If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Bunsen Burner Effect

As a victim/beneficiary of a grammar school education in the 1960s, I am well aware of what is called 'writing in the third person'. You know, 'the ball was thrown by me' rather then 'I threw the ball'. You pretend to be an observer of the event rather than a participant in it. I first met it in a science lesson, where we were told that all experiments had to be written up in the third person: the bunsen burner was lit and the test tube was placed in the flame, sort of thing. It's good training to have to do this, as it forces you to be objective about what you are describing, rather than just relating a stream-of-consciousness sequence of 'what I did'. It's grown-up writing.

Later, during teacher training, I was informed that writing in the third person was evil. You see, all those readability tests (Flesch-Kincaid and the like) say that third-person writing is harder to read, requiring a higher reading age, and therefore excludes the less-able pupil (or student, as we were meant to call them). All writing must be immediate and personal, or the kids will not be able, or wish to, read it. (There's a whole nother post here, but I will refrain.)

But it is still a very useful tool, especially for politicians. Using the third person can make a decision seem more rational than it really is, as it starts to look as though the forces of nature are at work, rather then individuals making personal decisions. Compare:
Quantitative easing has been permitted in order to boost growth
We're going to print tons more money so that you lot will feel - temporarily - better off and start to spend again.
And of course it becomes a habit. Look at Eric Joyce's comment outside court, where he has just been convicted of a series of violent assaults while angry drunk:
Clearly it's a matter of considerable personal shame.
Not "I feel considerable personal shame", but "it's a matter of", which tends to put the events in the category of "descriptions of things that people do". He could have used that exact form of words when commenting on the behaviour of anyone.

Man caught with indecent images on his computer? Clearly it's a matter of considerable personal shame.

Bank chief caught with his fingers in the till? Clearly it's a matter of considerable personal shame.

MP convicted of head-butting a fellow MP while in a radge? Clearly it's a matter of considerable personal shame.

Who, me?

I'm not having a go at the MP. He's obviously got a problem with his intake, and he has behaved dreadfully and paid a price. But it is instructive how, even in moments of personal distress (perhaps especially in moments of personal distress) a politician will use a form of words that suggests that he is a neutral observer of events and is merely commenting on them.

The boiling of the water in the flask is clearly a result of the heat from the bunsen burner below it. Nothing to do with me, guv.


  1. To be honest i'm guilty of the same things myself, i use "freedom" words as a choice instead of "i'm not paying a speeding fine".

    Don't be to hard on members of parliment as we all do the same stuff.

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  3. Nothing wrong with that, whoever you are. The language belongs to us, and we use it how we choose. I just thought his choice of expression was an interesting one, as I see it all the time when 'hard choices' have to be made and 'difficult decisions' taken. Look how the cost of staging the Olympics has mysteriously 'risen' to eleventy million pounds, as opposed to 'we've been given carte blanche to piss all your money up the wall, and by God we're going to do it, and then some'. A neutral observation, rather then a personal admission.

  4. Must have been a difficult sentencing decision.

    On the one hand, some aspects point towards a serious custodial sentence. He was drunk & disorderly, he assaulted several people, and he is an MP who should know better.

    On the other hand, other aspects point towards a total discharge, specifically that all the people he hit were MPs.

  5. Not quite: some were councillors (moot point, I know) and one was a policeman. And he broke a window in the copshop. Nevertheless, well said, Sir.

    He called the Tory MPs 'c*nts', too, so he can't have been all that drunk.

  6. Anyone who has extensively used Word's grammar checker will be familiar with the whining it creates about using 'passive voice'. Not exactly the same thing in terms of grammar maybe but it often leads to the same sentence structures.
    But 3rd person is correct for science because it ensures that the science - equipment, sample, process etc - becomes the object of each sentence. That's good because the science is the subject of the writeup (not the experimenter).
    But I would not expect 3rd person in someone's diary, or recollections where that person is the subject.
    Joyce was using it to deflect criticism from himself, making the situation impersonal, which is rather sneaky and fits somewhat with my recent thoughts on terminology at http://grumpologist.blogspot.com/2012/03/using-right-words.html

  7. You're right, of course. In terms of readability I was talking about the passive voice rather then the third person, but as you say they amount to the same thing. I sometimes run a grammar check in Word, and it almost always admonishes me for being 'difficult', before suggesting some primary-school alternative to my finely-honed rhetoric.

    No, I wouldn't expect it in a diary. Context is everything. As you say, language can be used to cloak the truth, even from oneself.

  8. "Nothing wrong with that, whoever you are. "

    I think we all know who he isn't...

    " I sometimes run a grammar check in Word, and it almost always admonishes me for being 'difficult'.."

    We long ago gave up using that in my office, as even the simplest training and guidance document got similarly flagged. It seems the parameters are set too high.

    Or...maybe they just anticipate the inevitable dumbing-down of our society?

  9. I'm a happy-go-lucky thrill-seeking kinda guy, so I use Word with the grammar and spell checkers turned off, and don't F7 a last-minute check, even when writing to the Queen. I like to live dangerously.

    But seriously, Word's suggestions do seem to be all primary colours (colors) and My First Handwriting Primer. Often, their suggestions for 'improvements' make me laugh out loud. The parameters are not set too high - it's the standards that are too low. They seem to have joined the 'if it's difficult it must be elitist and bad' movement.

  10. Try writing a patent application in Word.

    With a careful mix of scientific accuracy and legal soundness, the average patent claim sends Word's grammar check into apoplexy.


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