Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bitten by the passive

Another expert who wouldn't recognize the passive voice if it jumped up and he was bitten on the nose by it:

As the report put it, using the passive tense, “There was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests.”

Uh, no. It doesn't use the "passive tense," of which there is no such animal. As far as the passive voice goes, clausewise these are trying times we're 0-for-2: The first clause is existential*; the second -- the headless relative cunningly hidden in the prepositional phrase -- is as active as it gets.

What the writer means, of course, is that the sentence in question doesn't blame the people he wants blamed for the Benghazi debacle. That's a political question, not a grammatical one, and it suggests that we might should have a separate grammatical category for the political passive: any syntactic construct that the speaker (a) can't identify at better than chance levels but (b) thinks would be a really good way to make sport of the opposition, because (c) the rubes will be cowed by anything that sounds like "grammar."

You're welcome, of course, to your own views on the adequacy of the Benghazi investigation to date. Whatever those views, if you've gotten this far, you can probably tell "grammar" from "routine language bullying." Please go forth and share that view.

* Or "expletive," for some old-fashioned stylists; think
"Dunbar says there is no God."

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