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Mistakes Were Made, but There Is No Mistaker
Published on Monday, January 15, 2007 by the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, New York)
Mistakes Were Made, but There Is No Mistaker
by Beth Quinn
 

My, my. Such a great big mess, such a small little space in which to write about it.

I speak of George Bush's new Iraq plan, of course, and his speech last Wednesday night. My mouth was so long agape as he proclaimed one bizarre thing after the next that I fear I began drooling on myself.

And here I find myself struggling to wrestle it all into one coherent bit of commentary. A column should be about only one thing, and I've had to go through a painful process of elimination to zero in on just one thing to write about.

It is for that reason that I'm not going to write about the president's absolute contempt for the American people. Never mind that we made it clear in November that we want our troops out of Iraq. And never mind that the Iraq Study Group recommended that we fold up our tents and come home.

Never mind that. Not only did Bush announce that he'd be staying in Iraq against our wishes and against all common sense, but he's going to send more troops over 21,500 more.

But I'm not going to write about that. Or about how this escalation of his is not actually a new plan at all but just the same old disaster, only bigger. Nope. I'm not going to write about any of that.

Instead, I've decided to write about grammar.

That's right. I am zeroing in only one sentence from his speech. And that sentence is:

Mistakes have been made.

For those who have forgotten their high school English, this is called "passive" voice. It places the emphasis on the object of the sentence, not the subject. There is no telling who did what only that something somehow happened.

Saying Mistakes have been made is like saying The house caught fire. It's as though the house is somehow to blame for burning up. See? And the mistakes in Bush's Iraq policy are somehow at fault for having occurred.

Common sense would dictate that someone made those mistakes, but the person who did so is missing from the sentence. Obviously, then, that person is not to blame.

Most sentences are much clearer when they're written in active voice, not passive. For example, an active version of that sentence would be, I made some mistakes. That way, it's clear that George Bush his very own self is to blame. And maybe he could also say, Donald made some mistakes, too.

But no. We just have some vague acknowledgment on the part of The Decider (who apparently is not The Mistaker) that somehow who knows how, really our Iraq policy has been less than stellar.

Here are some more examples of passive voice, offered so I can stick to my one point and really drive that point home:

The chicken had his head cut off. (It was the chicken's fault, it would seem perhaps he brought this on himself by straying into the path of the farmer's hatchet.)

The gun went off. (As I'm sure you know, guns do this on their own all the time.)

Bristly hair surrounded Linda's head. (Well, this isn't so much a matter of culpability as it is a fashion mess although there is some mild implication that the hair is at fault for failing to control itself.)

And one more, taken from an incident at the White House a few years ago: The pretzel lodged in President Bush's throat. (Clearly, it was the pretzel's fault for getting stuck where it was unwelcome.)

By saying Mistakes have been made, the president also implies that those mistakes occurred only in the past tense and that he is now ordering the mistakes to stop happening in the future tense.

Actually, if I may wander over into math class for a moment, 3,018 mistakes were made in the past if you count up the dead American soldiers (2,881 since Mission Accomplished!). If you also count wounded Americans, add another 22,714 mistakes. If you include dead Iraqi civilians (not the president's favorite group!), add another 655,000 mistakes. And if you count the money, add $350 billion more mistakes.

But sending another 21,500 soldiers to Iraq in the future that, of course, would not be a mistake. Sending more troops to Iraq would FIX all the past mistakes made by someone who knows who? that just kind of somehow happened.

Ain't grammar grand, though? It's like magic. Nothing is anyone's fault in the well-built sentence!

Beth's column appears on Mondays.

  Copyright 2006 Times Herald-Record

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