A stunning case of public grammatical incompetence from blogger Brad DeLong (pointed out to Language Log by Paul Postal). DeLong quotes a passage by Wolfgang Mommsen (about whether Max Weber was prepared for the start of World War I), in English translation, and comments:
It is never clear to me to what extent the fact that faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency to nos Anglo-Saxons is an artifact of translation, a reflection of truth about German habits of thought, or an accurate view into authorial decisions. The use of the passive in the translation of Mommsen:
- "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe…"
- "the Reich had to face a superior coalition…"
- "the war turned out to be…"
- "the catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany…"
- "It was above all the bloody reckoning…"
cannot help but strike this one forcefully…
Yep, you see it too: he gets an almost incredible zero for five on identifying uses of the English passive here.
Let's just go through them to make absolutely sure.
Befell is an active verb, the preterite form of befall. X befell Y means "X happened to Y" or "Y suffered X". It denotes a relation between an event and a person who is affected (often adversely) by it. There is no passive construction and no missing or concealed agent.
The had to face construction involves an active use of have (with necessitative modal meaning) taking an active infinitival complement. The complement is headed by the plain form of the verb face. X had to face Y means "It was necessary for X to confront or stand up to Y." Semantically, X is understood as the agent (we conceive of facing a superior coalition, like facing a hail of bullets or any other tough situation, as something that you do, not as something that somebody else does to you). There is no passive construction and no missing or concealed agent.
In The war turned out to be a struggle to preserve Germany's national existence, the verb turned is the active preterite form of turn. X turned out to be Y means something like "It became apparent that X was Y. This is a copular construction, equating one thing with another in a way modulated by an aspectual verb; the be is not the be that appears in some passive constructions; and there is no passive construction and no missing or concealed agent.
The verb form isolated is the preterite of isolated, used in a simple active relative clause: isolated Germany is an active transitive VP, and the subject is understood (anaphoric to the catastrophic diplomatic situation). There could hardly be a clearer example of a simple active construction. There is no passive construction and no missing or concealed agent.
Finally, It was above all the bloody reckoning… has the copular verb be in an ordinary active construction where the complement (after the interruption of the adjunct above all, which would have been better put with commas at each end) is a noun phrase, the bloody reckoning… (thanks to Breffni O'Rourke for correcting me on my analysis of this one). There is no passive construction and no missing or concealed agent.
Language Log has documented some extraordinary public goofs relating to the age-old (and baseless) prejudice against the passive construction and the astounding grammatical ignorance of the people who prattle on about it, but never a more striking one than this. I have seen a paper marked by a teaching assistant who was wrong concerning 70 percent of the passives that he red-circled in a student paper, but this is more extreme. Five chances to identify a "use of the passive" to complain about, and DeLong couldn't identify a single one!
In case you're wondering whether there were any, the answer is yes. The passage he quotes actually opened with one. Whether any shred of support could be found for the idea that translators of German are trying to cover up the fact of us Anglo-Saxons being responsible for doing things, I will not try to judge; but the passage he quoted contains (just in the exposition by Mommsen, not in his quotes from Weber) six clauses that could be argued to be passive constructions (though all six are adjectival passives: they do not involve actions in which there is an agent, and one could reasonably argue in all six cases that the underlined word is merely a past participle that has given rise to a derived adjective of identical form, used in predicative function):
- Max Weber was not unprepared for the misfortune…
- He was nevertheless deeply disturbed that the Reich…
- he was in principle inclined to support such a way… [sic]
- He was now deeply affected by the national élan…
- He was fascinated by the event itself…
- Weber was convinced that the only justifiable objective…
I don't think those would be of any use at all to DeLong's point, but at least they could perhaps be claimed to be passive clauses.
His best course would have been never to even mention the topic. Why can't people do their analysis of political and historical literature on the basis of what is said, rather than try to extract subtle general signals through bungled syntactic analysis of the grammatical constructions through which it is said? Why play grammarian when you don't have a clue about the grammatical structure of your native language, rather than do something you might be good at, like writing political analysis in your native language? To pick up prestige? Grammarians are high-prestige role models? I don't think so.
I will never cease to be amazed at this sort of self-humiliation. It's like watching all these journalists and bloggers and literary critics and reviewers strip off their shirts to reveal limp, flabby torsos and spindly arms, while they shout "Take a look at my muscles!" Nobody is forcing these writers to stray from their topic into the area of identifying clauses of a particular syntactic sort, but they keep on doing it (see this page for an attempt at maintaining a list of all the Language Log posts about the passive).
One other thing. Lots of people have responded in the Language Log comments area that one shouldn't concentrate on the syntactic point: what people really mean when they refer to passives is about evasiveness about agency. But in this case you can't pull that defense. In not a single one of Brad DeLong's examples is there any sign of missing or concealed agency. As far as I can see, in mentioning the passive he literally has no idea what he is talking about.