Mistakes were made (by me)

The grammarians are angry. In response to my Monday post about the odd language used in police press releases and (too often) press accounts of police shootings, Geoffrey K. Pullum at the Language Log blog gives me a sharp rap on the knuckles.

Somehow, in the chaos of the popular literature on passives (Strunk and White’s infamous page 18 bearing much of the blame) it has become standard to charge these limp and impersonal uses of intransitive verbs like occur or ensue or happen with being passive (see my paper “Fear and loathing of the English passive” for more examples than a stick could be shaken at). That’s a mistake. The way such sentences seem to refer to an event without laying any emphasis on the participants may be objectionable, but in grammatical terms they are not passives.

Unfortunately there are clear signs that Radley Balko simply cannot tell active from passive clauses.

A few other folks made the same point. And they’re right. I’m guilty of a couple of errors here, one broad and one specific. First, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all of the passages I quoted in the post were technically in the passive voice. I used the term “passive” more to describe to the general tone of descriptions of police shootings that deflect responsibility and separate the police officer from the incident. But the word “passive” wasn’t just imprecise, it was incorrect.

Second, I definitely mistakenly believed that the intransitive verb “occurred” is passive. It is not. For both errors, I apologize to you readers, to grammarians everywhere and, most important, to all of my former English teachers.

Pullum does acknowledge and agree with my general point about the slippery language that police and the press often use to describe officer-involved shootings. (The phrase “officer-involved shootings” is itself somewhat slippery, although it’s more useful than “police shootings,” which could be confused for shootings in which a police officer was the victim.) This leaves us with the challenge of finding a term to describe that language. In the post, I mentioned William Schneider’s playful phrase “past exonerative,” which I think is pretty great. But I’m open to other suggestions.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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