Josh Marshall: grammar success

« previous post | next post »

Josh Marshall, at TPM where he is editor, quotes President Barack Obama saying of last year's debt-ceiling negotiation shenanigans: "We're not going to play the same game that we saw happen in 2011," and notes an interesting change of sentence plan:

You can’t see it in the transcript. But he momentarily caught himself after ‘game’ and then shifted gear — just a moment of hesitation. The logical way to complete that sentence was ‘We’re not going to play the same game we played in 2011.’ But he caught himself and shifted the sentence into a sort of conceptual passive voice. It’s active but with himself as the onlooker.

As Jeffrey Stafford pointed out to me by email, this really deserves some credit. Josh can tell the difference between a passive clause and an active one!

I have noted over and over again here on Language Log that people pontificating about the passive often get zero correct in their attempts to identify or illustrate it (search for "passive" on this page or this one).

But Josh Marshall nails it: it is entirely plausible that Obama realized just in time that "the same game we played" would constitute an admission of participation, so he switched (in a few milliseconds) to saying that the game just sort of happened. That avoids any admission of game-playing; but it is not something achieved through use the passive voice. The notion of a "conceptual passive voice" isn't defined, and I don't especially care for the term, but hey, let's not look at the cloud, let's look at the silver lining.

Josh gets it, as so many have not: Not all evasiveness about agency involves the use of a syntactically passive construction! Kudos, Josh. Brownie points on grammar.

[Addendum: I take full credit for the delightful pun in "Brownie points": Josh Marshall's clearly excellent education was capped with a PhD (in American history) from my present institution, Brown University. But the credit I take is not honestly earned: my pun was unintentional, because I didn't know that Josh was a Brown alum at the time I wrote. It was pointed out to me later by Edouard S. Markson, to whom thanks.]


Comments are closed.