This is a continuation of my last post, about Global Language Monitor’s analysis of the vice-presidential debate, which, as far as I can tell, basically consisted of feeding the debate transcript into Microsoft Word, looking at the numbers, and making up an explanation as to why the results mattered. I’d stated two complaints with Global Language Monitor’s analysis; the first was that they had assigned readability scores to the debate, and the second was that they’d claimed Sarah Palin was overusing the passive. I spent the last post long-windedly arguing that readability is bunk when you’re talking about extemporaneous speech, and now it’s time for me to do something I thought I would never do: defend Sarah Palin.
We all know the passive; we’ve all heard of its unsavory practices. For all the hell it goes through on a daily basis, it’s a wonder that it keeps showing up to work. The passive gets maligned as too wordy, too evasive, too wimpy. Strunk & White opposed it, George Orwell opposed it, and Microsoft Word opposes it. It’s opposed by just about any prescriptivist you can find shouting drivel. According to the anti-passivists, there’s only one reason to use a passive, and that’s to avoid responsibility. The problem with the passive, they claim, is that passives don’t tell you who is the “doer of the action” — or as we linguists like to call it, the agent.
The most commonly cited example of the terrible agentless passive is “Mistakes were made”, which is sufficiently reviled to have its own Wikipedia entry. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, passives can have explicit agents, as in this sentence from Kofi Annan:
(1) In both cases, the gravest mistakes were made by Member States [...]
Not only can passives have an agent, but non-passive sentences can be agentless. Here’s four non-passive agentless restatements of “Mistakes were made”:
(2a) Someone made mistakes.
(2b) There were mistakes.
(2c) Mistakes happened.
(2d) People made mistakes.
So we see that in spite of the conventional wisdom, passives don’t necessarily indicate a desire to evade responsibility, and non-passives don’t indicate forthrightness. In fairness, the Global Language Monitor analysis does acknowledge this, stating merely that passives can be evasive, but then they follow that up by claiming that Palin used passives specifically to evade responsibility:
“Passive voice can be used to deflect responsibility; Biden used active voice when referring to Cheney and Bush; Palin countered with passive deflections.”
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!
Here’s the data. I searched through the CNN transcript and noted each time that Biden said “Bush” or “Cheney”. Each time I found a Bush/Cheney reference, I put the first three (or more, if she stayed on the topic) paragraphs of Palin’s response into a file. So this file contained all of her direct responses to Biden’s mentions of Bush or Cheney, a set of 75 sentences. There are (by my count) eight passive clauses in this dataset, occurring in seven sentences, so 9% percent of her sentences have at least one passive clause. But let’s look at representative examples of these passives:
(3a) “And our commanders on the ground will tell us when those conditions have been met.”
(3b) “[...] those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.”
(3c) “No Child Left Behind was implemented.”
None of these use the passive to deflect responsibility. In fact, in all of these sentences, the agents would probably be proud to be explicitly named. “Me! It’s me who is not allowing a dangerous regime to obtain nuclear weapons!”, they’d scream.
So why does GLM think that Palin was using passive deflections? Well, my guess is that it fits with the narrative that all Republicans are constantly trying to distance themselves from President Bush, so GLM assumed that when Palin used the passive, it must have been used evasively. But to find out if this wasn’t really the case, you just had to spend a couple of minutes READING THE TEXT. It took me ten minutes to compile the sentences and read them. It was painful ten minutes, because I so staunchly disagree with almost everything Palin says, but I did it. GLM, clearly, did not, preferring instead to regurgitate Word’s readability statistics and tack on some bunk commentary. I know it’s tough checking facts because there’s a chance they won’t support the point you want to make, but you really ought to do it before you send out spurious analysis in a press release.
Summary: Let no one say I’ve never defended Sarah Palin. Her use of the passive in the VP debate, although more common than Biden’s, was not used to distance herself from Bush and Cheney, but rather was employed as a standard stylistic device. Mashing together Word’s readability statistics and some made-up rubbish doesn’t make good analysis. Let’s stop trying to pin so much importance on the delivery of the message and actually pay attention to the message itself.