This afternoon, John Baker posted to the American Dialect Society's listserv (ADS-L) the following note:
Mark Liberman recently wrote in Language Log that, for everyone except linguists and a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals, what "passive voice" now means is "construction that is vague as to agency". Disturbingly, a short piece by Nancy Franklin in the March 23, 2009, issue of The New Yorker seems to bear that out. It is a discussion of Bernard Madoff's allocution, his formal court statement acknowledging guilt:
<<Two sentences later, Madoff said, "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme." As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him. Still, he had faith-he "believed"!-that it would soon be over. Yes, "soon." In most of the rest of the statement, one not only heard the aggrieved passive voice but felt the hand of a lawyer: "To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties.">>
If there is an example of the passive voice in Madoff's quoted statements, it has escaped my attention. Unlike the blog Liberman cites, The New Yorker reportedly has professionally edited text.
The "passive voice" spotted in the first Madoff quote is apparently the phrase "it would end shortly", which is technically an active-voice intransitive, but one where (as Franklin observes) Madoff is evading the fact that the scheme could end if and only if he himself took steps to end it — or, on the most charitable interpretation, if his investment strategy miraculously began to work as he falsely claimed it did.
But there's an interesting twist towards the end of the paragraph. In recording the mutation of the term "passive voice", I've been focusing on the way that the word passive has gradually lost its technical grammatical meaning, and taken on a sense crystallizing around notions of passive as "unassertive", "lacking in force", "failing to take responsibility for what happens", "submissive". But Franklin's reference to "the aggrieved passive voice" made me realize that the word voice has undergone a similar change in popular usage, losing its technical grammatical meaning in favor of the ordinary-language sense "mode or style of expression".
It would be nice to know what the historical trajectory of these changes has been. Presumably the grammatical meaning of "passive voice" became unstable in popular usage when grammatical analysis stopped being taught. I believe that with respect to English, this started happening early in the 20th century, though perhaps people continued to pick up some grammatical terminology for a while longer in learning foreign languages, until grammatical analysis was no longer taught in that context either. The knowledge probably lingered longest in Latin courses, but increasingly smaller portions of the population were involved. Despite the lack of any basis for understanding its meaning, I conjecture that the term "passive voice" continued in popular use due to the many stylistic injunctions to avoid it, so that a complex of more-or-less incoherent ideas were evoked to characterize what it is that writers are supposed to avoid.
I wonder what Eleanor Gould Packard, the New Yorker's "Grammarian" for 54 years, would have written in the margins of Franklin's submission. According to David Remnick's obituary for her, "she could find a solecism in a Stop sign", and "once found what she believed were four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence". But I haven't been able to find any information about whether or not she knew what "passive voice" meant.