October 10, 2006

School shootings and passive constructions

The BBC, mindful of the fact that children also listen to the news when parents do, tries to maintain certain principles in coverage of truly distressing events such as the recent school shootings (an appalling four significant incidents in the last two weeks in the USA, some with fatalities). Tim Levell states ("The Editors", October 3):

We aim therefore to stand in the gap, and provide a simple, factual explanation of what happened. Specifically:

  • We don't dwell on the details (which can make it so much more real to children, and mean they start putting themselves in that place)
  • We use passive constructions ("Five girls have died", not "The man went in and shot five girls")...

Passive constructions? The example given, Five girls have died, is not a passive clause at all. The past participle died is required by the fact that it is the head of the complement of the perfect tense auxiliary have. The clause is in the active voice, not the passive. As we have pointed out before (here, and here, and here, and here), people often talk about the passive voice and how to avoid it without having any idea of how to identify a passive clause. If avoiding passives is going to be, for example, a key editorial precept for a book series, and now using them is going to be official policy for a worldwide news organization like the BBC, then some instruction is needed in how to tell when you have one of the pesky things and when you don't. As Arnold Zwicky points out (here), you can't just rely on your common-sense notions of what involves passively waiting or experiencing as opposed to actively doing or causing. Not if you mean "passive" in the grammarian's sense, which is surely the sense of the word in Tim Levell's claim that they "use passive constructions" in writing BBC news copy.

[Thanks to Karen Davis for the tipoff.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 10, 2006 05:53 PM