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Passive aggressive

Anne Henochowicz, "Passive-Aggressive: Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin", LA Review of Books, 10/23/2018: Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice […]

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He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership: On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then […]

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Mid-voice crisis: Beyond active and passive

I've long since accepted that most people use "passive voice" to mean "vague about agency": see "Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 3/12/2009. And I've made my peace with an extra-extended use of the term passive to convey only a vague sense of disapprobation: "'Passive construction' means… nothing at all?", 7/25/2009. But in David Brooks' […]

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The passives of PricewaterhouseCoopers

While we at Language Log bemoan how often the passive voice is misidentified, and how often passive constructions are wrongly scapegoated, last night's Oscars debacle has provided us with a clearcut case of how agentless passives can serve to obfuscate. The official apology from PricewaterhouseCoopers for the envelope mixup, which led Warren Beatty and Faye […]

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Bad newspaper prose (yes, with passives)

Those who want a clear example of truly dreadful prose, dreadful in large part because of the use of the much-loathed agentless passive, should look at examples like this, from the UK Daily Mail website on Sunday, July 12: The medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures […]

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Another passive-hating Orwell wannabe

I'm grateful to Peter Howard and S. P. O'Grady, who within an hour or so both mailed me a link to this extraordinarily dumb article by James Gingell in The Guardian. As Howard and O'Grady pointed out, Gingell's wildly overstated rant illustrates a point I have made on Language Log many times before: that when language […]

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Passive problem

We've been highly skeptical, in general, of usage mavens' often-mistaken disdain for what they call "passive voice". The objects of their animus are often not grammatically passive at all, but merely vague about agency — or sometimes just weakly phrased in some not-very-clear way. But Jerry Friedman points out a case where vagueness about agency […]

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Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! […]

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times […]

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'Concern troll' passives

You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you […]

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The English passive: an apology

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 […]

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Passive blindness in the NYRB

In Mark Danner, "Donald Rumsfeld Revealed", New York Review of Books 1/9/2014, a beautiful example of the grammatical incoherence of contemporary intellectual discourse: Caught by Morris, he is not embarrassed or nonplussed. Nor does he acknowledge that he’d been wrong, or indeed engage Morris’s question—the question about his own responsibility—at all. We get only a […]

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One more misidentified passive (can you bear it?)

You know, people keep telling me that I shouldn't blame Strunk & White for the way so many Americans are clueless about identifying passive clauses. Others tell me I'm being prescriptive: I should let people use the word 'passive' however they want. (And you can, of course; you can use it to mean "box containing […]

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