Archive for Syntax

One more for the "passive voice" files

There have been many LLOG posts on misuse of the term "passive voice", going back to 2003. As far as I can tell, the most recent post was "'Is it the passive voice you don't like?'", 8/11/2021.

In "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P", I wrote that

the traditional sense of passive voice has died after a long illness. It has ceased to be; it's expired and gone to meet its maker, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It's an ex-grammatical term.

Its ghost walks in the linguistics literature and in the usage of a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals. For everyone else, what passive voice now means is "construction that is vague as to agency".

Today, Ambarish Sridharanarayanan sent me a link to a piece of writing that illustrates the issue perfectly:

The press release makes heroic use of the passive voice to obscure the actors: “an unprecedented sequence of events whereby an inadvertent misconfiguration during provisioning of UniSuper’s Private Cloud services ultimately resulted in the deletion of UniSuper’s Private Cloud subscription.”


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Subordinate clauses as noun phrases

In a comment on "Inerrancy and prescriptivism", Philip Minden wrote that "'just because… doesn't mean' is chalk drawn slowly down the blackboard", referring to the panel on the right.

The traditional reference is to fingernails on a chalkboard, not chalk on a blackboard — if chalk on a blackboard produced that irritating visceral response, mid-20th-century school days would have been a (greater) source of trauma.

But tangled idioms aside, there's an interesting socio-syntactic point here, namely whether and why it's OK for certain subordinate clauses to serve as subjects, as if they were noun phrases — and whether (and when) that works for clauses introduced by just because.

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PP attachment ambiguity of the day

Chrisma Madarang, "Man Accusing CPAC Chair Matt Schlapp of Sexual Assault Was Paid $480,000: Report", Rolling Stone 3/27/2024:

Huffman claimed Mrs. Schlapp attempted to “impugn” his character in her response to the allegations against her husband, calling him a “troubled individual,” and alleged he had been dismissed from the campaign after lying on his resume in a group chat with neighbors.

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Flip over when you finish

From shaing tai, via a group on Facebook, photograph taken at the New Otani Inn in Tokyo:

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"Re-Grand Opening"

From John Bell:

I thought of you and your interest in the oddities of linguistic expression a few days ago when I noticed that the local Safeway supermarket had large signs up saying "RE-GRAND OPENING".   They had recently done some renovation in a corner of the store — enlarging the self-checkout and the Starbucks counter, so I think that was the impetus for the sign, but I also liked the way it made sure you knew this was not the first GRAND OPENING.

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My garden path of the day

"Alligator Kills 69-Year-Old Woman in South Carolina", NYT 7/4/2023:

A 69-year-old woman was attacked and killed by an alligator on Tuesday as she was walking her dog in her neighborhood in Hilton Head Island, S.C., the authorities said.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said it was the second fatal alligator attack in the county in less than a year. […]

Jay Butfiloski, the furbearer and alligator program coordinator with the state’s Natural Resources Department, could not be reached on Tuesday.

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"The beautiful mind paper boxes"

The most recent Trump indictment reproduces this exchange of text messages (p. 11) :

Trump Employee 2:

We can definitely make it work if we move his
papers into the lake room?

Trump Employee 1:

There is still a little room in the shower where his
other stuff is. Is it only his papers he cares about?
Theres some other stuff in there that are not papers.
Could that go to storage? Or does he want everything
in there on property

Trump Employee 2:

Yes – anything that's not the beautiful mind paper
boxes can definitely go to storage. Want to take a
look at the space and start moving tomorrow AM?

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"Master the essence of solid"

From the website for Royal China Group, a famous Chinese restaurant group in London:

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Do few of the principals appear seriously undamaged?

"The Guardian view on King Charles: still on probation", The Guardian 12/15/2022:

The latest allegations from Harry and Meghan are damaging for the Windsor family – and perhaps for the monarchy.


Saddest of all, surely, is the sight of so many unhappy people inside such a dysfunctional institution. Few of the principals appear undamaged, often seriously, by the pressures of the roles they play in front of an audience of sometimes infantilised millions.

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How many characters does it take to say "staff only"?

In sending along the photograph below, Geoff Dawson writes:

I find it hard to believe it takes nine characters. Curious as to what they really say.

From a furniture shop in South Melbourne Australia.

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Trent Reznor Prize nomination

Today we have a worthy nominee for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — Lucy Mangan, "Digested week: Ducks in the garden and Wordle are my rocks in a sea of chaos and injustice", The Guardian 4/9/2022:

Growing up in Catford, southeast London, a short walk from the gun shop under Eros House (under whose umbrous overhang took place so much teenage fumbling that – as long as the Greek god’s scope includes Mere Genital Curiosity as well as the higher forms of human longing – could not have been more suitably named), I devoured books about the countryside and all its myriad natural delights.

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Sentence length and syntactic complexity

[This is a guest post by Don Keyser, in response to "Trends" (3/27/22).]

I do hope Sir Walter Scott is part of the study, as an outlier perhaps.  I still have nightmares going back to English class in an era when one still was obliged to diagram the sentences to establish to the satisfaction of the teacher that one truly and fully grasped the structure and meaning.  Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe was the acid test.  I'm not sure blackboards of the era were sufficiently large, or chalk sufficiently sturdy, to get through the diagram of a single sentence in Ivanhoe and other works.

I just checked online and found that there are free versions of Ivanhoe in ebook and .pdf format.

Some examples of all too typical sentences from that work:

On the other hand, such and so multiplied were the means of vexation and oppression possessed by the great Barons, that they never wanted the pretext, and seldom the will, to harass and pursue, even to the very edge of destruction, any of their less powerful neighbours, who attempted to separate themselves from their authority, and to trust for their protection, during the dangers of the times, to their own inoffensive conduct, and to the laws of the land.

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Singular verbs with plural nouns

From B.D.:

I recently moved to Zürich, and the experience of living in a German-speaking canton has made me aware of a linguistic oddity in English that I'm having difficulty explaining adequately.

My bank app sends me notifications like "100 CHF have been deducted from your account." The "have" in that sentence always reminds me that English is not the programmers' first language.

In German, you'd always use the plural verb form for more than 1 of a unit, but in English, you generally treat such quantities as mass nouns: 100 francs _is_ a lot, 100 kilos _is_ heavy, etc… Except that rule doesn't seem to work for liquids, and I'm not sure why.

You wouldn't say "3 gallons of milk is in the fridge", or "3 liters of water is in the pitcher," for example. I tried to rationalize the first case by saying I'm thinking of three physical gallon jugs of milk, but that doesn't work for water in a pitcher.

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