March 14, 2007

mistakes were made (by someone else, of course)

As someone who has a professional interest in the passive, I am delighted when the construction gets attention in the media, for example when planets get plutoed. The New York Times gives an overview over everybody's most detested passive:

Familiar Fallbacks for Officials: "Mistakes were Made"

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.
The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.* It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon's press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.
It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident involving Janet Jackson. “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,” the agent said.
In 1991, Mr. Sununu, then the chief of staff to President George Bush, was caught violating various White House travel rules. He retreated behind the language of obfuscation. “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety,” he said. “Obviously, some mistakes were made.”
Reagan used the same construction in 1986 in describing the Iran-contra affair, in which officials in his administration sold arms to Iran to finance the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.
His vice president, the current president’s father, said he supported Reagan’s policies but agreed that there might have been a few flaws in the execution. “Clearly, mistakes were made,” he said.
Just 36 hours into his administration, Mr. Clinton used that terminology when he withdrew the nomination of ZoĆ« Baird as attorney general. In January 1997, he acknowledged that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently,” he said.
The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”
*That is not quite correct. Passives include an implicit agent. The sentence "Mistakes were made" means that someone made a mistake -- the speaker just chooses not to identify that person. A sentence without an agent would be "Mistakes happen". This difference was exlored recently in an episode of "Bill Maher" on HBO (Feb. 15, 2007). In an interview with John Edwards, Maher said:

"Alright, let me ask you about your vote in 2002, the vote to authorize George Bush to ...have the authority to go to war. Uh, your response to that was to write an editorial, which began with the words 'I was wrong,' words you don’t usually hear from a politician. Uh, Hillary Clinton says, 'I was misled.' So, what’s the difference between 'I was wrong' and 'I was misled?"
Linguistically, the difference is that one is a state and the other one is an action, initiated by an (unkown) agent. Hillary Clinton comes across as evasive because she portrays herself as the victim of an unknown misleader. This may not be the best strategy. Nobody likes their leaders to make mistakes, but nobody likes them to be helpless victims either.

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