluble. There's a technical term of linguistics ("passive (clause)") that should be used correctly and carefully by people who claim to be linguists or authorities on language, at least when they're talking about grammar, style, and usage. Outside of this, I don't suppose that linguists can complain about these matters, though we'd prefer it if people used a term that more accurately picks out what they want to object to ("non-action clause"?).

  12. Kevin Iga said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    The use of the word "vague" in "vague on agency" also seems to include sentences like

    Someone ate all of my porridge.
    A wise man once said, "never correct a linguist's syntax".
    Either John or Mary broke the window.

    In each case, the agent is vague, but not missing. On the other hand,

    Chomsky's "Lectures on Government and Binding" was written in 1981.

    does not express an argument that corresponds to the agent, but it is clear from the meaning of the sentence that Chomsky is the agent here.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    This seems to me a far from isolated case. "Dinosaur", technically, means one of the Saurischia (like T. rex, or Brachiosaur, or a chicken [even though chickens' ischia have become decidedly orniid]) or of Ornithischia (like Triceratops or Stegosaurus) or of a few allied species. Headline writers gleefully call the terrifying volant Azhdarchids dinosaurs. Paloeontologists complain bitterly about this, and are accused similarly of petty sniping, or ignored entirely. Physicists long ago lost control of "energy" and "momentum". Linguists distinguish Castilian and Catalonian (not to mention Basque) among Spanish languages, but to all but Spaniards (and even many of them) Spanish and Castilian are synonymous. Computer software developers revere their virtuosos as hackers, but the great unwashed reserve the term for petty burglars.

    It's often helpful to specialists (and others) for nonspecialists to know some technical terms, but once the words escape the academy they drift. I don't see any solution but to invent new terms.

  14. Mark P said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

    Nathan, it's perfectly OK for nonspecialists to use technical terms that have common meanings that are not exactly (or even nearly) like their technical meanings. The problem comes when specialists do it. Specialists depend on being able to communicate precise meanings to each other, and that depends on precise meanings that are agreed upon within the speciality. When someone uses a technical term in a way not consistent with its technical meaning, it strongly indicates that the person is not a specialist in that area.

  15. Craig Russell said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

    Isn't the problem here that the adjective 'passive' can be used with a range of meanings, only one of which is as technical grammatical terminology? If I let someone cut in front of me in line and don't raise an objection, I'm being passive. If I listen to a lecture for an hour without asking any questions, I'm being passive. Can't the word 'passive' be used in one of these senses to describe a sentence without it automatically having to take on the technical meaning (just as a sentence could be described as 'aggressive')?

    Of course, the opposing view would be that, even if that's what people are doing, they THINK that they're using the word with its technical meaning. High school English teachers who ask their students to 'avoid the passive voice' (and including sentences like "there were mistakes" along with "mistakes were made" as 'passive') are issuing a piece of stylistic advice as if they were describing a grammatical feature of the English verbal system. If all of these uses of 'passive' to mean 'unclear in terms of agent' were coming from the general public, that would be one thing. But most often they come from people who style themselves language experts.

  16. Craig Russell said,

    November 8, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    Oh yeah–and now I shall grind a personal axe. I was going through some old college papers the other day and I found an essay I wrote about ten years ago for a freshman history class. The TA who graded our papers was a big proponent of the 'avoid passive' school of writing, and would mark off for every example he found in our writing.

    So I found this paper I wrote about the first crusade, which he had marked up and down with "PASSIVE VOICE!!!!" At the time, I was not too sophisticated in my knowledge of technical language terms, so I just accepted it. But now, I look at the paper, and find that the majority of what he marked as "PASSIVE VOICE!!!!" were sentences like this:

    "Pope Urban was hoping to direct the people's anger at another target."

    My TA had marked "was hoping" as passive, on the grounds that the 'active' form would be "Pope Urban hoped". In his understanding, presumably, any construction that combined a form of 'be' with another verb form is 'passive'. If this is how people understand the label 'passive', what on earth is the argument that it should be avoided–just the fact that it's wordier?

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    I'm all for focusing on whether there's substance to what Payack was *trying* to say, reading his terminology in the nonspecialist sense, rather than stopping at the issue of whether he betrayed his lack of bona fides as a linguistics expert by misusing the technical term "passive voice." (Of course he did. He's not an expert. Let's move on.) The problem, though, is that there's no way, using that approach, to evaluate Payack's statement that 11% of Obama's sentences were in the passive voice, because – as Arnold Zwicky and Kevin Iga make clear above — the nonspecialist sense of "passive voice" is vague, with no settled meaning. I *think* Payack probably meant "sentences with unexpressed agents," rather than any of the other possible definitions you could pull out of Arnold's (or Craig Russell's) discussion, but it's hard to tell.

  18. Kennedy Elliott said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    @Craig, in logical order:

    Your TA's impression of the passive voice is wrong. Not all uses of the verb "to be" constitute the passive voice. As a matter of fact, this happens quite infrequently. Clearly in this case, the Pope is the subject of your sentence, and he is performing the action. This contradicts the definition of a passive construction.

    Your TA was correct, however, in recommending that you substitute "hoped" for "was hoping." While loquacity is not necessarily unfavorable, truncating the "to be" verb in this instance improves the precision and succinctness of your sentence.

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    Kennedy Elliott, to Craig Russell, who had a TA mark "Pope Urban was hoping to direct the people's anger at another target" as a passive and insisted that it should be put in the 'active' ("Pope Urban hoped …"): Your TA was correct, however, in recommending that you substitute "hoped" for "was hoping." While loquacity is not necessarily unfavorable, truncating the "to be" verb in this instance improves the precision and succinctness of your sentence.

    This is confused. The choice here is between the past progressive ("was hoping") and the simple past ("hoped"), and the progressive aspect is not simply a wordy and/or imprecise version of the simple aspect; they differ in meaning/use. (There is a gigantic literature on these differences.)

    In some cases the differences are stark: "He writes with his left hand" vs. "He is writing with his left hand". But in many cases the differences are subtle. The choice between them often depends a lot on context (and for the Pope Urban sentence, we don't have the context). At any rate, there's absolutely nothing wrong, grammatically or stylistically, with the progressive in the Pope Urban sentence.

  20. locke said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    It strikes me as odd that none of the writers or editors paused to scratch their heads over this "example" of passive voice. I can't imagine that they've no awareness of what constitutes a passive, at least in the form of knowledge of how they purportedly should not write.

  21. David Schwartz said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    If he meant that Pope Urban had hoped in the past and was continuing to hope at that time, then his usage is correct. If he meant that Pope Urban had hoped in the past, then the TA was correct. The progressive is appropriate if the thing described was progressive and inappropriate if it wasn't.

    "Pope Urban was hoping to direct the people's anger at another target."

    If it was critical that we understand that he had hoped prior that instant and had continued to hope up to and including the time spoken about, then his usage was essential.

  22. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    David Schwartz: "The progressive is appropriate if the thing described was progressive and inappropriate if it wasn't."

    Beware: labels are not definitions. "Progressive aspect" is a label for a grammatical phenomenon; clauses in the progressive aspect do not necessarily denote events in progress (although they often do, so that "progressive aspect" isn't a bad label), and events in progress aren't necessarily described by clauses in the progressive aspect. For instance, the (futurate) progressive "I am speaking in San Francisco tomorrow" doesn't denote an event in progress.

    The contrast between simple and progressive aspect is often much subtler than point events vs. events in progress. Consider "I propose that we modify the rules" vs. "I am proposing that we modify the rules". The second can be used as an amplification or clarification of something that the speaker had said before, but it doesn't denote an act of proposing in progress; the proposal is, however, "in the air". (The first would be bizarre in this use.)

  23. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 12, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    The danger of confusing a technical meaning with the common meaning of a word is well illustrated by the battle over evolution. Creationists and intelligent designists (or whatever they're called) take the scientific "theory" to mean "hypothesis," and use that meaning as a bludgeon against the theory of evolution. To a scientist, of course, it means no such thing.

  24. tjallen said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    "Realist" and "Idealist" mean different technical things in different parts of philosophy, none of which match the way the general public uses the words. I suppose there is some thread between all these uses, but it is not reasoned. We can trace the fact that one usage led to another usage, without claiming the new usage is a correct or reasonable one.

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