Monday, 13 October 2014

Why passives should not be shunned


hmm…. can a passive be said to be sneaky?

Scanning the pages of endless style guides, Geoffrey Pullum was startled at the amount of ruthless criticism devoted to the passive voice. Authors, journalists and writing tutors continuously discourage the use of the passive in writing, describing it as evasive, and somehow linking it to a lack of responsibility. But not only do these critics lack a coherent definition of the passive, they also seem to do little to justify their position.  So the researcher set out to thoroughly describe the passive from a syntactic perspective. He cuts the language mavens' arguments to ribbons.

Passives come in all sorts, from the canonical The president’s authority has been much diminished to Marie got photographed by a journalist. Contrary to popular belief, passives may specify the agent very clearly, usually by means of a ­by-phrase, as in It was thrown at them by hooligans – where we know exactly who is responsible for the action. Now and then passives occur without be or a past participle, for instance, That said, however, Korea is Korea, not the Philippines and This rug badly needs washing.

Pullum identified four kinds of criticisms in relation to passives. They are alleged to be
·      sneaky or evasive
·      avoided by good writers
·      dull and static
·      weak

Item number one refers to the vagueness of responsibility. As Sherry Roberts  put it:
A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.[1]

There are two ways of dealing with this criticism. First, in some cases the agent cannot or need not be specified at all. It can be irrelevant or unknowable, as the two sentences below demonstrate:

When the patient was first diagnosed with cancer her symptoms were minor.
Perhaps the mysterious mound was constructed as a memorial.

Second, a so-called long passive (with a ­by-phrase) can be an effective device to emphasize agency, as it gives details of the agent.

Another supposed fault of the passive is that they are omitted by good authors. In his essay Politics and the English language George Orwell, a celebrated writer, warned: ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’[2]. Yet in the very piece of writing containing this advice, 20 % of the transitive verbs are passives! An average writer passivises only about 13% of verbs, which means that, in fact, Mr. Orwell resorted to this construction rather frequently.

As regards the two other criticisms, weakness and dullness, these are much more dependent on the content of the text, rather than on a specific syntactic construction.

To sum up, the holy war against the passive voice, launched by style guide authors and writing tutors since the early 20th century, has little to do with the passive as such. When used appropriately, it can be as dynamic, powerful and accurate as any other form of language. The key question is to use it wisely and appropriately.




[1] http://www.editorialservice.com/writing-and-editing/11ways.html#7, in Section 7, ‘Be Active’
[2] Orwell, G., 1946. Politics and the English language. Horizon, 252–264

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Geoffrey K. Pullum (2014) Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication 37: 60-74.

doi. http://dx/doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom2013.08.009 

This summary was written by Maryna Myntsykovska

Monday, 29 September 2014

Um, fill(er) words


Do conscientious people say I mean and I know more often?


When we think of language we often think of neatly constructed sentences, but everyday casual conversation is peppered with hesitations, repetitions and sounds that you may not necessarily find in the dictionary. These linguistic phenomena often go unnoticed, with the exception, perhaps, of David Beckham TV interviews. Charlyn Laserna, Yi-Tai Seih and James Pennebaker’s research, however, was on features of this kind, They focused on uh and um (filled pauses) and also on words and phrases such as I mean, you know and like (discourse markers), calling both together ‘filler words’.

Although sometimes thought of as superfluous or even careless, filler words may give clues about the sort of person who utters them. The researchers investigated not only how filler words were used across genders and age groups, but also whether they correlate with certain personality traits.

They analysed transcriptions of spoken conversations from 263 participants with ages ranging from 17 to 69. The speech was recorded over 2-3 days using electronic devices programmed to automatically take audio recordings at set time intervals, thus capturing spontaneous natural speech.

The rate of use of each of the five filler words (I mean, you know, like, um and uh) was analyzed in the conversations, and because this study investigated these two types of filler words in relation to one another, interesting comparisons could be made. People who were young, female, or both young and female were more likely to use discourse markers. This supports previous studies regarding the use of the discourse marker like. The rate of filled pauses was not associated with gender; it was, however, associated with age, decreasing later in life.

The researchers then became curious about the way usage of these two types of filler words develops or changes over a person’s lifetime. They divided participants into four age categories:

·      early college (17-19)
·      late college (20-22)
·      early adulthood (23-34)
·      and adulthood (35 and older)

They found that the increased use of discourse markers among women only emerges during the early and late college years; as people become older, the gender difference disappears. They explain that this may be due to the way adolescents transition into adult roles.  Graduating from college and entering a job market or changing career may lead people to change the way they use filler words.

The 252 participants had also completed questionnaires regarding five personality traits - openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The study found that an increased use of discourse markers was associated with conscientiousness, while none of the traits were related to the use of filled pauses.

The researchers explain that this may be because conscientious people are generally more aware of themselves and their surroundings, so when they converse with others, they use more discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to share their opinions or rephrase them for their addressee.

Importantly, the findings indicate that filler words could potentially provide a quick behavioral measure of speakers’ personality traits. The researchers anticipate that one day people may use their interpretation of these verbal cues to improve the quality of their communication with others.

Um, like maybe…….
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Laserna, Charlyn M., Yi-Tai Seih & James W. Pennebaker (2014). Um . . . Who Like Says You Know: Filler Word Use as a Function of Age, Gender, and Personality.Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33: 3, 328-338.
doi: 10.1177/0261927X14526993


This summary was written by Danniella Samos

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Are you commercially aware?



Most people pay TV commercials as little attention as possible and use these as an excuse to make a nice cup of tea or quickly rearrange their sock draw. We tend to see TV ads as bothersome interruptions that have the audacity to order us around. Barry Pennock-Speck and Miguel Fuster-Márquez from the University of València wanted to check whether this ‘bossy’ perception of commercials was accurate.

There are various ways to ask people to do something, including using interrogative structures (Would you mind opening the book?), employing modal verbs such as must in statements (Dogs must be kept on a lead), or using certain adjectives (It is crucial/essential to...). However, the researchers found that all these forms were negligible in TV advertising compared to the use of imperatives (open the book!).

Because the addressee in TV commercials has no obligation to comply with a request, the researchers hypothesized that imperatives are carefully worded to express advice or recommendations in a way that would seem to benefit the viewer. To test this, they collected recordings of TV commercials from ITV and Channel 4 between 2009 and 2011. After removing duplicate ads and those without voiceovers, 785 ads were analysed.

The researchers identified the imperatives in the adverts and found a total of 804 examples in 424 of the ads. In the voiceovers which contained imperatives, just over half contained a single imperative, about a quarter contained two imperatives, 13% had three imperatives and just over 10% had four or more imperatives.

As adverts are short texts with an average of 37 words each, the researchers looked further into ads with more than one imperative. They discovered that in these ads the imperatives occurred mainly in demonstrations on how to use a product (Just cut the jumbo block to size and simply add water - JMLDoktorPower), and in offers to viewers of different ways of contacting the advertisers (Call 08009166100 or visit cruisethomascook. com - Thomas Cook).

The analysis showed that while frequent verbs such as CALL, VISIT, GET, SAVE, GO and TRY played a central part in the voiceovers, the ads included a wide variety of 224 distinct types of imperative. The researchers classified these into five groups according to their function:  

Function group
Items per group
% of all imperatives
Distinct types
% of all the distinct types
Attention focusers
258
32
75
33.5

Contact

228
28.5
20
8.9
Acquisition
138
17.1
33
14.8

Experiencers
137
17
74
33

Others
43
5.4
22
9.8

Total
804
100
224
100

















The group of ‘Attention focusers’ includes the largest number of imperatives, making up a third of all instances. In addition to obvious examples such as LOOK and WATCH, this study showed many that more imperatives are used figuratively to attract viewers’ attention; for example, Spend more time with our little ones (KFC).

The second largest category, the ‘Contact’ group, was less diverse with three verbs, CALL, VISIT and GO (ONLINE) making up just under 70% of all contact verbs. These request viewers to contact the retailers or visit their websites.

The third category, the ‘Acquisition of Product or Service’ group, includes verbs like BAG and GET. The latter is particularly favoured by advertisers as it highlights the advantages of acquiring a product without referring to a financial transaction; there were only 7 instances of the imperative BUY with its unfortunate connotations of parting with money.

The ‘Experiencers’ category is similar in size to the ‘Acquisition’ group, but is much more diverse. This may be due to the many ways in which a product or service can be used.  Verbs in this group include, for example, ENJOY and TRY. ‘Experiencers’ may function as instructions on how to use a product (Just shake 3 times, foam it, work it all over from root to tip - Nice ’n Easy).

The ‘Others’ group represents less than 10% of all imperatives and features verbs such as PLEDGE and GIVE. Most of these were found in the small selection of 26 noncommercial ads for charities and public services and were more akin to pleas.

To summarise, one would expect that when the addresser lacks the power to impose their will, they would phrase requests politely, using hedges and words such as please. However this study shows that the opposite occurs. As TV viewers are under no compulsion to comply with imperatives, these requests are presented as disinterested advice or useful instructions.
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Pennock-Speck, Barry & Miguel Fuster-Márquez (2014) Imperatives in voice-overs in British TV commercials: 'Get this, buy that taste the other'. Discourse & Communication. published online 20 July 2014.
doi. 10.1177/1750481314537578

This summary was written by Danniella Samos