'Concern troll' passives

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You may have noticed that in a recent Washington Post blog post Alexandra Petri says "Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses." I have briefly commented at Lingua Franca on the truly strange vulture metaphor and the whole cultural phenomenon of concern trolling. But this is Language Log, and you might be interested in more detail about whether she is correct in diagnosing the presence of passive constructions in the linguistic material she critiques. Don’t let me spoil it for you; try to guess before you read on.

Here is the passage that Petri thinks shows how concern trolls thrive on passive constructions:

[Lisa Adams] responds defiantly to any suggestion that the end is approaching.

"I am not on my deathbed," she told me in an email from the hospital. "Periods of cancer progression and stability are part of the natural course of this disease. I will be tweeting about my life and diagnosis for some time to come," she predicted, and I hope she’s right. In any case, I cannot imagine Lisa Adams reaching a point where resistance gives way to acceptance. That is entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it.

Petri thinks that in this passage Bill Keller of the New York Times is insincerely pretending to be concerned for Lisa Adams’ welfare, but in reality is criticizing her. With heavy sarcasm Petri voices what she thinks Keller is really saying (the boldfacing is mine):

Us, you see. Not me. Certainly not. I hope she’s right. I think she is deserving of our respect. But some people might want to debate her choices. I don’t suggest this debate, of course. It’s her decision that "invites us."

What a lovely passive construction. Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses.

Here are Keller's words repeated with the verbs underlined and numbered for reference:

She responds1 defiantly to any suggestion that the end is2 approaching.3

"I am4 not on my deathbed," she told5 me in an email from the hospital. "Periods of cancer progression and stability are6 part of the natural course of this disease. I will7 be8 tweeting9 about my life and diagnosis for some time to come10," she predicted11, and I hope12 she ’s13 right. In any case, I cannot14 imagine15 Lisa Adams reaching16 a point where resistance gives17 way to acceptance. That is18 entirely her choice, and deserving of our respect. But her decision to live19 her cancer onstage invites20 us to think21 about it, debate22 it, learn23 from it.

Finally, here is the numbered list of verbs with brief notes on whether they are intransitive or transitive and whether they are active or passive:

1 responds is the 3rd-person singular form of an intransitive verb
2 is is the 3rd-person singular form of the intransitive copular verb be, henceforth the copula, which has no passive counterpart
3 approaching is the gerund-participle form of an intransitive verb
4 am is the 1st-person singular form of the copula, which has no passive counterpart
5 told is the preterite form of a transitive verb in the active voice
6 are is the default present tense form of the copula, which has no passive counterpart
7 will is a modal verb, which has no passive counterpart
8 be is the plain form of the copula, which has no passive counterpart
9 tweeting is the gerund-participle form of an intransitive verb, which has no passive counterpart
10 come is the plain form of an intransitive verb, which has no passive counterpart
11 predicted is the preterite form of a verb taking a direct quotation complement, and is in the active voice
12 hope is the default present-tense form of a verb taking a finite clause as complement, and is in the active voice
13 ’s is the special clitic version of the 3rd-person singular present form of the copula, which has no passive counterpart
14 cannot is a modal verb, which has no passive counterpart
15 imagine is the plain form of a verb taking a nonfinite clause as complement, and is in the active voice
16 reaching is the gerund-participle form of a transitive verb in the active voice
17 gives is the 3rd-person singular form of a transitive verb in the active voice
18 is is the 3rd-person singular present form of the copula, which has no passive counterpart
19 live is the plain form of a transitive verb in the active voice
20 invites is the 3rd-person singular form of a transitive verb in the active voice
21 think is the plain form of an intransitive verb with a preposition phrase complement, which has no passive counterpart
22 debate is the plain form of a transitive verb in the active voice
23 learn is the plain form of an intransitive verb with a preposition phrase complement, which has no passive counterpart

Not a passive to be seen anywhere: not even a single past participle in all the 23 verb forms. The transitive verbs (the ones that would in principle be capable of being used in the passive) are all in the active. Alexandra Petri simply does not know what a passive is. (She would be well advised to check out this online tutorial essay.)

She is not, of course, alone in her grammatical embarrassment, as massively documented in my forthcoming article "Fear and loathing of the English Passive." Almost no educated people today seem to have the vaguest clue about what a passive is. They know they ought to avoid them, but they have no idea what to avoid. It’s nervous cluelessness once again.

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