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The Strange Language of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial

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Harvey Weinstein in 2010 (Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a very peculiar flavor to the grammar of the statement released by Harvey Weinstein (via the spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister) after he learned about the content of the New Yorker article in which many women allege he assaulted them sexually. The syntax writhes in discomfort:

Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances. Mr. Weinstein obviously can’t speak to anonymous allegations, but with respect to any women who have made allegations on the record, Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual. Mr. Weinstein has begun counseling, has listened to the community and is pursuing a better path. Mr. Weinstein is hoping that, if he makes enough progress, he will be given a second chance.

The text deserves close analysis. Writing critics often blame “the passive voice” for awkwardly evasive prose of this kind, but as we shall see, passives have little to do with it.

1. Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein.

This is certainly a passive clause, but not of the kind that hides agency. It fully identifies the denier (Weinstein), and what is denied (allegations of nonconsensual sex). But it is linguistically peculiar in a quite specific way. Since the whole text is a statement on Weinstein’s behalf, his role is presupposed, so the reference to him is what linguists call “discourse-old” information. The business about the allegations is the newer information in the clause. But it’s a key fact about passives in English that you don’t put older information in the by-phrase when there’s newer information in the subject. (Notice how unnatural it sounds to say “Don’t rent the room to Jay; the trombone is played by him,” as opposed to “…he plays the trombone.” Him is older information than the trombone-playing habit.) Here that information-structure constraint is oddly violated by putting Mr. Weinstein in the by-phrase.

The violation allows the opening word to be any — an interesting detail. There’s a difference between any and all. The phrase all penguins in the zoo would be the normal way to refer to the zoo’s entire penguin population, strongly implying that there are some (though existence is not actually entailed assuming classical logic). Any penguins in the zoo makes the same reference, but explicitly allows, and thus clearly implies, that there might not be any. So any allegations in the Weinstein statement is bizarre: He knows that The New Yorker has obtained testimony containing multiple allegations of nonconsensual sex, including claims of rape, yet his wording implies that those allegations might not exist.

2. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.

Confirming means endorsing or further supporting a claim already on the table. Choosing confirm as the main-clause verb here is outlandish. Weinstein wants to assert that he never retaliated; he’s not confirming an already asserted claim.

And notice how the subordinate clause hides agency without using a passive. It lifts us into an airy hypothetical realm where the existence of abstract retaliatory acts against women is denied. It carefully avoids a direct statement using a verb with an agent, as in Mr. Weinstein never retaliated against anybody.

3. Mr. Weinstein obviously can’t speak to anonymous allegations, but with respect to any women who have made allegations on the record, Mr. Weinstein believes that all of these relationships were consensual.

Of course Weinstein could speak to anonymous allegations! He would need names if he wanted to retaliate, but if accused of raping an unknown person in a certain hotel, a person who had never raped anyone could deny it without knowing the accuser’s identity.

In the second conjunct (after but) comes another positive any: any women who have made allegations. Once again, the implication is that such women might not exist. Yet he knows they exist; many have been named. And in the phrase all of these relationships were consensual he admits to having had sex with the identified ones!

Using the verb believe is a further oddness. “The sex was consensual” makes a claim about what happened; “I believe it was consensual” merely describes the utterer’s mental state.

4. Mr. Weinstein has begun counseling, has listened to the community and is pursuing a better path.

Which community? The sorority of women he reportedly harassed or assaulted? If so, then their existence should have been more openly acknowledged earlier. And this “better path” implies an admission of earlier bad-path behavior.

5. Mr. Weinstein is hoping that, if he makes enough progress, he will be given a second chance.

Here is the only case of a passive that does conceal agency: he will be given a second chance. Who is to supply this second chance? The women he has allegedly inveigled, harassed, intimidated, and attacked? He can’t be that deluded. Perhaps he hopes the company that summarily fired him will give him his job back. Sometimes we really do need to know the agent, and sometimes, as here, passive clauses with agent omitted do sell us short by masking that information.

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