‘Concern trolls,’ passives, and vultures



“Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses,” says Alexandra Petri in a Washington Post blog. My attention was captured not so much by the weird vulture comparison (she really hasn’t thought that through), but by the question of whether she had correctly diagnosed the “passive constructions” to which she refers. I’ll answer that question shortly. (In the meantime you might like to guess.) But first, some context.

Petri is commenting on a New York Times article by Bill Keller about Lisa Bonchek Adams, who blogs and tweets about her cancer. Petri charges Keller with adopting a “concern troll” tone in his discussion of her.

What is a concern troll? The term, less than a decade old, is explained fairly well in the Wikipedia entry on trolls. Concern trolls disingenuously purport to be concerned while in fact being oppositional or covertly judgmental. Petri puts it as follows:

“I’m with you,” the concern troll says. “But surely you must see how this looks to people. Not me, of course. But other people. They might think horrible things of you. … Not me, of course. I’m with you. I have your best interests at heart. That’s why I want to warn you.”

Petri’s claim about language use comes later, and relates to this passage in Keller’s article:

[Lisa Adams] responds defiantly to any suggestion that the end is approaching.

“I am not on my deathbed,” she told me in an email from the hospital. “Periods of cancer progression and stability are part of the natural course of this disease. I will be tweeting about my life and diagnosis for some time to come,” she predicted, and I hope she’s right. In any case, I cannot imagine Lisa Adams reaching a point where resistance gives way to acceptance. That is entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.

Petri gets bitterly (and to me, mystifyingly) sarcastic about the way Keller expresses himself in the above passage:

Us, you see. Not me. Certainly not. I hope she’s right. I think she is deserving of our respect. But some people might want to debate her choices. I don’t suggest this debate, of course. It’s her decision that “invites us.”
What a lovely passive construction. Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses.

The simile is startlingly inept. Think about the vulture lifestyle: Petri seems to be suggesting not that concern trolls like passive constructions or deploy them a lot, but that they gorge on the corpses of dead ones that they find lying around. We should probably ignore this, though, because it is pretty clear that she wants to accuse Keller of writing them, not of eating them.

Which brings us to the question of what inspires her exclamation, “What a lovely passive construction.” Petri explicitly repeats “invites us” in quotation marks, but this (or rather, the phrase invites us to think about it) is a transitive verb phrase in the active voice. Active transitives are exactly what the writing gurus always insist should be used instead of passives! So that can’t be it.

I examined the rest of the passage carefully (for the full analysis, see this Language Log post). There are no passives whatsoever.

Why, I wondered, do people do this to themselves? Why would Petri link her stylistic critique to a gratuitous grammatical claim when she has no intellectual grasp of such things? She could have stuck to intuitive matters like tone and content, on which any native speaker can readily develop and defend opinions.

Unfortunately she has plenty of company. My forthcoming article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive” exhibits a large number of published instances of educated people incorrectly lambasting writers for alleged use of passives, and revealing thereby that they have no clue about what passives are.

Some might suggest, then, that Petri is a posturing grammatical nincompoop. Not me, of course; I’m just concerned. I’m worried that some people might ridicule her, or might regard her attempt to tell Bill Keller how to write as absurdly arrogant. They might think horrible things about her. Not me, of course. I’m on her side. I have her best interests at heart. That’s why I want to warn her.