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Bogus Advice for Op-Ed Authors

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Bret Stephens offers in The New York Times (August 25) a guide for beginning op-ed authors: “As a summertime service for readers of the editorial pages who may wish someday to write for them,” he says, “here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the years as an editor, op-ed writer, and columnist.”

And what does this experienced editor, writer, and columnist have to tell us about how to write? (You know how it usually goes: People who can write very nicely are hopeless at explaining how you could do likewise.) I can’t discuss all of what he says, but his cluelessness regarding grammar renders at least one of his 15 numbered paragraphs impossible to take seriously.

If you regularly read Lingua Franca or Language Log, you will not be too surprised to learn that he repeats (in Paragraph 7) a familiar injunction that he learned from William Strunk Jr., George Orwell, and zombie legions of others: “Avoid the passive voice.”

Does Mr. Stephens at least respect this himself? Of course he doesn’t. His first passive clause is in Paragraph 3, the modifier backed by rigorously marshaled evidence, and in a delicious irony (I am grateful to my friend Oliver Kamm of The Times in London for pointing it out to me), Paragraph 6 begins: An op-ed should never be written in the style of a newspaper column. That’s a short passive clause of exactly the kind Orwell attacked as bureacratic, evasive, and unethical — the kind with no by-phrase to specify the agent.

The most obviously relevant evidence to use in evaluating Stephens’s claims would be other op-eds published in The New York Times, so I went straight to the NYT website and called up the first op-ed in the Opinion section (I’m writing this on Saturday, August 26): “A Pardon for Arpaio Would Put Trump in Uncharted Territory,” by Martin H. Redish (he’s a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University). At the top, the editors had added something:

CHICAGO — Note: Friday night, after this Op-Ed was published, it was announced that President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio.

This Op-Ed was published is an agentless passive clause, and it was announced that President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio is another one. Two instances of the kind of clause that Orwell’s army of orcs insist you should never write.

And then in the first sentence of the op-ed itself, Mr. Redish identifies the fortunate recipient of the Trump pardon thus:

… Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who was found guilty in July of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order against prolonging traffic patrols targeting immigrants.

The relative clause beginning who was found guilty in July is yet another agentless passive clause. And there are plenty more to follow, like The sheriff was convicted of violating constitutional rights in the second paragraph and if the pardon is challenged in court in the third.

So Stephens is warning the beginner never to use passives, but he uses them, and so does the first op-ed published the very next day, as does its prefatory editorial note.

This hackneyed piece of advice from a supposed expert is either completely mendacious or completely clueless.

Notice — for this is crucial — there is nothing wrong with the passives I’ve cited. All normal prose contains passives (typically 12 percent of the transitive verbs, though academics and writing advisers use more). And even agentless passives aren’t universally evasive or evil: We don’t need an agent phrase to augment it was announced, or should never be written, or was found guilty, or was convicted, where the agent is obvious and unimportant. The same for if the pardon is challenged in court, where it is unknowable: The agent would be the plaintiff in some putative future legal action, if it ever arises, and cannot possibly be specified right now. Trying to turn these passives into actives would just add pointless and arbitrary clutter. The time-worn “avoid passive” advice, invariably supplied by the writing advisers of the living dead, is utterly misguided.

Why does The New York Times expect us to keep a straight face when its article solemnly instructs us not to use passives, but uses them itself, and allows them in a typical op-ed the following day? Its editors seem to operate as if you can publish any kind of nonsense about language because nobody ever checks. They assume they will never get called on their flagrant inconsistency.

Well, I’m calling them on it. It makes me want to ask: Why is grammar and usage advice in America often so clearly stupid? But I’m reminded of a lovely paraprosdokian from Alexei Sayle, which made the top 15 best jokes told by comedians at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year: “I’ve given up asking rhetorical questions. What’s the point?”

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