Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Passing for Passive

Posted by Neal on August 6, 2004

Occasional commentator trumpit sent me a link to this article by Michael Hiltzik in the LA Times. It starts out like this:

…a pattern of speech that grammarians might call the impersonal passive voice has gotten quite a workout in the business world this summer.

Now over at Language Log there have been several postings on writers who criticize other writers for using language that avoids naming names when it comes to responsibility for various actions. The complaint that Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum make is that these writers always seem to confuse the non-technical meaning for the word passive (i.e., “not taking action”) and the technical grammatical meaning of it–a syntactic construction in which the agent of an action may be left unstated, and the undergoer is expressed as the subject. To use an example that Hiltzik uses, the sentence Crimes were committed suggests that it isn’t known who actually committed the crime. The speaker of such a sentence presents himself or herself as a passive observer, not (as is often the case) the agent of the action.

But that’s not what makes Crimes were committed a passive sentence! What makes it passive is the verb phrase consisting of a form of be (namely were) and the passive participle committed. If it doesn’t have these two things, or at least the second one if the first is understood, it’s not a passive sentence. The writers that Liberman and Pullum criticize focus their attention on verb phrases such as took on racial overtones, [military intelligence] has instructed us to…, and bus blows up, and the verbal noun (or nominalization) shooting with no agent specified. Liberman and Pullum note that even though all these examples do indeed avoid naming the agent, or put responsibility on someone other than the actual agent, they are not passive sentences.

So how does Michael Hiltzik do? He starts out fine, with the genuine passive example mentioned above, but then falls into the same trap as the others. The good news is that he seems to recognize that not all passive sentences avoid expressing an agent–he employs the term impersonal passive, implying that there are passives that aren’t impersonal. This is true: You could say, “Crimes were committed … by me!” The bad news is that this term is already taken! There is such a thing as an impersonal passive, but it doesn’t exist in English. Here’s how it works:

In a sentence like I committed a crime, the noun phrase a crime is the direct object of committed, and is expressed as the subject in the equivalent passive sentence, A crime was committed. But what if you have a verb that doesn’t take a direct object, such as smile? How do you make I smiled into a passive, if there’s no direct object to turn into the subject? In English, you can’t, and that’s all there is to it. In languages with impersonal passive (for example, German), you can, and it literally translates as, “It was danced.” In other words, there was some dancing going on, but who was doing it isn’t relevant.

“a pattern of speech that grammarians might call the impersonal passive voice” indeed. Might, but shouldn’t. And after this unfortunate choice of terminology and the one genuine example of the passive voice, there’s not another passive to be seen in all the quotations Hiltzik gives from Martha Stewart and Ken Lay. Here they are:

  • “an … event of unprecedented proportions spreading like oil over a vast landscape” (Stewart)
  • “the perception of my conduct” (Stewart)
  • “the loss of my company, my failure to be able to save it and the tremendous hardship it caused so many employees, retirees, and others” (Lay)

Certainly, all these quotations show Stewart and Lay avoiding responsibility for their actions, but they do it with active verbs whose subject is not a person (spreading, caused), nominalizations with no agent specified (loss), an implication that there is a mistaken perception, and the invited assumption that someone who tries to save something is never the one who destroyed it in the first place (my failure to save it).

In all fairness, I think there should be a term covering this kind of accountability-avoiding language, including passive voice, agentless nominalizations, and verbs whose subject is the undergoer instead of the agent (spread, happen, etc.). But still, if someone wants to make some significant point (sociological or otherwise) that is damningly revealed in people’s use of language, they ought to make sure they know what they’re talking about, and not just rely on a gained-from-context or common-sense understanding of a technical grammar term.

5 Responses to “Passing for Passive”

  1. Anonymous said

    In Hebrew you can both leave out the subject, and front the object, so passive is seldom used.

    Unrelated question: What do you make of “headline English” from a linguistic perspective? I just saw the headline: Photoblogging a disaster which I misunderstood as “Photoblogging is a disaster”.

    This seems to be related to something I’ve long noticed, but don’t really understand: Hebrew seems to require much less punctuation than English. Why is that?

    David Boxenhorn

  2. Anonymous said

    Hi Neal!

    I apologize if I insulted your intelligence by emailing you that L.A. Times piece. Nevertheless, I enjoyed your educated take on it. You have to remember that its hard to find good stuff to read even in L.A.; so, that’s one of the reason I’m often here at your new blog. (You amuse me too!). Some of the “top” news stories this morning: S.F. Man Admits Beheading Hoax, Prisoner Glues Self to Girlfriend, Jenna Bush Reels in Big Fish. At least the last story shows that Jenna won’t starve should she get cut out of her dad’s will. Fat chance! Yes, my first thought was that you would make a far better journalist than the L.A. Times’ Michael Hiltzik.
    But on further reflection, I think it is the editor’s fault for not recognizing the serious problems with the story as written. You’d make a better editor. That last line almost rhymes too!

  3. Anonymous said

    That last comment was written by me, trumpit!

  4. Jonathon said

    “Weasel word” might be a good replacement for “passive” as a term for accountability avoidance, but it doesn’t have the same technical feel. How about “tergiversation”?

  5. Jonathon said

    Okay, so apparently I just commented on a seven-year-old post without realizing it. Any idea why it just appeared in my feed reader?

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