The English passive: an apology

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Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

Dozens of people wrote to me over the years pointing out published misidentifications of passives by critics and style handbooks and grammar advice people. But the messages in question were spread over a decade (2003-2013), and arrived at half a dozen different email addresses (at the University of California, Santa Cruz before 2007; at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, in 2005-2006; at the University of Edinburgh from 2007 on; at Brown University in 2012-2013; and at wherever in cyberspace Gmail is).

Not all of these accounts are extant or searchable. But even if they were, email records would not tell all, because some people spoke to me personally or showed me hard copy, or wrote to Mark Liberman or Arnold Zwicky rather than to me, or remained anonymous ("loyal Language Log reader, Chicago") or only gave a login name (""), and so on.

I try to maintain a comprehensive list of Language Log posts on passives. Reading through the posts listed there would reveal the names of some of the people who sent me relevant references, but by no means all of them, because some of the cases never got to be the subject of Language Log posts but went straight into my private stash.

The crucial thing is that back in 2003 I never knew that one day I would write the paper I have now written, and would therefore need a list of my unpaid helpers and informants. So the list just grew and grew, without me realizing that I had no definitive record anywhere of just who to thank for each citation.

That is why the acknowledgment note in the paper says simply that "I owe a major debt to the many Language Log readers over the years—literally too many to list here or even remember—who sent me references or links to erroneous criticisms alleging use of the passive voice. You know who you are, and I thank you en masse; I could never have found all those cases without you, and before you started sending them I never realized how many there are." Unable to recover more than a random handful of the relevant names, I have simply left all of you languishing in anonymity.

The responsibility for this decade-long failure to plan ahead is mine, and no passive can minimize or attenuate it. I admit that accurate records were not kept: mistakes were made!

P.S.: A big thank you to those readers who have emailed me with corrections of typos in the paper; I am hoping that these can all be fixed before publication, and I have already incorporated most of them in the typescript version that is available for download at

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