May 08, 2004

Two out of three on passives

The writer of the Respectful of Otters blog (named Rivka, I noticed only after drafting this), is a highly educated psychologist whose series of posts on the Abu Ghurayb revelations I have been reading with admiration. The writing is clear, trenchant, sometimes brilliant. But even for the highly educated in this country, grammar instruction is now so cursory and misguided that it is rare for a non-linguist to be able to go through a passage of prose and pick out, say, the passive clauses. I pointed this out before (here) with respect to a published report on media bias against Israel, in which a claim crucially depended on distinguishing passive from active clauses, and the rate of correct identification achieved was 1 out of 3. In this passage Rivka does better than that, but still gets only 2 out of 3 correct:

Look at his use of personal pronouns and the active voice there - "the way I run the prison." "We've had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break." It's complete ownership of, and identification with, the situation in the prison. Compare that to the passive voice with which he fails to take responsibility for anything, in the journal he sent his father: "Prisoners were forced..." "A prisoner...was shot..." "MI has instructed us to..."

In actuality, only the first two examples are passives.

The clause with the verb instruct is active. And so is the subordinate clause, given in full earlier in the post:

MI [Military Intelligence] has also instructed us to place prisoners in an isolation cell with little or no clothes.

The infinitival clause to place prisoners... is in the active voice. A clause is not in the passive voice simply because it denotes an action that was not undertaken volitionally. This screwdriver keeps on bending is not passive, even though it does seem to sort of blame the screwdriver rather than the user. My girlfriend suffered an injury while we were arguing is not passive, even when uttered at the hospital emergency room by a guilty boyfriend concealing his agency in the affair.

It's not the slightest bit unusual for educated people who are excellent writers to be unable to state grammatical generalizations correctly. And as Mark recently wrote here, "It's partly our fault because we've allowed the educational system to turn out PhDs who think and write like this... We've come a long way since grammar, rhetoric and logic were viewed as the trivial foundations for any other sort of education." Sunk a long way, he could have said.

Grammar is hardly taught at all these days. Almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong, and hardly anyone even controls a system of grammatical terminology that makes any sense. It is to at least some extent the fault of my profession. We theoretical linguists do not generally deign to do applied analysis of discourse or propaganda ourselves, or assist in it; and we do so little teaching of basic grammar of relevant kinds to a broad audience that the prevailing conception of grammar in the English-speaking world has hardly changed in a hundred and fifty years. It is perfectly sensible to attempt to discern psychological states of an author (like refusal to accept responsibility) from examining the use of particular kinds of grammatical construction in a text; but it generally gets done by people who do not have a sufficient grasp of grammar to permit the analysis they seek to understake. You can hardly blame them. It isn't like they're forgetting things that other people know. It just isn't true that everybody with an advanced degree will have had at least one coherent course on English grammar. Things are likely to stay this way until grammar teaching changes, or textual analysis with writers on politics and society is done in collaboration with grammarians .

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 8, 2004 06:01 PM