Dubious passive

I am on record as not being against the passive voice. I don’t recommend using passive constructions wherever possible — that would be very silly — but I do remind people that passives have their uses and places, and I note that insisting on recasting all passives as actives can lead to text that is at best awkward.

Still, there are times when I’m genuinely puzzled by a passive clause — like this one, in a NYT piece of 20 May (“Shopping Spree for [Sarah] Palin by G.O.P. Passes Legal Test”, by Kate Philips):

The expenditures caused a small uproar, but Republican officials asserted that they had always intended to donate the clothing to charity later. And Governor Palin said many of the outfits had not been worn by her.

(the passive clause is marked out in bold face). This clause is not only passive, it’s an “agentive passive”, with the “logical subject” expressed in a PP with by; agentive passives are much rarer than non-agentive ones. And in fact the “logical subject” is expressed by a personal pronoun (her), and that’s even rarer. (Textbooks and usage manuals often cite made-up examples like “The bird was seen by me”, with a type of clause that is vanishingly rare, even in formal writing.)

The question is why the situation should have been described by “many of the outfits had not been worn by her”, instead of “she had not worn many of the outfits”. The odd pronominal agentive passive highlights Palin, by putting her in a position often used for new and especially important information, and suggests, bizarrely (to my mind) that other women might have worn some of the outfits, but Palin didn’t wear them.

Well, maybe those are the facts, and the “devious reading” is correct; maybe Palin said something along the lines of “Many of the outfits were not worn by me”, cutting the factual corner — or, more plausibly, some spokesperson said something along the lines of “Many of her outfits were not worn by her”, again cutting the factual corner (by allowing for the possibility that other women wore some of the outfits). Philips’s sentence has an indirect quotation, so we don’t know how to parcel out the responsibility for the wording: how much comes from the source, and how much from the source as interpreted by the reporter?

I’ve entertained the possibility that Philips had originally written “She had not worn many of the outfits” and then she, or an editor, fell into a fugue on the negative-quantifier scoping issue (this would probably not have been a conscious matter, of course). But this strikes me as almost impossibly subtle; it’s the difference between ‘She failed to wear many of the outfits’ (the number of outfits she wore was inconsequential) and ‘She wore few of the outfits’ (the number of outfits she wore was small), which is a far cry from the classic neg-quant cases like “All of the bullfrogs didn’t croak” (‘None of the bullfrogs croaked’ vs. ‘Not all of the bullfrongs croaked’).

In any case, a small mystery.

7 Responses to “Dubious passive”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I have to agree: it very much looks as if she’s saying other people wore the outfits while trying to imply that nobody wore them, in case it all comes up again.

  2. mae Says:

    Other people, yes: her husband, daughters, baby. They all received lots of outfits from the Republican party — and presumably wore them.

  3. Jens Fiederer Says:

    To me it feels like the phrasing puts more emphasis on the OUTFITS and less emphasis on her activities, especially if the “by her” is left off.

    “I did not wear many of the outfits.” sounds like we are discussing her doings.

    “Many of the outfits have not been worn.” sounds more like we are centering on the articles.

    “Many of the outfits have not been worn (at least not) by me.” might be a disclaimer appended to the previous sentence.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    But the “by me” is weird, because we tend to privilege personal pronouns and thus not demote them to agentive-by-phrases in passives. If she hadn’t said “by me”, it would have sounded completely unremarkable. As it is, it sounds – given the limited context we have – as if she’s trying to emphasize the “not being worn” part but either (a) circumventing the fact that other people *have* worn them, or (b) hoping no-one will notice that she’s not actually saying they haven’t been worn. Either reading is possible. But it’s not a neutral sentence even with focus on the outfits.

  5. Jens Fiederer Says:

    It doesn’t sound all that weird to me, in the context of a CAMPAIGN.

    While “mae” seems to consider husbands, daughter, and baby credible wearers of these garments, the only garments relevant to the discussion would be those fitting Palin, who would not need to declare as personal income dresses worn by female Republican staffers (the whole question seems a bit silly to me anyway – next we’ll be hearing about actresses having to declare the right to wear their costumes as personal income?).

    And that’s assuming the paraphrase by the reporter is an actual rendition of what Palin said, not an attempt by said reporter to clarify that the question about other wearers had not been asked.

  6. fs Says:

    Well, to me, ‘She failed to wear many of the outfits’ is also ambiguous. To try to express the two possibilities in something approximating:

    (A): not ISSUBSTANTIAL(QUANTITY(OUTFIT X such that SHEWORE(X)))
    (B): exists X such that (for all Y in X, not SHEWORE(Y)) and ISSUBSTANTIAL(X)

    These are pretty different things, and do not imply each other – for example, it could be that there exists a substantial number of clothes that she did not wear (satisfying B) and yet also that there exists a substantial number of clothes that she did wear, thus making the total number of clothes which she did wear also substantial (since more than substantial must also be substantial, and negating A).

    The sentence as it stands (“Governor Palin said many of the outfits had not been worn by her”) is, IMO, quite clearly referring to meaning B, whereas all the alternatives you offered included a possibility of meaning A (and in fact “She wore few of the outfits” seems to carry ONLY meaning A).

    Certainly it was an awkward construction, but I can’t really think of any other way to get meaning B across clearly, if that’s what they were trying to do.

  7. fs Says:

    Well, to me, ‘She failed to wear many of the outfits’ is also ambiguous. To try to express the two possibilities in something approximating predicate logic:

    (A): not ISSUBSTANTIAL(QUANTITY(OUTFIT X such that SHEWORE(X)))
    (B): exists X such that (for all Y in X, not SHEWORE(Y)) and ISSUBSTANTIAL(X)

    These are pretty different things, and do not imply each other – for example, it could be that there exists a substantial number of clothes that she did not wear (satisfying B) and yet also that there exists a substantial number of clothes that she did wear, thus making the total number of clothes which she did wear also substantial (since more than substantial must also be substantial, thus negating A).

    The sentence as it stands (”Governor Palin said many of the outfits had not been worn by her”) is, IMO, quite clearly referring to meaning B, whereas all the alternatives you offered included a possibility of meaning A (and in fact “She wore few of the outfits” seems to carry ONLY meaning A).

    Certainly it was an awkward construction, but I can’t really think of any other way to get meaning B across clearly, if that’s what they were trying to do.

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