Monday, 24 October 2011

Active voice allows speaker to hide agency

People often get over-excited about politicians using the 'passive voice' to hide their errors. There was an example of just this in last week's Fry's Planet Word, when Armando Iannucci (the famous linguist....oh no wait, he's a comedy writer) said that politicians say things like
Mistakes were made
and he, much amused and outraged, hooted
By who?
OK, that is a terrible way to apologise for anything, and it doesn't fool anyone. If people even say that kind of thing any more they're idiots. But the point is that it's not the passive that causes agency (the person who did the thing) to be hidden - you can easily say
The cakes for this week's charity sale were all eaten by me, and I'm very sorry.
Geoff Pullum has ranted about this much more extensively and accurately than I can, and he has myriad examples of stupidity. So on to the topical bit.

Well, MP Oliver Letwin recently dumped a load of documents in a park bin and was caught out doing so. This is obviously an incredibly stupid act, even if the documents were (as he says) not of a sensitive nature. He swiftly realised he wasn't going to get out of this and apologised quite fully. He said
On reflection, I shouldn't have disposed of them in that way.
Fair enough: full responsibility taken. He also said
I should not have allowed the papers to be in the bin.
Slightly odd, and rightly mocked on Have I Got News For You this week for evading any responsibility for having put them in there in the first place. And it's also a perfect example of how you can dodge your actions just as well in the active as in the passive.

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