More passive complaints — misidentifying 5 passives out of 5

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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.

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69 Comments »

  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    "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."

    Actually, not true. "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe". Yes, grammatically not passive, but no misfortune "befell" Germany and Europe in the sense of an earthquake or other agentless disaster — rather, Europe, and especially Germany, *chose* the inane war that lead to its misfortune. Obviously a German author may have reason to exclude or conceal this, much as an American author may wish to speak of misfortune "befalling" Iraq.

    [Look, you can say that it is an understatement to call the First World War a misfortune befalling Europe, if you like, but you can't claim that some kind of agency is being concealed here through a choice of linguistic construction. Stuff happens, and misfortunes befall us. Whether someone caused it is a different question. Choosing to say that something happened to someone is not evasive, and not passive. This is not about grammar. —GKP]

  2. Moritz said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    The argument about concealed (or veiled) agency can also be made about the phrase "the catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany…" A more explicit sentence would have Germany as the Agent as in (roughly) "Germany created a catastrophic diplomatic isolation," or "Germany isolated itself in a catastrophic diplomatic situation." Of course this includes a significant shift in meaning, which, I guess, it the point (in the original sentence there is ambiguity about who is responsible for the isolation).

    Regarding "the Reich had to face a superior coalition…" a more agentive version would read "the Reich faced a superior coalition", the meaning shift being that in the latter phrase Germany *chose* to face those forces in war, while the former implies a TINA (there is no alternative) situation.

    All that said: none of these sentences strikes me as particular veiled, either.

  3. vanya said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Europe, and especially Germany, *chose* the inane war that lead to its misfortune.

    This is arguably untrue. To what extent do the entities "Europe" and "Germany" have any real agency? A small group of elites in Europe consciously took a number of aggressive actions, whose consequences they really didn't fully understand, that culminated in a horrendous war none of them were prepared for. For 99% of the population of Germany arguably the war was a misfortune that befell them – they had no real say in the matter. In this case obscuring agency is probably more accurate than pretending there is a conscious entity called "Germany" that goes around starting wars.

  4. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    Well, it's true that Imperial Germany wasn't a democracy, but the Kaiser was an extremely popular leader at the time and the people were excited to see their well-dressed soldiers marching off to war for whom they crowded the streets to look at and cheer them on. This jingoism was also true (to a somewhat lesser degree) of England and France as well — and even of America at its late entry to the war — by which time it should have been obvious that there was no glory to be found in the trenches.

    [Hey! I thought this was Language Log! Has it turned into Causes Of World War One Log now? Why have people started wittering on about jingoism and the Kaiser? I'm trying (and it's like pulling teeth) to get people to realize that political analysis is being pointlessly cluttered up with bungled grammatical analysis when there is no earthly reason for it to be. I don't want to know about the popularity level of some long-dead emperor with a spiky hat, OK? —GKP]

  5. John Cowan said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    I don't think it's so dreadfully naive (though technically solecistic) to confuse unaccusative verbs with the passive, as it's plain they have something very important in common.

    [John, I am the linguist who invented the term "unaccusative". And befall, face, and isolate are not unaccusative verbs. All three are transitive. In the case of face and isolate they clearly take an ergative and an accusative. And I'm not sure befall doesn't as well (it basically means "affect"), though perhaps one might debate the matter in that case. —GKP]

  6. Adam said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    Well, if enough people use "passive" this way, then that's what it means…

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    GKP — Yes, it's not about grammar, I agree. If Brad DeLong means that "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe" is grammatically passive he is of course wrong. But *you* brought up the notion of the popular notion of "passive" as meaning "evasiveness about agency", and claimed that quotes DeLong gives fail even that definition.
    [For heaven's sake, I wish people would read the post before they write a comment. The words "faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency" are right there in Brad DeLong's prose. I didn't raise the topic, he did. —GKP]

    I won't continue on the topic of the causes of WW I if you find it off topic, but it is clear that by "passive" Brad means that he thinks that statements like "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe" in regard to World War I are weaselly evasive as to the agency behind the war, and I agree. They remind me of statements like "The Sioux vanished from the plains".

  8. Mary Bull said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    Particularly good point, here, GKP:
    "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?"
    And further, why can't people refrain from using their flawed grammatical analysis, if they do blunder on indulging themselves in this way, to stereotype the inhabitants of an entire country? After all, Germans can be found in as many shapes, sizes, colors, and voices (political or grammatical) as any other people, including the British or American variety.

  9. GF said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    Beware economists bearing linguistic gifts: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/15/pasties-pasties-everywhere/

  10. Simon Fodden said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    Time for the folks at Language Log Plaza to construct and make available online a "passifier," an app that will parse a para and mark all grammatically passive elements in . . . ecru?

  11. vanya said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    Geoff – I'm not discussing "The Causes of War", just curious about the extent to which agency can really be attributed to large groups of people. The war was, indisputably, popular at first with large swathes of the German (and French, and English) population. But did their cheering really cause the war? Determine the direction of the war? Did the crowds really understand what they were cheering for? And the Germans and Russians, as a group, suffered more from the war than the English or the Americans – but were German and Russian individuals the agents of their suffering or could it not be said that "misfortune befell them"?

  12. Faldone said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    "The Sioux vanished from the plains".

    Which just proves that you don't need a passive construction to hide agency anymore than using a passive construction prevents you from showing agency.

  13. Leo said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    GKP didn't have to "bring up" the notion of the passive being equated with evasiveness about agency – it's already there in DeLong's original complaint:

    "the fact that faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency…"

    Admittedly, that sentence comes before DeLong actually mentions the word "passive". Perhaps he chose the word rather casually. Had he simply followed the above quote with "These sentences from Mommsen show…" – and not mentioned the passive at all – he would not have committed an outright error of fact, although his opinion about "evasive[ness] of agency" would still be open to debate.

    Maybe he was just being lazy, rather than truly believing himself to be totally au fait with grammatical terminology.

  14. Timothy Martin said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    @Jonathan Badger

    Actually, not true. "the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe". Yes, grammatically not passive, but no misfortune "befell" Germany and Europe in the sense of an earthquake or other agentless disaster — rather, Europe, and especially Germany, *chose* the inane war that lead to its misfortune.

    I think this is not quite the same as the "evasiveness about agency" that Prof Pullum is talking about. Saying that misfortune befell someone makes it sound like what happened was due to bad luck, or some other unforeseen cause. (Your example of saying that "misfortune befell Iraq" certainly does sound wrong, for this very reason – what happened to Iraq wasn't just bad luck.) It does feel a bit evasive, but mainly it's just factually wrong – to say that bad luck struck Iraq when really it was the US.

    Compare this to a sentence like "Mistakes were made," which is factually correct, but doesn't include the important information that an active sentence would have to: who did it?

  15. Nicholas Lawrence said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    Could we have another thread about another striking usage in DeLong's post: "to nos Anglo-saxons" ? This nos is presumably Latin? The Google hits for "nos Anglosaxons" are all French, and don't seem to be just typos for nous anglosaxons.
    My perception is that current usage is shifting from 'to us Anglosaxons' to 'to we Anglosaxons'. (Possibly because 'we-Anglosaxons' is felt to be invariable??) But people seem worried about it. Since super-logical Latin didn't distinguish between nos nominative and nos accusative, is this English nos a salvation for the worried?

  16. Robert Coren said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Further to @Jonathan Badger's and @Faldone's point(s): Yes, The Sioux vanished… is grammatically active while concealing agency, while I'd add that a passive-voice construction such as The SIoux were exterminated at least implies agency, although it conceals the agent; and of course the equally passive The Sioux were exterminated by the United States Army is a still less evasive formulation.

    And I agree that if writers wish to complain about evasive constructions, they have no business labelling them as "passive" just because the word suggests weakness, without having the slightest idea what the term means grammatically. It promotes misundereducation in the worst way.

  17. good-in-theory said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    Isn't the imagined issue in some of the quoted passages unnecessary use of the 'to be' verb rather than the passive (something of which the passive voice is simply one symptom?) When I had an English teacher who railed against the passive voice, she did so as part of a larger attack upon over-using 'to be.'

    But it is interesting to try to divine what, exactly, DeLong found inappropriate with these assorted quotes. It seems to consist of 'to be,' dependent clauses beginning with 'that,' and infinitives. I don't know if there's anything coherent about that collection of phenomena.

  18. Breffni said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Nicholas Lawrence: I'd guess DeLong's "nos" is an error and he meant "nous", while the French hits show correct use of the possessive "nos" ("our Anglo-Saxons").

  19. John O'Toole said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Thanks to Nicholas Lawrence above for pointing out something that was also troubling me. What indeed is with this "nos Anglo-Saxons?" If our man was trying out his French, it would be "to nous les Anglo-Saxons," with the definite article, if I'm not mistaken (Marie-Lucie can correct me on this one if the other way sounds normal to her; it doesn't to me). If Latin, what's with the English or French plural Anglo-Saxons? If Spanish, again what's with "Anglo-Saxons?" Is this grammatical incompetence (the so-called passives) coupled with xenophilic linguistic snobbery gone awry?

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    If he were going to be pretentious enough to try a Latinism, shouldn't it have been "nobis" Anglo-Saxons? Or perhaps "nobis Anglo-Saxonebus"? (A 19th C. Latin grammar found via google books confirms my hazy recollection or instinct that "VIDEOR, to seem, always governs the dative.")

    I don't know French, but wikipedia assures me that unlike the first-person singular pronoun(s), "nous" is not inflected for case. So a safer bet.

    Can any of our intrepid LL commenters come up with Mommsen's German original and report on its syntax?

  21. marie-lucie said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    John O'Toole, I was about to write about "nous Anglo-Saxons"! Thank you for bringing up the point.

    Whether at the beginning or within a sentence, "we/us Anglo-Saxons" would indeed be "nous les Anglo-Saxons" (most often a pauseless phrase). If used as a subject, this phrase would have to be followed by another "nous" as the grammatical subject of the verb: "Nous les Anglo-Saxons, nous (pensons, etc)…" "We Anglo-Saxons (think, etc)…"

    In writing or formal speech, you could find "Nous, Anglo-Saxons (que nous sommes), nous (pensons, etc)…", which means "As Anglo-Saxons, we (think, etc) ….". If spoken, here "Anglo-Saxons" would always be separated from "nous" by a pause.

    As for "nos Anglo-Saxons", it would imply a population living among the French, for instance the many British owners or renters of vacation properties in France, which may be what the Google hits refer to (I did not check).

  22. Dominik Lukes said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    I'm sure that DeLong was confusing grammatical passive with real life agency and making a proper mess out of that too (what he said would have been nonsense even if we changed 'passive' to 'unexpressed agent').

    But I found it peculiar that all the passives you did find in the passage are actually the more explicit way of expressing agency in DeLong's bizarre 'abstract concepts cannot be subjects' sense: "He was fascinated by the event" v "The event fascinated him"

  23. Leo said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer:

    Here is the original German.

    And here are the quotations:

    1 "Das Verhängnis, welches im August 1914 über Deutschland und Europa hereinbrach" – not passive

    2 "Dass aber Deutschland den Kampf gegen eine militärisch und wirtschaftlich derart überlegene Koalition aufnehmen musste" – not passive

    4 "Die katastrophale diplomatische Ausgangsposition, in der Deutschland in den Weltkrieg eintrat" – not passive, but no mention of "isolated" either!

    5 "Er war in erster Linie die blutige Rechnung" – not passive

    Sorry, but I can't find the third one.

  24. Sili said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Why play grammarian when you don't have a clue about the grammatical structure of your native language

    Because they're such good kissers.

    [Shush! We said we wouldn't tell anyone, didn't we? —GKP]

  25. Leo said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    And here's the URL [Language Log apologises for the fact that its dumb comment-filtering software will not let you embed links even when they are kosher and fully relevant and not spam, like this one from Leo. —GKP]:

    http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PZieB9ZJQXYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=mommsen+weber+deutsche+politik&source=bl&ots=1qQ1GYtFkL&sig=NxdJWesCfGNLSloT67xuFCFSfIg&hl=en&ei=HCdHTKqoO4_64Abr3ZT6CA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

  26. JakeT said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Language shifts (I learned it from watching you, ok?). "Passive verb" now means something different than what it used to. Stop being such a prescriptivist.

    [But what does it mean, Jake? If I could just see one single thing these pusillanimous passive-pillorying pontificators actually seemed to mean... —GKP]

  27. Quendus said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    When I was doing French essays at A-level, I *had* to use at least one passive construction to get full marks for language. Perhaps this anti-passive bias (and misinformation about what constitutes a passive sentence) could be slightly alleviated in future by a similar requirement for schoolchildren writing English essays?

  28. Bloix said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    Quendus, if you went to school in the US you most likely didn't know what the passive voice was until you studied French. It's my belief that Americans who don't study foriegn languages learn no grammar at all between the grade school level ("a verb is an action word," etc.) Americans who have even a nodding acquaintance with the concept of the passive voice generally acquired it in French class.

  29. Bloix said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    Oops, missed the mention of A-levels.

  30. Jim said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    "Which just proves that you don't need a passive construction to hide agency anymore than using a passive construction prevents you from showing agency."

    So, Faldone, exactly what agency is being concealed here? Exactly what did the Sioux go and do that is being concealed? If you are talking about anyone other than the Sioux, then you are talking past the sentnece you are complaining about. I suppose if you really wnat to put agaency back into the sentence your could say something like "The Sioux went and got themselves annihilated." which would be as true historically.

    John, I agree that there is an obvious similarity between passive constructions and unaccusative verbs. In fact it really looks to me as though one reason to passivize is to turn an accusative verb unaccusative.

  31. Jim said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

    "Quendus, if you went to school in the US you most likely didn't know what the passive voice was until you studied French. "

    Bloix, if he went to school in the US, he couldn't very well have done "French essays at A-level."

    Contrary to your impression, my experience of teaching French to American highschoolers was that they were fairly familiar with concepts like transistity, ditransitivity, ambitransitivity and passivity, at least in English grammar. They were often quite blind to their own passivity when it came to learning anything.

  32. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    If people want to use the word 'passive' to mean 'evasive about agency', they can. [Andrew, I wish you'd get with the program. My post above is about the fact that "passive" is not being used to mean "evasive about agency" here. You're babbling the same old babble; but what I have been trying to point out (casting my pearls of analysis before swine, evidently) is that now "passive" doesn't even imply failure to make clear who the agent was in a clause with an implicit agent. Now it doesn't mean anything at all. —GKP] I think it quite probable that the word is indeed acquiring this sense, and that in a few years time it will be standard. However, 'passive' in this sense is not a grammatical category; it isn't a verb which is passive, or even a sentence, but a statement made in a particular context. 'The Sioux disappeared from the plains' is, as Jim points out, only evasive if no more details are given; and in any case it is only evasive at all in the light of what actually happened; if they had disappeared in some other way, the same sentence would not be evasive.

    The problem with the current usage is that people are using 'passive' for anything which is evasive about agency, but still think of it as a grammatical category, whose presence one can demonstrate just by pointing to the words on the page. This seems to be a mistake.

  33. Faldone said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    @Jim:

    So, Faldone, exactly what agency is being concealed here? Exactly what did the Sioux go and do that is being concealed?

    It's not what the Sioux did that's being concealed, it's who did it to them. They didn't vanish by having done the Ghost Dance*. They were vanished by the acts of the US Army. And there's a passive sentence that doesn't hide agency.

    *Although the Ghost Dance may have had a hand in their vanishing.

  34. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    GKP: My 'evasive about agency' point wasn't a direct response to your post, but to the peoiple who are shouting 'But words change!' 'You're being prescriptivist!', etc.

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Who decided that Prof. DeLong was talking about the grammatical passive, here? I noticed his remark when he originally posted it, and decided he was speaking about rhetorical constructs, not grammatical ones. If a professor of rhetoric were to weigh in, I might feel compelled to acknowledge Prof. Delong's fall from grace, but this case just doesn't seem to me to have anything directly to do with grammar or linguistics.

    It would help if we knew just how much hegemony Prof. Pullum is claiming over the word "passive". In electronics, linear components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors are described as passive, contrasting with active components such as transistors. The meek, mild, passive little fly known as Hiram is becomes Fearless Fly with his eyeglasses on. I assume these uses are OK. Where's the line?

  36. Jim said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    "Who decided that Prof. DeLong was talking about the grammatical passive, here?"

    Prof. DeLong did, when he used the term in connection with translation.

    "The use of the passive in the translation of Mommsen:"

    Translation is a linguistic activity. A translator deals with lexicon and syntax. so the linguisitc interpertation of the word would probably apply best.

    "It would help if we knew just how much hegemony Prof. Pullum is claiming over the word "passive".

    Not really, because Prof Pullum doesn't need to be claiming any hegemony over the word itself, just its use in a linguistic context. After all, context is what determines whether an avocado or a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    In response to Nathan Myers, DeLong didn't just say "passive" in a vaguely pejorative way. He said "the passive" (or "the use of the passive," to provide the larger NP). What could that have referred to (when discussing features of the English translation of a German text) other than some identifiable grammatical category, such as, for example, the one traditionally referred to in English as "the passive voice"? Does "the passive" have a different established technical meaning (picking out an identifiable set of rhetorical structures or effects) in the rhetoric business? I'm not aware of one and I don't see it listed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_rhetorical_terms. But perhaps there's some other reference source that we could be pointed to? (That last question not only deploys a passive construction but is usefully vague about agency, because any agent that could provide an answer would do.)

    The wikipedia article on Sioux language, by the way, claims that it ranks fifth by current speakers among the indigenous languages of the U.S. and Canada (pretty good for the language of an allegedly "vanished" people), but provides no information about its use, if any, of the passive (although a distinction between stative and active verbs is described).

  38. Dominik Lukes said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

    @Nathan Myers: I can't quite tell if what you said was meant ironically but assuming it wasn't, it raises an interesting point. What constitutes the hegemony over the word 'passive' or any technical term? Am I simply being hidebound when considering this "new" use of passive as 'implicit agency' to be just a silly error often made by those lacking grammatical education. What is the distinction between error and a dialectal use when it comes to subject-area terminology with popular appeal? The closest analog I can think of is 'lightyear' which is a measure of distance but for many people means 'really long time'. What does it matter? In normal conversation not at all. But if somebody tries to use the word 'lightyear' to intimate familiarity with physics and uses it incorrectly, physicists have the right to call them (presumably behind their back) a pompous idiot.

    There is no doubt in my mind that DeLong was just trying to score rhetorical points by pretending to be in command of technical jargon which he clearly isn't. But even if his supposed new meaning of the passive could be taken at full value, it would still be questionable purely on empirical grounds. All texts leave some agents implicit while making others explicit – and the passive is only one of the many tools for doing this – so being horrified by the presence of implicit agents just shows a whole new level of ignorance.

    In other words, even if we relinquish our hegemony over 'the passive', in his use of it, DeLong was still being a pompous idiot.

    BTW: If DeLong wants more examples of implicit agentivity, how about his sentence about the "truth about German habits of thought, or an accurate view into authorial decisions". Surely, on his account, it should be "the way German people tend to think" and "decisions the authors of the original texts made".

  39. The Ridger said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    Perhaps "the passive" now means "any sentence without an animate agent as the subject"?

  40. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

    GKP: But you *did* bring up the notion of evasiveness about agency yourself:

    "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."

    If you had just left it as a complaint about the obnoxious misuse of grammatical terminology then that would be that, but you didn't. And those sentences (especially the one about WW I "befalling" Europe without mention of the invasion of Belgium by the Germans) *do* conceal agency, both in translation as well as in the German original. It may well be that Brad is quoting selectively and ignoring later sentences that acknowledge this, but it is clear what he means by "passive" — it doesn't mean "nothing" as you claim.

  41. Nathan Myers said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    I see that Mr. Lukes is hostile toward Prof. Delong.

    Prof. Delong expressed a coherent observation in a way that pushed the buttons of the (otherwise!) wholly enlightened, urbane, and admirable Prof. Pullum. Not everything in writing is about grammar. What one person considers a strictly grammatical term can be used by another analogously, metaphorically, symbolically, or even ironically. Were you to ask Prof. DeLong whether he intended "passive" in the strictly grammatical sense he would probably wonder about your sanity.

    You might reasonably disagree with Prof. Delong about the meaning of the evasive constructions and their frequency. Maybe they are an artifact of German prose style, or of the translator's. If so, the honest response would be to disagree with his judgment. Carrying on about which word he chose to use to label the usages just seems petty.

    I admit that people reduce themselves in my estimation when they use "exponentially" to mean "lots".

  42. MJ said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    @Nathan But, as J. W. Brewer asks, what to make of the phrase "the use of the passive"? The passive what?

  43. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    To those trying to score ironic points in the descriptivism vs prescriptivism debate, there is a point of view, to which I ascribe, that exempts technical language from descriptivism. Which is to say, while technical language is assuredly nevertheless part of natural language, it is also the case that there are generally "gatekeepers" and authorities who (loosely) control neologisms and usage. In that context, then, I think it make sense to distinguish between correct and incorrect usages on the basis of prescriptivist authority. Certainly this is the case when the the context of the usage is firmly within the technical domain, as it is in this case.

    However, this is a less useful distinction than it might seem because most of these sorts of controversies involving technical language are about technical terms that have been appropriated into everyday language to some degree. "Begs the question" is perhaps a good example of this. Most people who use that expression aren't aware of its original technical context and thus the expression is arguably both a technical and a non-technical expression. We can probably agree that a philosopher who uses the expression as "raises the question" is misusing it, though. Certainly most of his/her readers would think so…while most common readers would not.

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    Would any of DeLong's defenders care to explain how the sentence rendered by Mommsen's translator as "It was above all the bloody reckoning for a quarter of a century of a boasting and arrogant German foreign policy that had offended all the powers equally" is "evasive about agency"? Or explain how recasting the sentence to begin "Germany's boastful and arrogant foreign policy over twenty-five years created a bloody reckoning…" would be an "[a]lternative[] that focus[es] more attention on agency"? Isn't this, to quote Mr. Myers, a form of "[c]arrying on [that] … just seems petty"?

    Come to think of it, what could be more "evasive about agency" (and also gramatically passive, happily enough) than DeLong's ungainly sentence "Alternatives that focus more attention on agency are almost immediately thought of by one." By whom? By one! Wouldn't it have been less evasive to say ". . . were almost immediately thought of by me"? Or maybe even "I almost immediately thought of alternatives . . ."?

  45. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    I should note that while the block quote from DeLong at the beginning of GKP's post reads "The use of the passive in the translation of Mommsen:," the post at DeLong's own blog as it currently stands reads "The use of passive in the translation of Mommsen." I do not know if gremlins inserted the "the" here at LL or if DeLong's site was edited subsequent to GKP's post. I'm not quite sure whether or how this should affect my earlier point which focused on the presence of the definite article. The omission of the "the" makes DeLong sound to my ear more awkward and borderline ungrammatical (the way it would be odd to my ear to hear someone say that such-and-such Latin or German preposition "takes dative" rather than "takes the dative"). But I'm not sure if it makes it sound *less* like he's using "passive" as some sort of a term of art with a fixed meaning in some relevant technical field. If anything, the increased clumsiness (to my ear, I will stipulate) of the language makes it sound more jargony, which might be an increased signal to the reader that a term of art with a fixed meaning (rather than some loose analogy or metaphor or Humpty-Dumpty subjectivity) is intended.

  46. Nathan Myers said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

    MJ: Prof. DeLong didn't say. Instead, he provided five examples and invited you and me to observe what was common to them. Does it have a recognized name? I don't know, but for his purpose it doesn' t need one, immediately. Come up with a good name and I'll use it. Prof. DeLong's crime seems to be implicitly lending his authority to those who misuse "passive" in the grammatical sense, without actually doing so himself.

  47. MJ said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer I can't think "use of passive" is terribly idiomatic. My guess is a typo on Prof. DeLong's part and that it should either read "use of the passive" or "use of passive voice" (which is certainly common enough).

  48. Alissa said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 1:09 am

    Putting aside the discussion of the lack of 'the' in the original quote, the meaning of 'passive' does seem different if it is 'the passive' (and the quote without 'the' sounds very odd to me). If the term is used like that, it is a technical term and subject to a stricter definition. If someone said instead that some writing "is passive", then that is just describing the style. If being vague about agency strikes this person as being passive, then the statement is true. The meaning also depends on context, and I agree with everyone who mentioned that discussing the translation of some German sentences into English qualifies as talking about language rather than style, particularly when bringing up "German habits of thought".

    I have nothing against language change and if 'passive' is acquiring a new meaning, that is just fine. However, most of the cases brought up on Language Log really seem to be misuses of the technical sense, which is very likely the result of being taught that the passive is bad without really being taught what the passive is.

  49. Robin said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 1:58 am

    "Yep, you see it too: he gets an almost incredible zero for five on identifying uses of the English passive here."

    I can beat that. (Not that this is a contest, but if you're looking for that mix of amusement and despair that so often accompanies tales of misidentified passives, this story has it in spades.)

    In a college English class we were supposed to bring drafts of our papers to be peer-edited. A classmate and I exchanged drafts. I was very impressed by her paper and thought that, therefore, she would surely have excellent advice for me on my own paper. Unfortunately, she circled a bunch of sentences in my paper and told me I should change them because they were all passive. I looked at the nearest example and couldn't find the allegedly passive verb, so I asked if she could locate it for me, and she cited the fact that the sentence began with "It is" as proof that it was passive.

    On closer inspection, I found that none of the sentences she had circled contained any passive voice, and she had not marked or complained about any of the approximately ten actual instances of the passive voice. I expressed doubt to her that the "It is" sentence was passive and that the passive voice was bad, but she seemed unconvinced, so I played along and asked her how she would suggest editing the sentence.

    The sentence she suggested used the passive voice.

    Yes: she took my completely non-passive sentence, misidentified it as passive, declared that bad writing, and then suggested a passive as an "improvement."

    That was when I gave up and just thanked her for her feedback.

  50. Leo said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 4:18 am

    For completeness, here's the other original German phrase:

    "Der Krieg … verwandelte sich dergestalt in einen Kampf um die blosse Behauptung seiner staatlichen Existenz." – again not passive.

    (Translated as "The war turned out to be a struggle to preserve Germany's national existence.")

  51. Adam said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 5:58 am

    I consider it wrong to misuse "schizophrenic" and "quantum leap" for "inconsistent" and "really big jump", but I would expect many linguists to say something like "The meanings of words change; suck it up!"

    But there are technical terms (and the first misuse is offensive to people with a mental illness). (I heartily endorse Fowler & Gowers's article on "popularized technicalities".)

    Linguists seem to be arrogating for their field alone a monopoly on prescribing the use and meaning of their technical terms by non-specialists. Why shouldn't psychiatrists, physicists, and other specialists get the same privilege?

  52. MJ said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    This is not the first time DeLong has commented on the passive voice; the folllowing is dated July 5, 2009:

    Donald Rumsfeld Uses the Passive Voice

    Justin Eliot: Rumsfeld On Abandoning Geneva: 'All Of A Sudden, It Was Just All Happening': "All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel's office in the Pentagon had the lead," Rumsfeld told former Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham, as quoted in By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld. "It never registered in my mind in this particular instance–it did in almost every other case–that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management."

    [Rumsfeld is talking about] the Bush Administration's decision — in which Rumsfeld played a key role — to not grant prisoner-of-war designation to detainees from Afghanistan. In the Department of Defense, which had authority for Gitmo, the policy initially took the form of a since-declassified January 2002 memo, written by Rumsfeld, that said Al Qaida and Taliban detainees "are not entitled to prisoner of war status" under the Geneva Convention. This memo, as Graham puts it, "effectively nullified half a century of U.S. military adherence to the [Geneva] conventions"…

    Preschool-age children will resort to the passive voice like this: "the chair got broken." Grownups do so more rarely.

    A poster named CWB3 notes: "Careful Bradford. I love you, I really do… but you don't want to sound like you're intellectually beating someone down for a mistake that's not there. None of Rumsfeld's statements have passive voice problems… despite what Strunk & White would have you believe."

  53. marie-lucie said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    Jim: my experience of teaching French to American highschoolers was that they were fairly familiar with concepts like transistity, ditransitivity, ambitransitivity and passivity, at least in English grammar.

    I wonder where you taught? I am a French speaker and a linguist, and no doubts there have been huge gaps in my training, because I have never heard of "ambitransitivity", nor of "ditransitivity" as concerns French grammar. I have also taught English Canadian undergraduates both French and linguistics, and few of them knew how to recognize a transitive verb or a passive construction.

  54. Richard said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    It's hilarious that a passage bemoaning "passive constructions" (which are really "sentences that are evasive about agency") starts with a classic anti-passive peeve, 'It is never clear to me…'.

  55. Debbie said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    Wow, I linked to the 'Language Log' as a result of yesterday's post on Murderati. http://www.murderati.com/blog/2010/7/21/who-cares-if-its-well-written.html#comments
    Let me establish that most of your post is above my head and that the responses on this page are far superior to my intellect. Please forgive me for weighing in but, does the intended audience or authorial voice make a difference to both the original text and in the translation in terms of grammar? Is Geoff Pullum's point that if we are going to condemn literature that we must first understand what we are talking about with regards to literary terms! I do believe that it is important to establish studies of higher learning that reflect the proper use of grammar and I believe that includes its development over time..

  56. J. Goard said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    @Adam:

    Not at all.

    I would rightly criticize someone for misusing the technical term "schizophrenic" in a context where they are clearly trying to refer to psychiatry, e.g. "Domestic violence is on the rise in Florida because schizophrenia is on the rise there." If the speaker is really thinking of bipolar disorder, or maybe a grab-bag of psychiatric conditions, then there is a big problem in their claim. But this is obviously compatible with not criticizing someone who says, "Jeez, most of my students' essays on animal rights seem totally schizophrenic." The former is pretense at invoking a fact from a field in which one is incompetent, while the latter sense is clear to everyone (despite prescriptivists' insincere claims to be confused)

  57. lemuel pitkin said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    As a longtime reader of DeLong, I think I can offer some explanation.

    DeLong is a verys mart guy, you can learn a lot from him. But he has certain political opinions which he believes a failure to share represents a basic moral-intellectual failure. The big one is anti-communism, but in this case it's his belief that Germany bears sole or at least primary responsibility for World War One. Max Weber, writing at the time, evidently didn't think so. And DeLong thinks this isn't just a difference in historical analysis, but an error on the order of 1+1=3. Which he thinks must be reflected in Weber's language.

    So what he means by passive voice is a basically a failure to say "and it was all Germany's fault."

  58. bloix said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    It's like kudzu. See http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=07&year=2010&base_name=lightning_round_pushing_the_en#comments

  59. Clare said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    If the meaning of "passive" has changed in the vernacular, it is only in American English. Which means life will become very difficult for American English speakers a) communicating with other English speakers (like myself, from Australia, who find this evasive about agency business completely astonishing ); and b) foreign language learners, where they will inevitably learn the specialist definition. How will students learn to use the passive in French and German correctly if they have learned it means something completely different in English?

    I don't think the meaning of "passive" has changed so profoundly — evidenced by the total lack of shift in the global English speaking community — that it is too late to prevent this situation on pragmatic grounds. Foreign language learning is good, and a consistent definition is desirable. This idea that we should avoid being evasive about agency is clearly pointless anyway. Better to teach the current generation of teachers and pundits how to use the conventional sense of passive and get on with writing clearly — where sometimes agency is best highlighted and sometimes best left unstated.

  60. Nathan Myers said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    lemuel: Since DeLong did not in fact use the expression "passive voice", it's hard to know what meaning to take from your posting. The same remark applies to many other posters here, and to Prof. Pullum as well. [DeLong said "use of the passive", and that's what I discussed. The word "voice" happens not to appear in my post, so your nitpicking does not apply to me. If you want to be a nitpicker, you need to read more carefully. —GKP]>

    Many paleontologists object to the metaphorical use of "dinosaur" to describe Orrin Hatch. They consider it more appropriate applied to JFK, MLK or John Lennon, cut down in his prime. While I sympathize, the horse has left the barn. Linguists and grammarians would better hunker down and defend "passive voice", as such, than explode every time "passive" pops up in connection with rhetorical trickery.

    [As far as I can see, there would be no point in linguists defending the passive voice, because the general public would have no idea what I was talking about — whether it was intransitivity or nominalization or evasiveness or general wimpiness and girliness. My concern is that no one has any idea what the passive construction is, and that's a symptom of the problem that in general even educated people are getting absolutely nothing in the way of education about the structure of language. —GKP]

  61. SeanH said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 7:12 am

    Many paleontologists object to the metaphorical use of "dinosaur" to describe Orrin Hatch

    Citation needed.

  62. David said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 7:31 am

    GKP – It looks to me like this new "passive" refers to anything but an action verb, which appropriately remains classified as active.

    "Kill," then would be an active choice. "Die" (more process than action) or "be dead" (clearly a state) is passive, along with traditional passive "be killed."

    The only trouble I see here is that I have no trouble believing that DeLong and his brethren would want to classify an experiential non-action verb like "believe" or "want" as active, but maybe my guess holds up until they actually say that.

  63. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    Doesn't analyzying the nonstandard use of a word as a "metaphor" (rather than mistake) presume that the speaker understood the core (or "literal") meaning of the word before extending it metaphorically? People using "dinosaur" metaphorically to apply to a human being typically also know the core meaning of "really big and perhaps clumsy and not all that bright reptile thingie that lived a very long time ago" that's being extended. The evidence that DeLong has any clue what a non-metaphorical meaning of "passive" (as a description of some identifiable class of sentences or phrases) might be seems thinner than the evidence that Sarah Palin is the Shakespeare of our age. I am tentatively persuaded, by the way, by Mr. Pitkin's point that by "passive" DeLong did not even really mean "evasive about agency" so much as"failing to explicitly blame Germany for everything I, Brad DeLong, think Germany should be blamed for." That is a sufficiently idiosyncratic meaning that a novel and Palinesque coinage might have been a more useful tack to take.

  64. Mark F. said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    It's not just that DeLong misidentified the passive voice, although that is easy to point to. He tried to do a syntax-level analysis of a semantic issue, and a sentence-level analysis of something best considered at least on the paragraph level. Looking at the Mommsen quote, I think Mommsen does presuppose German non-culpability for WWI. Presupposition like this can be a rhetorical strategy to get people to believe something without you having to defend it, but it is often an honest reflection of the perspective you think you and your readers share.

    DeLong was trying to make the case that Mommsen has this presupposition. Describing the sentences in the key paragraph as "passive" was his strategy. But not only are they not using "the passive", there is no reasonable sentence-by-sentence rewrite that would have gotten rid of this presupposition.

    English-language readers, DeLong in particular, often don't share this presupposition of Mommsen's. DeLong was trying to make the case

    DeLong clearly thinks that Mommsen is writing from from a point of view of German non-culpability for WWI. It looks to me as if Mommsen is

  65. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    @GKP:

    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.

    And lots of people, including me, have pointed out that what some people really mean when they refer to passives is evasiveness about agency, but have not said that one shouldn't concentrate on the syntactic point—here of all places!—or defended incorrect uses of the technical term passive voice.

  66. Jim said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    "They were vanished by the acts of the US Army."

    Faldone, that's one way of putting it, but then that really denies agency to the "Sioux". They vanished through their own failure to win their wars, after having won earlier wars of imperial expansion. Boo-hoo you fucked me is a poor sunbsitute for winning. Oh, and they hardly vanished from the northern Plains and they would be hurt to hear you say they did. In fact when it comes to vanishing from somewhere, that was the Ojibwe expelling them from their actual ancestal lands in Minnesota. Which by the way is who gave them that derogatory nickname for them you are using. I'm sure they'd appreciate that too.

    But my point was that you are complaining about the writer not writing the sentence you wanted him to write, leaving out information you wanted in the sentence. So you think the writer should have mentioned the agent; why not ….oh, the instrument, the field……?

    M-L,

    "I wonder where you taught? I am a French speaker and a linguist, and no doubts there have been huge gaps in my training, because I have never heard of "ambitransitivity", nor of "ditransitivity" as concerns French grammar.

    I taught in Tacoma. And I was referring to grammatical concepts that kids brought in from their English grammar instruction in 8th grade. I was just saying they came prepared with a set of these concepts.

  67. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Being a translator from German to English, I'm interested in how to explain the differences between the ways we go about communicating in the two languages. There are plenty of things to observe, but neither a different rate of use of passive verbs nor a difference in tendency to express one's own involvement in something actively or passively (in a more general sense) come to mind.

    Looking over the translation and the original (thanks for the links), this is a dismal translation. It screws up the tone and content of the German big time. It does a terrible job of (not) reorganizing the German sentences. I hope nobody got paid for this.
    I think the main thing at issue here is the rather deep and subtle difference in culture involved in talking about the world wars, not surprisingly the winners and the losers experienced things very differently. Especially the German experience of being both perpetrators of terrible crimes and losers (such that the most patriotic attitude would be to concur in the total defeat and capitulation of their country) is something that Americans and British have no parallel for. Mommsen's text does not contain ANY hint of believing in German non-culpability for the war*. It is, however, soaked in dismay that Germany got itself into it and that even its best and bravest intellectuals (such as Weber undoubtedly was) had their phases of thinking it was a good thing; had been, before the war, predisposed to think that "A" war might be a good and civilized thing for Germany to engage in. Mommsen's thesis, which came out in 1958, must have been a kick in the guts for many upright German democrats who looked up to Weber as one of the heroes of the dark years of decline towards Nazism. For the time, he is actually well ahead of his average compatriot in realizing what terrible things his parents' and grandparents' generations have done and been part of and how even the best people had shared at least dubious attitudes.

    *the reference to Germany having been drawn into the war is factually correct. The initial declaration of war was by Austria-Hungary on Serbia. Of course, the Germans' interpretation of their treaty obligations as requiring them to flatten Belgium was their own idea; but still, formally it's correct and after all, the passage is explaining how Weber saw things at the time. And, BTW, "misfortune" is a miserable translation for "Verhängnis" (a rich and terrible word) in almost any context; here, it really is a Verhängnis for the text.

  68. Nathan Myers said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    Mr. Hemmens's posting is the first that actually takes on Prof. DeLong substantively: the professor relied too credulously on a bad translation. All the rest has been noise.

    [No, the professor did not rely credulously on any translation (if that's me you mean). I was talking about Brad DeLong's grammatical ignorance regarding his own language. The German original doesn't matter at all, and I was not the slightest bit concerned with attitudes toward the First World War in Germany. This is not First World War Log, it's Language Log. —GKP]

  69. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 28, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    Here's my take on it:

    top article of http://www.dr-ben.at "Blog" as of today or, shorn of the page layout :
    http://www.dr-ben.at/wordpress/?p=362

    (one day, I will implement a proper css layout so that the blog is not just stuffed inside a html page)

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