Saturday, January 29, 2005

Beware the passive voice and the NYT's expectations game 

A writer that uses the passive voice -- "the fish was caught" rather than "John caught the fish" -- confuses his reader. Most people do not know how to write well, so they use the passive voice inadvertantly. When the editorial writers of The New York Times use the passive voice, they are confusing its readers on purpose.

Consider this morning's editorial characterizing Iraq's elections as "a gamble." After the pro forma expression of hope that everything goes well even "as the bar for relative electoral success is low," the Times plunges into despair:
The issue of Sunni participation did not have to become this dicey. More energetic and systematic efforts to integrally involve representative Sunni leaders, including former Baathists and nationalists from insurgent zones, should have begun long ago,

"Should have begun" by whom? Oh:
even before Washington handed power to the current interim government, which is dominated by exile-rooted parties and Shiite and Kurdish politicians.

The Times does not want to come out and blame particular particular Iraqis for failing to "involve," or attempting to "involve," Sunnis, because it knows that Prime Minister Allawi's election list has lots of Sunnis "involved." That is why it used the passive voice in the first part of the sentence. It reverted to the active voice only to point blame at "Washington," meaning the CPA and the Bush Administration, for the period before June 30.
Numerous opportunities since then have been foolishly passed up.

By whom? Who or what is the subject of the verb? I submit that even the Times does not know.
Even as late as last month, when the extent of Sunni Arab alienation from the election process became overwhelmingly evident [to whom? - ed.], a willingness [whose willingness? - ed.] to consider postponing the voting until this spring in exchange for a voter drive led by Sunnis might have helped.

One reason that possibility was never seriously explored [by whom? - ed.] was the Bush administration's insistence on holding to the original election timetable.

The Times suddenly discovers active verbs again just as it needs them to blame the Bush Administration. Never mind that Ayatollah Sistani, the most powerful leader of the largest religious group in Iraq, insists that the elections take place now.

The most offensive paragraph, though, is the last, and here the Times again speaks actively:
Washington gambled that a January vote would please the Shiites and Kurds and that if it credibly established a new legislature and constitutional assembly, large numbers of Sunnis would turn their back on the insurgency and rush into the arms, and armed forces, of the new government. The wisdom of that gamble will be clearer after tomorrow's vote.

Washington "gambled" on a January vote? Apart from setting the original date in a deal with Sistani a year ago, I'm not sure that "Washington" had much of a choice here. Indeed, whenever in the last few months anybody in "Washington" has gone wobbly in the date of election day, influential Iraqis have set them straight in a trice.

More to the point, the election is not a "gamble" at all. It is obviously the least bad alternative. While there are people who think that democracy will never work in Iraq (including particularly democracy's most famous enemy there), The New York Times, if it is in fact that pessimistic, does not want to say as much because to do so would call into question its own ambitions for nation-building in parts of the world where the United States has no strategic interest (lack of self-interest being the liberal test for the legitimacy of any intervention). Instead, the Times has been calling for a delay in the election -- precisely the concession that the insurgents in Iraq have been fighting for -- as if the mere passage of time will douse the fires of Sunni ambition. Its motives for this are obviously political: by calling for a delay in the election, it can now blame the Bush Administration for everything bad that happens tomorrow and afterward. Since we cannot test the Times's proposal to delay the election in an alternative universe, the Times is setting itself up to attack the Bush Administration for pretty much any problem in Iraq during the next few weeks.

It will be interesting to see whether the Times uses the passive voice then.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds and Roger L. Simon linked. Recognition from such giants always improves our blogisteem. Also, a better grammarian than I am points out in the comments that the "passive voice" refers to verbs constructed with some form of the verb "to be" followed by the past participle of the verb. Therefore, some of the cited examples above are not in the passive voice. Good point. Nevertheless, the Times hid the subjects of its verbs in the examples I cited because obscurity served its argument more than transparency would have.

UPDATE: Cassandra, a much better blogger than I am, explains why we should be constructive in our support for Iraqi democracy:
And it's not that I don't ever disagree with administration, or that I don't see any problems. I just don't see what is gained by complaining. We have a job to do. In the short term the resources are fairly fixed and the plans have already been made. It's more important, in my opinion, to demonstrate resolve and carry out our plans than to indulge in endless second-guessing, staff purges, and wallow in self-doubt.

What can I say: I'm a cheerleader and I'll brook no dissent...

...she writes with a smile.


By Blogger Fausta, at Sat Jan 29, 09:27:00 AM:

More energetic and systematic efforts to achieve accuracy and truthfulness in reporting should have begun long ago at some newspapers of record, but numerous opportunities since then have been foolishly passed up. One reason that possibility was never seriously exploredwas the editors' own cluelessness.  

By Blogger stephen, at Sat Jan 29, 09:44:00 AM:


Passive voice is a form of the verb 'to be' followed by the past participle of a verb. 'had been burned', 'was fished out', 'had been converted', etc., are examples of passive voice. 'should have begun' is not, nor is 'became overwhelmingly evident'. ('Evident' is not even a verb - no one ever 'evidents' something.)

Have a good day.


By Blogger ErnieG, at Sat Jan 29, 09:53:00 AM:

I was reminded of Wolcott Gibbs's famous line about Time mazine: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind..."  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Jan 29, 09:58:00 AM:


Good point. Perhaps I should have indicted the Times for obscuring the subject rather than using the passive voice per se.

You're obviously a better grammarian than I am.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jan 29, 10:37:00 AM:

Nice work, old boot. :)


By Blogger TopCat, at Sat Jan 29, 02:34:00 PM:

I'll remember that the next time a Democrat says "mistakes were made."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jan 29, 02:54:00 PM:

My favorite was an "apology" I once received (as an American) at Oxford: "If mistakes were made, I'm sure they are regretted."

The warmth and sincerity of that baby smoothed over the whole matter, of course.  

By Blogger Sluggo, at Sat Jan 29, 03:12:00 PM:

Passive is as passive does.

However the grammer works out, the Nyawk Times is not passive in getting their message out. Along with Ted Kennedy's little hissy fit the other day, it's perplexing to see heavyweights (sorry Ted) engage in this cheerstopping before the fact. You have to take them at their word. They're against it.  

By Blogger james82, at Sat Jan 29, 04:49:00 PM:

Hugh Downs recently said there is liberal bias in the media in that reporters are "people [who] tend to be more liberated in their thought when they are closer to events and know a little more about what the background of what's happening. So, I suppose, in that respect, there is a liberal, if you want to call it a bias. The press is a little more in touch with what's happening."

The media know better than us, and they want to guide our thinking to the "correct" conclusions.

The NYT, the social-science-types that educate that ilk, et al will recede into oblivion through their irrelavant and outmoded ideas. All they rely on is unsubstantiated antithesis, contrariness, and brute obstructionism. Their credibilty continues to diminish.

I wish someone would keep track of how inaccurate the NYT coverage is after the fact? I'm confident the Iraqi elections will have a better turnout than the American 2004 presidential election, and Iraqi self-determination will be moving forward to its next milestone, with the NYT continuing to anklebite the situation.  

By Blogger Jehane, at Sat Jan 29, 09:27:00 PM:

I was smiling on "I'll brook no dissent" because I was wondering if you'd remember who said it first :)

...and I'm only a better blogger than you in my dreams.

Maybe when I grow up.  

By Blogger AST, at Sat Jan 29, 11:44:00 PM:

re: "Numerous opportunities since then have been foolishly passed up."

I assumed they were talking about the opportunities for telling us what's really going on over there.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jan 30, 03:18:00 AM:

C'mon dude, lighten up. Mistakes were made.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jan 30, 10:52:00 AM:

Oh, that whole anti-passive voice thing is so much of a bugbear. Besides you miss two key possibilities. 1) Maybe the editors were punning on passivist and pacifist(ing). 2) NYTimes editors really are that muddleheaded on certain topics. 2a) They feared offending their readership.  

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