Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bad Linguistics ... and Good Linguistics

One of the things I have learned from several years of reading Language Log is just how absent the science of linguistics is from the radar of your average intellectual. Otherwise highly educated people spout nonsense about language that has long since been utterly discredited by serious scholarly study of language.

So I should not have been surprised to read a tweet by Ben Goldacre that addressed the use of the passive voice: "dear everyone, when i read your passive sentence constructions i sort of have to convert them into active ones in my head because i'm thick." I was not surprised, but I was disappointed, since I love Goldacre's ongoing critique of "Bad Science" on his blog and in his Guardian column and his book with that title. He is unrelenting, for example, on the nonsense that is "alternative medicine," while also being highly critical of "bad science" when he finds it in more mainstream scientific settings.

His critique of the passive voice as a supposed "stylistic problem," however, is first-order bad science — perhaps not quite on the order of homeopathy, but still utterly unfounded. If you, like Goldacre, think that "passive voice should be avoided," then you should read some good science by Geoffrey Pullum from Language Log: "The Passive in English." I hope that Goldacre, too, will follow my tip and recognize the Language Log linguists as his fellow campaigners against "bad science."


Jonathan said...

I've had the same experience of reading Language Log and revising my own prejudices.

Warren said...

I believe what you meant to write was: "If you, like Goldacre, think that "passive voice should be avoided," then some good science by Geoffrey Pullum from Language Log: "The Passive in English" should be read."

Mark Granier said...

Wow, I just read that link to the article on the passive 'voice'. I got lost after a few paragraphs; it was like trying to digest algebra. Interesting though. And perhaps enlightening re Orwell and Strunk and White, as in the following passage:

'George Orwell warns against the passive in his overblown and dishonest essay "Politics and the English language". E. B. White does likewise in the obnoxiously ignorant little book he coauthored with Strunk, The Elements of Style. Both of these authors have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: around 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.' Now I'm wondering if I should stop recommending the Little White Book, on the evidence of someone whose reasoning I can barely disentangle.

Andrew Shields said...

Yes, Mark, you should stop recommending Strunk and White. Pullum's various discussions of it have completely discredited it for me. It is full of nonsensical linguistics (what Pullum calls "zombie rules"), it is hypocritical, and it does not help one become a better writer -- especially if you try to apply its rules but do not understand its terminology (as in "avoid the passive," but you think it means "avoid situations in which there is no active subject of the verb").