A Close Look at Language Choices in GitHub's Statement

On errant frisbees, corporate communication, and mistakes being made

April 22, 2014
Jonathan Libov

Yesterday I accidentally hit a woman in the face with a frisbee. Naturally I blame the wind for carrying the frisbee off the perfectly good course I set it on, but when I approached the woman to apologize, I didn't say "Physics occurred". The "passive-evasive" voice, as William Safire calls it, enables the speaker to slither out of the spotlight in a bad situation — regardless of whether the speaker is culpable — without revealing any part of the truth.

Reactions to GitHub's statement about its internal investigation ranged from the incredulous to the cynical to the skeptical. The sentiment of distrust probably isn't because everyone believes that misdeeds were surely being covered up. The lack of details about the investigation, an imbalance of information, and an anonymous blog post make it unclear what really happened. Rather, people were dissatisfied with the statement because the statement is so arcane. It leaves open the possibility that "mistakes" occurred without explaining the nature or gravity of the mistakes. The mistakes could be much more trivial or substantial than any of us imagine.

Mistakes. That word can hardly be used in an official statement without evoking the "Mistakes were made" device that plagues American political speak. Like this CBS News White House Correspondent, I've always believed that Ronald Reagan coined the phrase in his State of the Union addressing the Iran Contra scandal. Wikipedia suggests that the phrase has been used by many Presidents and political figures, both before and after Reagan delivered it.

Since it would have been farcical for the GitHub statement to include the phrase, "Mistakes were made", they opted for another construction.

"However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment." (emphasis mine)

While "mistakes were made" evades the question of who was responsible for what, "evidence of mistakes" doesn't even explicitly acknowledge that the mistakes actually occurred. Evidence isn't proof; even in trials where the defendant has been wrongly accused, the prosecution will submit some evidence of guilt (the GitHub statement plainly states that, according to internal investigators, the affair wasn't "wrong" in the legal sense) . Evidence for the Great Flood in Genesis and Bigfoot exists, even if you don't believe those things are real or that the evidence is useful or sufficient.

GitHub's statement allows for the existence of evidence but doesn't even assert that the mistakes occurred. Consider how much more forceful this sentence would read without the "evidence of" construction:

"However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find that mistakes and errors of judgment occurred."

Even without attributing the blame to anyone in particular (I deliberately used "occur" in the passive tense), this phrasing is much more straightforward. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether that phrasing would have been received more positively, but for all I know "evidence of" may well be a distinction that GitHub's legal team required.

Let's take the other instances of "evidence" in Github's statement:

As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse. (emphasis mine)

Here the distinction is more clear. The evidence of misdeeds may not exist, but that isn't the same as saying they did not occur. Now apply the same rule to this phrase:

As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found that gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse did not occur. (my edit)


The investigation found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment.


The investigation found that Tom and his wife did not perform sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or create a sexist or hostile work environment. (my edit)

That would be more assertive, but maybe the more assertive version is inaccurate. We don't know that, and that's why, for many observers, the statement doesn't pass the smell test.

It even opens them up to further speculation:

As a last note on the wording of this statement, observe how the accuser has been omitted from the statement, whereas Tom and his wife are identified. This is the closest the statement gets to identifying the accuser:

Last month, a number of allegations were made against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. (emphasis mine)

Once again the passive-evasive voice slithers through the weeds, for better or worse. There are obvious downsides of invoking the accuser, Julie Ann Horvath, by name, or even portraying this as a conflict between a single employee and a manager. But note how much more it stings when you reformulate it in the active voice:

Last month, an employee made a number of allegations against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. (emphasis mine)

Fortunately I don't have any experience in public relations for legal matters, so I can't say whether the statement is good or bad. I was tempted to do an exercise in rewriting it in a more satisfying way, but I realized that would be grossly unfair, as I don't have information about what actually went on within GitHub and what the legal circumstances are. I could also go on with some of the language choices here — the stilted gravitas of writing "a number of allegations" instead of "several allegations", Dilbert-y terms like "implementing", "initiatives" and "opportunities" — but those kinds of things afflict most companies' communication.

What (I think) I can say is that GitHub's statement about its messy affair was anything but messy, and that's to be expected from a statement of this ilk. I don't know who wrote it, reviewed it or approved it, but it was almost certainly edited by a committee at GitHub. Statements by committee may not always turn out as terse as this one, especially when lawyers are involved, but they are often, for better or worse, just as dispassionate.