The Grammarphobia Blog

Passive distribution

Q: What is your “ruling” on “passive distribution”? An allowable oxymoron?

A: We don’t think the two elements in the phrase “passive distribution” are necessarily contradictory. And in our opinion, the term pretty well describes the various processes it refers to.

We couldn’t find the phrase in any of the references we usually consult. We looked for it in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in eight standard American or British dictionaries.

However, we did find thousands of examples of the phrase on the Internet—in both technical and nontechnical usages.

In the technical sense, the term often refers to an electrical junction device, like a cable TV splitter, that lets one line feed a signal into two or more lines.

We found several other technical senses, including the natural diffusion of fluids in body tissue, human and animal migrations, the movement of heat and cold, and the dispersion of seeds in nature.

The earliest use of the term that we found in Google Books is from “The Darwinian Theory and the Law of the Migration,” an 1873 English translation of an 1868 paper by the German explorer Moritz Wagner:

“Even the passive distribution of seeds has not a little diminished in comparison with earlier times. In garden, meadow, and field, man wages eternal warfare against all intruders, and where extirpation is impossible, he at all events limits their number, and checks their distribution.”

We assume, however, that you’re referring to a nontechnical usage that apparently showed up in the 1990s: letting outsiders into schools to place religious material on tables for students to take.

For example, members of a conservative group, World Changers, come into schools in two Florida counties, Orange and Collier, to distribute Bibles.

Under a Nov. 2, 2010, consent decree filed in US District Court in Fort Myers, the group has the right to distribute Bibles at the schools one day a year.

The decree stipulates that the Bibles have to be placed on an unattended table, the visitors can’t have contact with students, and a sign must say the event isn’t sponsored or endorsed by the school board.

The document, signed by Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, refers to the practice as “the passive distribution of literature.”

A brief online search found this earlier example of the usage in a January 1999 report in which the American Association of School Administrators discusses the distribution of religious material in schools:

“Only passive distribution is permitted, however, and no outside adult should be allowed to come onto campus and hand out the materials.”

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