Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker caused a stir last week
by stating, "If Bill Clinton was our first black president, as Toni
Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman
president." Kathleen specifically cited Obama's recent speech on the oil spill, where she
said Obama's use of passive voice demonstrated his femininity, for better or worse. But what makes a writing and speaking style gendered anyway? And what does that really tell us about
the writer? Two academic linguists have weighed in. Here's what Parker
and the linguists have to say.
- Obama's Feminine Writing
The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker argues
that Obama has "assume[d] feminine communication styles" in his writings
and speeches. "Generally speaking, men and women communicate
differently. Women tend to be coalition builders rather than mavericks
(with the occasional rogue exception). While men seek ways to measure
themselves against others, for reasons requiring no elaboration, women
form circles and talk it out. ... When he finally addressed the nation
on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent
passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major
presidential address this century, according to the Global Language
Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language."
- Obama's Heavy
Passive Usage The Global Language Monitor
study, cited by Parker, finds: "With some 13% passive
constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential
address this century. In political speaking, the passive voice is
generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no
particular 'doer' of an action, at least when speaking about himself or
his Administration. Otherwise, BP was the clear 'doer.'"
Said Passive Voice was Feminine? University of Pennsylvania
linguistics professor Mark Liberman finds that Obama's
speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive
voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush's Katrina speech was 17.6 percent
passive. In any case, "there isn't the slightest evidence that
passive-voice constructions are 'feminine'. Women don't use the passive
voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice
constructions doesn't appear to have any relationship at all to real or
perceived manliness. The 'passive is girly' prejudice seems to be purely
due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive,
misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn't recognize the
grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg."
Example of Media Misusing Linguistics University of Edinburgh
linguistics professor Geoffrey
Pullum declares, "We have said it before on Language Log, and I'll
say it again now: when you find journalists and columnists telling you
things that have anything to do with language, put your hand on your
wallet, because honesty and integrity are about to go out the window.
Where language is concerned, people simply make stuff up." Pullum,
finding that most of the passive sentences do not "deflect
responsibility" at all, decries "the idiocy of assuming without evidence
that females use the passive
voice more; the irresponsibility of suggesting that the President of the
United States is talking wimpy on the basis of that unsupported idea;
[and] the dishonesty of a national newspaper opinion column pretending
have linguistic evidence for a point of view without taking
responsibility for checking that the evidence exists."
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