January 03, 2012

Thou shalt not condemn passives (especially if you don't even know what they are)

Exercising more? Eating less? Those are popular, but very boring New Year's resolutions. Here's a better one, at least for linguists or really for anyone who cares about the structure of language: Join George Pullum in his campaign to get journalists (and, may I add, style manual writers) to stop using them grammatical term "passive" when they have no idea what it means.
Many have begged me to give up on my campaign to get journalists to stop using the term "passive" in its grammatical sense when they have no idea what it means. Some warn me that the quest is hopeless and no one will ever listen; some say I have failed to see that some sort of metaphorical passivity is being alluded to and I should get with the lexicographical program; and some just find the experience of me pointing these cases out is like being repeatedly hit over the head with The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But I will not give up. I will never surrender. [...] Today we have a good example of Matt Taibbi making the usual blunder:
Obama is simply not telling the truth about the supposedly insufficient penalties available to regulators. Employing the famous "mistakes were made" use of the passive tense, Obama copped out in his December 6 speech by saying that "penalties are too weak."
Penalties are too weakis an active simple intransitive clause, with the copular verb>Why should this be thought important? Because there are technical terms in this world, and serious journalism should be using them in roughly the standard way. In economics, inflation has a technical sense that it doesn't have in ballooning. Inflation of a balloon means pumping gas into it, but inflation of a currency means a general rise in the average cost of goods and services (hence a concomitant decrease in the purchasing power of the currency). You don't have to use economic technical terms if you don't want to, but you really shouldn't write newspaper columns on politics and business using the word inflation to mean something else, like "growth of the economy", or "hot air pumped into the political climate by spin doctors".The difference is that any newspaper editor would know enough economics to stop you if you used the word inflation in such a totally ignorant way, whereas, it seems, no newspaper editor knows enough elementary grammar to stop you using the word passive in a totally ignorant way.
You want to use the term "passive" correctly? Read this.

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