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Passive voice as a means to avoid embarrassment

By now we can probably be confident enough to say that the author is neither cynical nor sarcastic – and not even stylistic with his use of tense. Rather, he simply misued the simple tenses and showed weakness in referencing and contrasting events in terms of aspect (i.e. perfect and progressive). Tense patterning therefore becomes yet another major weaknesses of the Buttonwood text. In fact, the text failed to provide vital background information before certain claims were made. While we have also mentioned that the author is analytically weak in terms of his logic, he probably understand very well who he should not offend – the powerful, the knowledgeable, the rich, and, last but not the least, the rest of the readers. For this, he seemed to have relied on the passive voice (Table 4).

Passive voice from the Buttonwood text Who not to embarrass
This apparent contradiction can be resolved because financial markets do not operate in the same way as those for other goods and services. The government and the economists
The reason is surely that goods and services are bought with a specific use in mind. Readers in general
Our desire for them may be driven by fashion or a desire to enhance our status. Readers in general
Such rational beings (investors) are simply overwhelmed by the force of the herd. Investors who believe they are not the herd
Many investors have their money managed by professionals... Investors, the rich

Table 4. Passive voice from the Buttonwood text

Of the above five occurrences involving the use of the passive voice (Table 4), the last two seem to be of particularly interest to me. In particular, the second last one, for instance, forces readers to somehow "pick sides" – either you belong to the "rational beings" (the investors) or you are one of "the herd".

But what exactly is wrong with the herd?

Not much for non-Chinese (i.e. collectivists in a large power distance society), I suppose. The problem here is that the semantic prosody of the prepositional phrase "of the herd" is mostly related to wild animals (see concordance lines from Table 5). And in Chinese, almost every idiom describing an individual within a herd, a pack, a flock, a teem, or even a crowd, conveys some kind of a negative meaning (either for the individual or the rest of the members in the team). This is quite different from th West where it has the meaning similar to "the rest of us", "the rest of the weaker ones that require protection" (as opposed to being rejected) or "the rest of those from whom one gains respect and acceptance".

I know I am a now too far-reached here (and also somehow deviated from my Buttonwood text discussion) but I do think we all might learn something as "the herd" issue here clearly brings out a cultural issue for an article that is supposed to be published worldwide.

Back to my discussion.

The further marked use of the phrase "force of the herd" (adding the word "force", in which both BNC [7] and COCA returned zero findings) does not seem to reverse this kind of connotation either. Let me explain.

In fact, it would be unmarked (i.e. normal) to say "such rational beings are the ones who would lead or protect the rest of the herd" but not the way the author did. By doing so, the author risks offending or embarrassing either side of the parties (of different cultures). And if his true intention was to use the passive voice to avoid embarrassment, his choice of "the herd", together with the "non-functioning" passive voice (i.e. in which the agent or the doer has not been safely hidden), would definitely be a pretty unthoughtful, if not potentially dangerous, combination.

Likewise, in the last example (Table 4), i.e. "many investors have their money managed by professionals", the use of the causative have-passive does not help back-patting "the professionals" as well (and probably offended them all). All that the author did with the causative passive was only to shift the responsibility of investing overoptimistically or even incorrectly right over to the professionals when he, like Thompson (2004) suggests, could have used the causative passive to make the subject of the sentence responsible for part of the act, i.e. the investors should be made to share some of the responsibilities of not maintaining their own investments by themselves. The author, in this respect, failed to omit what could have been omitted in a causative passive construction. He should have removed the agent of the sentence and rely on the common sense of the readers to judge for themselves.

British National Corpus (NBC) results on "of the herd"
ABC 445 A navigating formation travels in a wedge shape, with dominant animals and perhaps those with developed sonar skills at the front, and the young of the herd protected in the centre.

ABC 978 They are highly social, congregating in groups as large as 500, and the bonding between members of the herd is so strong that if a pilot or lead whale beaches itself, the rest of the herd will often follow, creating a mass stranding.

ADF 311 So, a horse's psychological needs include the ease of mind produced by satisfaction of its physical requirements; the need for companionship with another horse or horses; affection; self-satisfaction or self-esteem; respect and acceptance from the other members of the herd; sensory stimulation; and sufficient space -- not only space large enough to canter in, but visual, psychological space.

ADF 340 The foal becomes a social animal and part of the herd, and as it matures it is likely to take a similar place in the social hierarchy of the herd as its mother.

ADF 344 The young horse quickly learns its position in society and gains acceptance from the other members of the herd as a whole.

ADF 352 The strange horse will hover around on the outskirts of the herd until it is eventually accepted.

AM2 395 Foals have to become part of the herd immediately after birth in order to gain the protection of the herd from lions and hyenas.

B7G 2089 They immobilised the 26 babies of the herd and took them away by helicopter, and the government 'very reluctantly' shot the rest of the elephants.

FU8 1333 The wounded cow, however, dashed frantically towards the jungle along with the other terrified animals of the herd and disappeared with them into the shade.

G0D 1203 Harman herself warned that men's libertarianism only meant that women became the common property of the herd, instead of the property of one man.

J25 226 And the feeling persists that Guinness ads are undoubtedly different, separate from the rest of the herd.

Table 5. Concordance lines for "of the herd"

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Note 7: BNC, British National Corpus, see http://sara.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/



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