"Passive construction" means… nothing at all?

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OK, I give up. I admit that I was wrong. I thought that the grammatical term passive had developed a spectrum of everyday meanings like "vague about agency", "listless writing, lacking in vigor", and "failure to take sides in a conflict". But I've now reluctantly concluded that for some members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".

The evidence that drove me over the edge? Hank Stuever and Wil Haygood, "Parsing The Book Of Mark", Washington Post, 6/25/2009:

Wow. Was that a press conference or was that a press conference? That genteel lilt of hubris, sorrow, guilt! But other than a very slow, meandering build to I just needed a little strange, what did it all mean? What language was South Carolina's Republican governor speaking yesterday as he forlornly told the world of his travels and travails, of how sorry he is to his wife, to his sons, to his staff, to "the Tom Davises of the world" (not the Virginia one, all the other ones)? Is it a new Pat Conroy novel? Is it a megachurch sermon? Is it the language of couples therapy? The metaphysics of Oprah? Shakespeare? The psychobabble of cheating husbands? (Note all the passive constructions, the avoidance of first person.) [emphasis added]

Before we get to the "passive constructions" part of "parsing the book of Mark", let's look at that "avoidance of first person". The 2,747 words of the NYT transcript of Gov. Sanford's remarks include 190 first-person singular pronouns, for a rate of 6.9%, which seems pretty respectable even for a confession. In comparison, Barack Obama was slammed by another WaPo writer, George Will, for being "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun" in his GM take-over speech, which contained 1.7% of the same words.  This would be a case of damned if you do ("inordinately fond of the first person") and damned if you don't ("avoidance of first person") — except that at the Post these days, you're apparently damned for doing if you don't, and damned for not doing if you do.

But my topic today is "all the passive constructions". In the section of Gov. Sanford's press conference before the question period, I count 180 tensed verbs, of which I can find only four instances of grammatical passive voice, plus one or two more adjectival passives — and none of these are in the part of the statement where he describes his affair, or are connected to anything that seems remotely like psychobabble, of cheating husbands or otherwise.

In three of the genuine passives, the unnamed but implied agent is the media:

… what I have found in this job is that one desperately needs a break from the bubble wherein every word, every moment is recorded

… it was always viewed as, "You're doing this to climb some further political office." It was always based on that idea, that I genuinely believed that that action would be bad for the taxpayers …

And in the last one, the unnamed but implied agent is God:

… if you were to look at God's laws, they're in every instance designed to protect people from themselves …

(Yes, I know that I should count up all the infinitives and participles as well, but life is too short. Please feel free to contribute your labor to the cause, if you like to count things and have some spare time — for now, I'll simply assert in a qualitative way that looking at infinitives and participles doesn't change the picture in a material way.)

OK, what about the currently popular interpretation of "passive voice" (or in this case "passive constructions") as meaning something like "vague about agency"? For example, when Bernie Madoff said that "I believed it [his Ponzi scheme] would end soon", Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker commented that

[H]e 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.

But the weird thing is, Gov. Sanford emphasized his own responsibility in first person active sentences, over and over again:

And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a — what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on one's life there and advice here.

But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends like Tom Davis. I hurt a lot of different folks. And all I can say is that I apologize.

True, he describes the progression of the affair in two impersonal sentences: "It began very innocently … But … it developed into something much more". On the other hand, these two sentences are surrounded by no fewer than nine sentences with first-person singular subjects confessing agency: "I have been unfaithful … I developed a relationship … I  hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends …  I hurt a lot of … folks. … I apologize."

And for Sanford to describe his affair as something he alone did would have been offensively narcissistic, it seems to me — it takes two, as they say, to tango.

So what in the world did Stuever and Haygood mean by all this?

I hate to think badly of prominent members of the press corps — Hank Stuever is said to be "a regular contributor to the Style section in the Washington Post" and "a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize". But my guess is that these pundits were simply, in the technical sense of the term, bullshitting. More precisely, they were spinning out associative clichés, with no concern for any particular connection to facts.  Their thought process was apparently something like this: Public figures stereotypically avoid taking responsibility, which translates linguistically into passive ("mistakes were made") and impersonal third-person ("things happen") constructions; Mark Sanford is a public figure; His statement must therefore have avoided the first person and been full of passive constructions. Q.E.D.

In this kind of writing, I guess, cleverness is everything and facts are not relevant at all.

[Update: in the comments below, there are some complaints that the grammatical phenomena traditionally connected to the term "passive voice" are complex and confusing, across languages and within English; and that if the public is confused about what the term means, it's partly or entirely because linguists haven't put forward an analysis that is both clear and descriptively comprehensive.

It's certainly true that most people, and even most educated people, have never encountered such an explanation. A clear and accessible account has now been provided on Language Log by Geoff Pullum: see The passive in English. A more comprehensive account along similar lines can be found on pp. 1427-1447 of CGEL. In another context, we could talk about what it would take to make this information effectively available to people like Stuever and Haygood. But the point of this post is that it probably doesn't matter what their understanding of "passive construction" is.

I doubt, for example, that there's any significant defect in their understanding of "first person" — but this didn't prevent them from tossing in an empirically contentless note about Sanford's "avoidance of first person". The problem is not that their analysis of linguistic structure and content is wrong — though perhaps it would be if they did any — but that their assertions about linguistic structure and content are just empty echoes of generic prejudice.]



45 Comments

  1. Andrew Ferguson said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    And so the bottom line is this: My wife was cheated on. A relationship developed with a — what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as it is suspected many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on life there and advice here.

    But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, she was hurt. You all were hurt. My wife was hurt. My boys were hurt. Friends like Tom Davis were hurt. A lot of different folks were hurt. All that can be said is an apology.

    There, fixed.

  2. Rachel said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Reposting this comment from an earlier post, because I think I posted it too late for anyone to see it:

    This ignorance about what "passive voice" means is not unique to English speakers. In the Latin American Literature class I took in college, which was conducted entirely in Spanish and taught by a native Spanish speaker from Argentina, the professor was talking about the story "Nos han dado la tierra" (They have given us the land) and said that the title was an example of the passive voice, which illustrated the characters' lack of agency. (I didn't say anything.)

  3. Jim said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Get used to this kind of thing. People just love to misappropriate terminology they don't bother to understand. Do you remember the huge row over Ebonics, where someone said that AAVE was "genetically" derived from West African languages (fail), so AA kids had a "genetic" predispostion to it. Or something.

  4. D.O. said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Mark, would you submit to a psychoanalytic couch?

    More precisely, they were spinning out associative clichés, without no concern for any particular connection to facts.

    Overnegation? Typo? Double negative for activeness and vigor?

    [(myl) Editing error, of the type "write one thing, decide to change it, don't change all of it".]

  5. Andrew said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    I think that the claim that Sanford is using 'passive constructions' is based on the occurrence, in the passage quoted, of the phrases 'it began' and 'it developed'. These phrases are not grammatically passive, of course, but they are the sort of phrases which are often castigated as 'passive', because they can be used to avoid an admission of agency. Now, it is certainly weird that Stuever and Haygood are picking up on these isolated uses of 'passive' forms in a speech full of first-person constructions – the accusation against Madoff of using 'passive voice' because of a single occurence of 'it would end' in a statement beginning 'When I began the Ponzi scheme' is similar. Presumably people think that every clause in a statement of thius kind ought to be first-person. However, I don't think it's right to conclude that Stuever and Haygood aren't reacting to grammatical features at all.

  6. Russell said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    It's a simple instruction: note all the passive constructions. Once you've found all 10 of them, you're done! Surely the intent was to encourage the reader to find a good definition of passives and find all of them so as to convince themselves that passives or frequency thereof do not indicate a lack of taking responsibility.

  7. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    Mark, I think you're misreading this. I read the parenthetical bit that you emphasized as referring to the author's previous questions, not to the governor's press conference. Consider how the other two parenthetical statements (one before in your clip above, and another shortly after, not shown here); both refer to what was written just before them, not to the press conference.

    I think they're referring to the fact that they wrote "the language of couples therapy" instead of "couples therapy language"; "metaphysics of Oprah" instead of "Oprah's metaphysics"; and "psychobabble of cheating husbands" instead of "cheating husband's psychobabble" and calling it "passive construction." I think specifically this last example, the one closest to the parenthetical, is the main target of the parenthetical. It's really the only way it makes any (though little) sense — pointing out that they aren't specifically calling the governor a cheating husband, or say that all cheating husbands fall into psychobabble.

    Not that the authors aren't completely wrong about what "passive" means. Or even about what "first person" means.

  8. Bloix said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    The message has gone out from on high at the Post: be snarkier!! I guess the idea is that younger readers like snark. So they're snarky, even if means being idiotic.

  9. Andrew Ferguson said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    @Andy Hollandbeck: I think your interpretation is quite a stretch. They were deriding the style of the language he used and gave examples of other supposedly poor kinds of style used for nefarious means. The paranthetical was obviously implying that the "confession of Sanford" would fit right in with the examples given above.

  10. Simon Spero said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    I think I'm beginning to get the hang of this passive business. Since passive means 'vague as to agency', (1) must obviously be active:

    (1) The linguist was annoyed by the style guide.

    Nope; I still don't get it.

  11. Rob P. said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    Bloix – Hank Stuever has always been plenty snarky. No instruction from on high could cause him to be any snarkier.

  12. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    But I've now reluctantly concluded that for many members of the chattering classes, it now means nothing at all, except maybe "I dislike this person".

    This appears divisive, and could be seen as élitist. Who is of "the chattering classes"? I had thought that bloggers were automatically included.

    [(myl) I probably should have written "for some members" -- in fact, I'll make that change now. But the multi-dimensional confusion over "passive voice" applies to pretty much the whole population these days, though of course it's mainly intellectuals who are likely to use such terms. ]

    See the recent LL thread Annals of passivity, where I make a point about current linguistics not being consistent in its terminology. This may have a bearing on the confusion "out there". If linguists rule that forms like has eaten are not past tense, who can blame the unschooled masses for their perplexity? (By the way, at least in some sociolects, and in the English of Australian police forces for example, the perfect can routinely stand in for the simple past. In older English also, such as we hear in some British folk songs, like this from "The Bonny Hind": "She's put her hand down by her side / And out she's taken a knife; / And she's put it in her own heart's blood / And taken away her life." By traditional ways of understanding tense such as we find in OED, the perfect is aptly called "past tense", even if it is not in current linguistic orthodoxy.)

    The specialists who claim custody and care of these terms insist, on narrow technical grounds and against all traditional usage, that there is no future tense in English. But for the passive voice, a different standard is applied: there is a passive voice in English, despite the fact that there is no system of inflections to mark it. This had ruled out a future tense; why not a passive voice? And then there is the swirl of different terms concerning middle voice, and the passive voice as we find it twice in this sentence: It reads well; books on pop linguistics sell.

    I really don't mean to be rude – not rude beyond the tone that has already been set, that is. But I think it is fair to ask: Just how confined is the confusion, and who should share responsibility for it?

    [(myl) In this case, I'm not complaining that the writers used the term "passive construction" in a non-technical sense; I'm not even complaining that they used it in a vague and ill-defined sense. I'm complaining that they seem to be using it with no empirical force at all, simply by virtue of stereotypical association with public figures' apologies. ]

  13. The other Mark P said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

    Noetica: wise people don't use terms if they don't know what they mean.

    Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle is very confusing to most people. Most of us avoid looking like fools by not making reference to it, rather than blabbering on about it wrongly and claiming this is acceptable. People who talk about uncertainty in ordinary life and wrongly cite Heisenberg as evidence deserve all the ridicule they get.

    Similarly, if journalists want to talk about the use of passive voice, the onus is on them to make sure they know what they are talking about.

  14. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    Other Mark P:

    Similarly, if journalists want to talk about the use of passive voice, the onus is on them to make sure they know what they are talking about.

    I agree. And linguists too had better make it clear what they are talking about, with the terms of their own art. Why say there is a passive voice in English, but no future tense? Why persist in uncertainty about those usages I exhibited in a sentence: It reads well; books on pop linguistics sell? Aren't they passive? (In your answer, show all working.) It is interesting that you engage selectively with what I have articulated at some length above. See also in Annals of passivity.

    Now that we speak of onera, the onus is on linguists to get their own terminological house in order. Then, as a class, they can do a better job of instructing the "chattering classes" than they have done so far. Some would see this as an element of their professional responsibility.

  15. Russell said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    Noetica:

    Well, here's my understanding of how to identify a passive from other types of verbs. Surely I will be corrected by someone.

    1. Past participle morphology.
    2. Non-finite. This means, among other things, that it cannot be the full predicate in a subject-predicate construction (*My knife stolen by someone). It may be supported by auxiliary be, by get, or by an "absolutive" (small clause) construction (his knife stolen, he had to resort to …)
    3. The external argument of a passive holds a semantic relation to the verb which is held by an internal argument in a separate valence (the "active" one); in that active valence, what would have been the external argument may be expressed in the passive as a PP-by.

    The "middles" fulfill part of 3, but they involve much more extreme deprofiling of the external argument, as it seems to be unexpressible (*This knife cuts well only by a skilled cook).

    As for future "tense," I don't pretend to be aware of all the motivations and arguments for each side. I understand there to be at least two "there is no future tense" arguments. One, we limit "tense" to verbal morphology. Two, we reserve "future" to meanings of type XYZ, and English doesn't have XYZ meaning. (don't ask me to come up with XYZ right now, it has to do with calculation of reference points and deictic stuff that I can't recall ATM). As opposed to the definitions of passive, which I think is a legitimate category in English, it's unclear to me what good comes of saying that there is no future tense in English — what further understanding or meaningful precision is gained by saying so. I'd be glad to be educated, though.

  16. Ryan said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    Noetica, those examples you call passive look intransitive to me.

  17. Noetica said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    Ryan:

    Noetica, those examples you call passive look intransitive to me.

    And your point?

    Russell:

    You have given some criteria for a verb form to be judged passive. But it seems to me that they are accidental, not essential. Consider your criteria in a broader context than English grammar:

    1. Past participle morphology.

    That rules out the most paradigmatically passive forms that we identify in Latin and Greek, just for a start.

    2. Non-finite. This means, among other things, that it cannot be the full predicate in a subject-predicate construction (*My knife stolen by someone). …

    Not sure about "non-finite" and other wording, here. Anyway, the criterion is odd, given that one purpose of the passive is particularly to avoid specifying the agent. If a language had a full system of inflections with which the subject specifies the patient, but with which there were only indirect means of specifying the agent, would that disqualify it from having a passive voice? Implausible.

    3. The external argument of a passive holds a semantic relation to the verb which is held by an internal argument in a separate valence (the "active" one); …

    You've lost me! (For goodness' sake don't let the chattering classes get hold of this one.)

    A modest proposal: If the subject directly indicates the patient of the action indicated by the verb, the form is passive. Not middle, not active: just passive.

    Simple! I have not seen an argument against such a proposal, except arguments that rely on accidental features of the periphrastic passive forms in English. In other words, arguments that function as apologies for conventional use of the term passive voice – from those who inveigh against conventional talk of a future tense in English. This might reasonably be thought inconsistent.

  18. Russell said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    Noetica:

    I suppose I've misunderstood you. It's always a question whether it makes sense to use the same name for phenomena in separate languages. But the fact that something called passive voice in English doesn't line up with something called passive voice in language X doesn't make the English phenomena less real. When you asked why linguists insist that there is a passive voice at all in English, I tried to say why linguists think there is a category worthy of being named, not why I thought it ought to be called passive. (which is why I did not attempt to include Latin, Greek, Japanese, etc. in my definition) In all likelihood, attempting to find some set of features that exactly covers a substantive generalization in many languages at once will fail, because there are always differences (speaking here only of morphosyntax).

    Your proposal seems overly broad to me. It would include all intransitive verbs with patient subjects (explode, die, rot, melt) and potentially exclude "passives" of various experience/perception verbs (it was seen, words were said) depending on your definition of "patient." That alone doesn't seem enough to warrant a category with a name, other than "verbs with patient subjects." If some other feature could be found, common to all these verbs, that would be something quite different.

  19. Ryan said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    And your point?

    I didn't see why you call them passive. I do now, and Russell's second paragraph is more or less what went through my head.

  20. Noetica said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 1:34 am

    Russell:

    A lot depends on what you take the game to be. Is it to find grammatical categories that apply to many languages? That's a pretty worthwhile game, and one that seems to preoccupy a lot of linguists' time and effort. Compare a game in which we might aim to distinguish categories that apply to one language only. Sure, we might do that; but we could not then make comparisons or find universals. It would be like speaking of forelimbs for tigers, front legs for lions, and arm-homologues for jaguars.

    And once more, cross-linguistic reasoning is used to argue against a future tense for English: tense "must" be a matter of morphology and inflection, so while it is good to speak of future tenses in French, Latin, and Greek, it doesn't work for English, German, or Mandarin. OK, if that's your game. But then, play by the same rules with grammatical voice. Otherwise, when fashions in your discipline change, and the rules of the game along with them, don't rail at the untutored masses' confusion.

    As for my proposal being too broad, I agree that verbs like explode take a little explication. And I don't claim that everything about the analysis of the particular verbs you mention is straightforward. Of course not! But consider three uses, for which I might distinguish active, middle, and passive voice:

    Active: He exploded the bomb.
    Middle: The bomb exploded before we had a chance to defuse it.
    Passive: These concrete blocks don't explode easily. We'll have to use dynamite.

    In some cases, like that one, talk of the passive can seem stretched; especially if you have always been committed to using the term in a more conventional way. And naturally there are alternative ways of carving the linguistic data: like taking, say, the middle sense of explode as primary, and then speaking of the active as derivative and causative, with the putative passive left in a theoretically difficult position. And so on. But the principle is easier to demonstrate with other verbs:

    Active: He turned the handle of the door.
    Middle: Earth turns on its axis.
    Passive: The handle will not turn, no matter how much force I apply.

    Some say that such "spuriously" passive forms are restricted to "general states", and cannot be used for particular events (see Huddleston and Pullum's megagrammar, p. 308). If this were so, we might ask why that should tell against passivity. Doesn't it again trade on some accidental feature of the periphrastic passives: that they can be so used? And in any case, the passive forms I speak of can indeed often be used of particular events:

    "Did the house sell?" "Yes, it sold! It sold for more than we we thought it would."

  21. scratchdaddy said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 7:03 am

    Wow, I thought I had some understanding of the passive voice, but Noetica, your examples leave me feeling clueless.

    "These concrete blocks don't explode easily…"

    "The handle will not turn…"

    I don't see these clauses as being written in the passive voice. To make them into passive constructions, I would have to write:

    "These concrete blocks can't be exploded easily…"

    "The handle will not be turned…"

    On the other hand, "…being written in the passive voice," definitely seems like a passive construction to me, but I'm not sure what it is. A passive participle phrase?

    Obviously I'm not a linguist, so please don't tear me a new one. I just don't understand the distinctions you're making.

  22. Russell said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    Noetica:

    I recognize, and even sometimes participate in, attempts to find cross-linguistic categories. But even that game has subgames. Do you want to find universals in language that fall out from universal grammar? or general human cognition? Or, are you more interested in language change and grammaticalization? Or genealogy? Translation? Each of these may lead you to categorize "the English passive voice" as passive or not, as a voice or not. And it is probably foolish to recognize one of these goals a primary and declare "passive" to mean that, unless otherwise specified. So, as you say, we are left in a terminological quandary.

    I don't know any easy way out of it, except to recognize, within our ivory towers, that many or most cross-linguistic categories should never be taken at face value. Outside the research arena (e.g., in teaching grammar in school, telling journalists they're wrong about passives), the least we can expect is that "passive" refers to a category (even a fuzzy, radial, or graded category), even if it's not one linguistics have traditionally recognized. To put it more (pro)actively, the least we should do is to encourage and teach such a use, not simply expect it.

    Just to toss an idea out there, as far as applying linguistics to practical issues, it may be more worthwhile to teach students and writers lexical semantics, entailment, and/or information structure [is there an agent here? is it deprofiled? how so?] than active vs passive voice. (did I even learn about passives in English class? for all I know, I learned about it first in Latin class. maybe that's why people are confused…?)

    And just a content question:

    One striking thing about your categorization is that your passives are a rather limited group in English. Not many verbs participate in that construction, and there are several restrictions placed upon their use (as noted in the CGEL). "Sell" is the most notorious of these, as it does not require either a post-verbal modifier, and it can refer to specific events. That leads some to simply posit a separate sense of "sell," which would in your terms be a middle, not a passive. Indeed, disregarding the general pattern that your passives cannot describe specific events makes it hard to see what the difference is between passives and middles. Is it the implicit presence of an agent? (and: I still don't know how to distinguish "accidental" from "essential" characteristics, without starting with a notion of what a passive "essentially" is. The fact that traditional passives (in English) need not describe a general state seems to me to be just as essential as the fact that they have demoted arguments, or that they are nonfinite.)

    But this is not a strike against the proposal, as no order from on high says "the passive construction ought to be productive." However, I'm curious what you say about what the CGEL calls passive (was exploded by, was turned by, etc).

  23. Russell said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    Okay, stop, back up. After a trip to the restroom (amazing what that can do), is this what you're proposing?

    A "passive" is a construction which is paired with an "active" one, such that the active has the basic structure ARG1 VERB-active ARG2, and the passive has ARG2 VERB-passive (ARG1) [for convenience using English word order], but the basic scene described is the same. A "middle" is ARG2 VERB, but the scene does not contain an ARG1.

    Then, the parameters of variation (accidental features) are: is the passive finite or not? is it periphrastic or not? Do all transitive verbs participate in both patterns? Do only transitive verbs participate? (so-called prepositional passives in English) Are there semantic restrictions on one or the other (e.g., static scenes only)?

    Is that about right? It seems quite reasonable, but intuitively it is still broad enough that it might not be that useful when dealing with particular languages (esp languages in which discourse prominence features heavily, and grammatical relations like subject and object do not).

  24. Ryan said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    Russell, the examples Noetica gives don't seem to match up with the descriptions you propose. All the passives (whether intended to be legitimate examples or in "sketchier" territory) proposed look to me like they're intransitive verbs in various forms, and I can't make them take an ARG1 in a prepositional phrase.

  25. Russell said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Ryan:

    Okay, so there are subcategories of passive in English, namely:

    Passive-finite: often expresses states (not events); ARG1 conceptually present but inexpressible. (except very indirectly, the knob turns quite easily if you're Superman)

    Passive-nonfinite: ARG1 expressible in a PP-by.

    Middle: no entailed ARG1 (the door opened is consistent with, but does not require the existence of, a thing that causes the door to open [at least so far as the event is construed linguistically; you can still believe that everything has a cause]).

  26. Ryan said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    How exactly does one define a state as opposed to an event?

  27. Noetica said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    Scratchdaddy:

    Of course you are right about how to apply the usual term passive voice in discussions of English grammar. What I have sought to explore, and what Ryan and Russell have now taken up, is how the term might be used to embrace more forms than just the usual BE [or GET or ...] + PAST PARTICIPLE. After all, the term is well established for Latin, Greek, and many other languages, and it is not then assumed that any sort of participle must be involved.

    Ryan and Russell:

    Good to see some to-and-fro on the topic. Of course a lot hinges on what features we take to be essential and what accidental, as I have suggested. Perhaps our choice is not tightly constrained. We can work with superficial resemblances, or conservatively maintain conventional distinctions. Myself, I would prefer to take this feature as essential, to give at least a sufficient condition for active or alternatively passive voice:

    Where an agent and a patient are identifiable (or assumed), if the subject of the verb indicates the agent the voice is active, and if the subject indicates the patient the voice is passive.

    How would middle voice fit in, then? Traditionally it has been held that English "has no middle voice". True enough, if we mean that English has no system for marking middle voice, morphological or otherwise. But some forms seem to do the work allotted to middle forms in other languages. Rather than take the term middle as a vague catch-all for forms that seem in some way to fall between canonically active and canonically passive voice, I prefer a more principled way. Consider the example I gave above:

    "Earth turns on its axis."

    We do not identify a patient, do we? But there is an agent, and it is indicated by the subject. So call it middle voice, just as traditionally in Greek grammar. Again with turn, and some other verbs:

    "The dancer turned and pirrouetted." [2 x middle voice]
    "He turned on his heels and left." [2 x middle voice]

    What of reflexive forms, sometimes said to be middle voice? I do not see why the agent and the patient must be distinct entities in active voice; so reflexive forms like these are active, not "middle":

    "A booming market! The house will sell itself."
    "The injured woman turned herself laboriously to face him."

    And I find no forms with sell that I would want classified as middle voice.

    I don't talk a lot about transitivity. I don't feel an urgent need to do so. Not all forms that appear intransitive are middle or passive, and sometimes a patient is implied or assumed but not indicated by any object. So turn, hold, saw, and chop in these examples are active:

    "Let's work on loosening these bolts together. I'll hold, and you turn."
    "Some saw, others chop. The result is basically the same."

    To summarise: I maintain that there is a useful and principled three-way distinction to be made between active voice, middle voice, and passive voice. English has forms that can reasonably be classified using this distinction. The passive has at least two realisations: first, BE [etc.] + PAST PARTICIPLE; and second, certain forms usually labelled "active". I hold that labelling these second forms as "active" is motivated only by the conventional and convenient characterisation of the standard "unmarked" system in English as "active". But that characterisation is not as principled as we have normally taken it to be.

  28. Noetica said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Scratchdaddy:

    Of course, you are right about how to apply the usual term passive voice in discussions of English grammar. What I have sought to explore, and what Ryan and Russell have now taken up, is how the term might be used to embrace more forms than just the usual BE [or GET or ...] + PAST PARTICIPLE. After all, the term is well established for Latin, Greek, and many other languages, and it is not then assumed that any sort of participle must be involved.

    Ryan and Russell:

    Good to see some to-and-fro on the topic. Of course a lot hinges on what features we take to be essential and what accidental, as I have suggested. Perhaps our choice is not tightly constrained. We can work with superficial resemblances, or conservatively maintain conventional distinctions. Myself, I would prefer to take this feature as essential, to give at least a sufficient condition for active or alternatively passive voice:

    Where an agent and a patient are identifiable (or assumed), if the subject of the verb indicates the agent the voice is active, and if the subject indicates the patient the voice is passive.

    How would middle voice fit in, then? Traditionally it has been held that English "has no middle voice". True enough, if we mean that English has no system for marking middle voice, morphological or otherwise. But some forms seem to do the work allotted to middle forms in other languages. Rather than take the term middle as a vague catch-all for forms that seem in some way to fall between canonically active and canonically passive voice, I prefer a more principled way. Consider the example I gave above:

    "Earth turns on its axis."

    We do not identify a patient, do we? But there is an agent, and it is indicated by the subject. So call it middle voice, just as traditionally in Greek grammar. Again with turn, and some other verbs:

    "The dancer turned and pirrouetted." [2 x middle voice]
    "He turned on his heels and left." [2 x middle voice]

    What of reflexive forms, sometimes said to be middle voice? I do not see why the agent and the patient must be distinct entities in active voice; so reflexive forms like these are active, not "middle":

    "A booming market! The house will sell itself."
    "The injured woman turned herself laboriously to face him."

    And I find no forms with sell that I would want classified as middle voice.

    I don't talk a lot about transitivity. I don't feel an urgent need to do so. Not all forms that appear intransitive are middle or passive, and sometimes a patient is implied or assumed but not indicated by any object. So turn, hold, saw, and chop in these examples are active:

    "Let's work on loosening these bolts together. I'll hold, and you turn."
    "Some saw, others chop. The result is basically the same."

    To summarise: I maintain that there is a useful and principled three-way distinction to be made between active voice, middle voice, and passive voice. English has forms that can reasonably be classified using this distinction. The passive has at least two realisations: first, BE [etc.] + PAST PARTICIPLE; and second, certain forms usually labelled "active". I hold that labelling these second forms as "active" is motivated only by the conventional and convenient characterisation of the standard "unmarked" system in English as "active". But that characterisation is not as principled as we have normally taken it to be.

  29. Noetica said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

    [Sorry about the double post. There seems to have been a technical glitch that erased the post the first time, after it had been there for a while. I had to modify the text by adding a nugatory comma the second time, for it to be accepted at all. Now I see that both posts are visible. LLog, please delete the duplicate, and also this present post.-N]

  30. Noetica said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 11:31 pm

    Spelling: I meant "pirouetted".

  31. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 12:00 am

    I wonder if Hank Stuever heard the sentence starting "I have been…" and wrote down "passive!", as if "unfaithful" were a highly irregular V+en form ("The thought of my dear friend is still unfaithfilling me to my wife"?). I think that people tend to have about a second order Markov model when they're trying to identify grammar, and, for that matter, one where the probabilities are off.

  32. Ryan said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 12:01 am

    Noetica, I have to confess that it seems to me you're just shuffling around terminology to further pursuit of linguistic universals.

  33. Noetica said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 2:55 am

    Ryan:

    … it seems to me you're just shuffling around terminology to further pursuit of linguistic universals.

    I appreciate your frankness about the impression you have formed. At the same time I note the dismissive rhetorical effect of "just shuffling around". Some people delight in unfamiliar analyses; some do not so readily see the motivation for them. Some people are content with old familiar categories and classifications, no matter what reasoned criticisms are levelled at them; others find the systematic exploration of alternatives invaluable, even when the orthodoxy under scrutiny is firmly entrenched.

  34. John Walden said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    Doesn't the term "ergative" usefully describe when the subject of the verb is the person or thing to which the action (or state) is happening? "A chicken is cooking" "A piano is playing" "Red wine drinks more easily than white".

  35. Troy S. said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

    It seems to me the confusion often results from a conflict between semantics and syntax. Is there really is a future tense in English, or are future tense the constructions merely semantically future but syntactically present? If a construction seems semantically passive but looks syntactically active, which is the "correct" description? Do we postulate a third voice just to cover the scenario? A non-specialist may not even appreciate the difference. Indeed, a search on Wikipedia will show that linguists have come up with a dozen grammatical voices beyond the simple active/passive distinction, though they may be unique to specific languages.

    I myself am not a linguist per se, just a person who's studied a few different languages, so please forgive me if I abuse the terminology a little.

  36. Noetica said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    John Walden:

    Certainly ergativity is invoked in analysing cases that I have suggested might be classified as passive voice. And why not? As I allowed above, "there are alternative ways of carving the linguistic data". Specialists will strive to determine which way is best, in regimenting the categories and terms of their discipline. It is unlikely that they will reach agreement.

    How to extend analytical ability beyond a select corps of experts is a bigger problem, and at least as consequential. A long series of threads at LL shows that people in general, including many teachers and public commentators, are clueless about the English passive voice, as traditionally delimited. (And I have asked who should share responsibility for that.) I doubt that talk of ergativity would improve things. Ergativity as applied to English has not left the academy. The story so far, according to the M-W Collegiate entry "ergative":

    Of, relating to, or being a language (as Inuit or Georgian) in which the objects of transitive verbs and subjects of intransitive verbs are typically marked by the same linguistic forms; also: being an inflectional morpheme that typically marks the subject of a transitive verb in an ergative language

    Wikipedia's articles can be used to assess the broader reception of specialist terms and ideas. We find, of course, a patchwork of heroic effort towards depth and accuracy, outrageous error, and abject neglect. "Passive voice" (even in the article "Latin conjugation") redirects to "English passive voice", where the coverage is thorough enough, with a section on "ergative verbs", and a link to the pretty good article "Ergative verb". But none of it reads as if it could help "the folk" do any better than they do now, in understanding and talking about their own language.

    But here is the beginning of the article "Voice (grammar)", with my emphasis:

    In grammar, the voice (also called diathesis) of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or actor of the verb, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

    I had no part in writing that, and had not seen it before today. Doesn't it look clear, principled, universalisable, and adaptable for general consumption?

  37. John Walden said,

    June 28, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    I'm inclined to agree. If "passive" doesn't mean the combination of the verb "be" in some form with a past participle then that last sentence in bold: "When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice" looks extremely useful. It's not difficult to dispense with the stricture that there has to be a "be" in there somewhere. "The windows get broken every weekend" is impeccably passive.

  38. Russell said,

    June 28, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    Noetica: other commitments are keeping me from this discussion ATM. I look forward to continuing it soon. Just to let you know. =)

  39. Noetica said,

    June 28, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    John Walden:

    Fine. But note something about your example: "The windows get broken every weekend." This would be judged passive by current majority thinking anyway. The verb to be is not thought essential. Get is a standard substitution; so is become: "The definition becomes more and more weakened by complexity and extension." And there are elliptical instances: "He wanted the car removed by a wrecker." And there are multiples: "The window was believed broken by vandals."

    All of this shows how heterogeneous the conventional English passive voice can be considered. The participle, though, is deemed essential. My point is that no such participle is essential for other languages held to possess a robust passive voice; so why for English? (See the rather contrived passives in some of my own sentences here.)

    The Wikipedia formulation that I highlight in bold, coinciding with the one I have put forward, shows a genuine alternative way that is generalisable across languages. This would be passive also: "The windows do not clean unless you use a high-pressure jet." And why not? Bold and beautiful!

    Russell:

    Yes. I'm busy too, now.

  40. Aaron Davies said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 1:22 am

    a sentence like "the linguist was annoyed by the style guide" is interesting. while the trivial rewrite "the style guide annoyed the linguist" is notionally active, it's an epistemologic disaster, in the same way as a child's "it broke" is. a concerted effort to show proper agency (e.g. a two-way translation through lojban, a rendering in e-prime, etc.) would probably come up with something like "the linguist found the style guide annoying".

  41. Joel Kalvesmaki said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    In Sunday's NYT the passive is mentioned by Virginia Heffernan in her article "The Susan Boyle Experience":

    At one point, a jumpy M.C. gloats from the wings, demanding of the camera: “You didn’t expect that, did you? Did you?”

    Well, no, we didn’t. Or, rather, in the passive voice: Expectations have been overthrown.

    This reminded me of Liberman's announcement that the traditional meaning of "passive" is now dead. In light of Heffernan's correct usage, am inclined to be skeptical of such claims.

    [(myl) When I test Penn undergraduates, I find that about a quarter of them perform above chance at recognizing instances of "passive voice" in the traditional grammatical sense. I imagine that the rest of the educated population is more or less in the same state.

    I saw a novel and creative conception of "passive voice" recently here:

    Use an active voice (putting things in present/future) instead of a passive voice (putting things in the past). Writing in passive voice weakens your writing and makes listeners less interested in what you have to say.

    ]

    Perhaps Liberman has the time and industry to collate (via Lexis-Nexis and other databases) all uses of "passive" in the last 48 months and tell us what percentage amounts to a departure. And even then I would want to know that the term was not misused on a comparable scale in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    [(myl) Please consider yourself deputized to do this research. ]

    (By the way, this entry should be tagged "passive," to accompany the other Language Log entries on this subject.)

  42. John Walden said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    "Get" also has about it the ellipsis of "to be":
    The windows get (to be) broken"

    But "The definition becomes (to be) weakened"?
    That is extremely ugly, so I wonder, thinking aloud, if there isn't a folk etymological link in people's minds between "become" and "come to be" which uglifies "becomes to be".

    Changing tack slightly: if we take on that useful looser definition of "passive" as suggested in Wikipedia then aren't:
    "It's breakable"
    "The activity is doable"
    passives as well?
    That -able suffix is so pervasive that I would almost go so far as to say that it's a tense. A quick Google reveals the existence of a "potential tense" in Japanese and Basque. Perhaps yet another tense is a step too far. It's certainly a crypto-passive though.

  43. Noetica said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 7:00 am

    John Walden:

    I understand your inclination to analyse "The windows get (to be) broken" as elliptical. I thought of that too, and thought of comparing it with "The windows come to be broken", in which ellipsis is not possible. I'm sure there are other verbs that we could examine, with more or less naturalness and more or less suspicion of a latent elliptical "be". (Of course, they probably have been examined long ago.)

    It took me some effort to come up with "The definition becomes more and more weakened by complexity and extension"; but it strikes me as perfectly sayable. I note your attempt to work with a trimmed-down version, and to treat it as having an elliptical "be": "The definition becomes (to be) weakened". Doesn't work, of course.

    I don't think the truly revealing elliptical forms are of that kind. The ones I proposed were different from them: "He wanted the car removed by a wrecker"; "The window was believed broken by vandals." In these the ellipsis of "be" is plain:

    "He wanted the car [to be] removed by a wrecker."
    "The window was believed [to be] broken by vandals."

    That second one is multiple, with "was believed". There is only one ellipsis. But here is a multiple example with two ellipses (and one plain unelliptical passive):

    "Long believed stolen, the masterpiece was recently discovered in a back room."

    Wanting a test to check the participial nature of believed and stolen (and thereby to test for passive voice), we can attempt to introduce the by of agency. This can be done in two ways, here:

    "Long believed stolen by international art thieves, the masterpiece was recently discovered in a back room."
    "Long believed stolen, at least by the police who conducted the first investigation, the masterpiece was recently discovered in a back room."

    That test works for the conventional participial passive forms, but not for the other kinds. It would take some argument to show that this makes them less than genuine contenders to be passive, though.

    For the rest, I am not sure what to say about your treatment of "It's breakable", and so on. You are more of a heretic even than I am!

    We should record that, whatever folk etymology might suspect, the be- in become is connected not with the verb be but with by.

  44. John Walden said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    With regard to "become" I certainly didn't want to leave the impression that there was any real etymological link between "become" and "come to be", other than that one is perhaps reminded of one by the other.

    As is well-known because of mistakes like "When do I become a steak sandwich?", "bekommen, which I imagine is where "become" does come from, is more or less "get" (when "get" means "obtain/ have sth done") in German, and is a false friend of "become" (and presumably of "get" when it means "become"). Not that this has much to do with anything, apart from being a chance to appear very slightly erudite.

    With "it's breakable" that "it" is certainly "the subject (as) the patient, target or undergoer of the action" as far as "break" is concerned. But my tongue was almost competely in my cheek about English having another tense to contend with. That would be unthinkable (conditional present negative potential!).

    Oh and if you think that's iconoclastic try me on the epistemic modality of auxiliary "do/does/ did". But not now.

  45. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Like "passive voice", "positive feedback" is another piece of jargon that is regularly (usually?) misinterpreted. Positive feedback can be a very negative thing, but most people wouldn't get that because it conflicts with their understanding of what feedback is. I'm assuming that the technical use of "feedback" came first, and then the word was used inappropriately, and it stuck.

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