"Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.

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Passive voice is a grammatical term whose first use in English, according to the OED, was about 600 years ago:

a1450 (a1397) Prol. Old Test. in Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Cambr. Mm. II. 15) xv. 57 A participle of a present tens either preterit, of actif vois eithir passif, mai be resoluid into a verbe of the same tens and a coniunccioun copulatif.

I haven't been able to find an image of the original passage, but EEBO produces an image of a version published in the 16th century, from p. 122 of John's Purvey's "The true copye of a prolog wrytten about two C. yeres paste by Iohn Wycklife",

The cited example clearly refers to the grammar of Latin, where the cognate term was passiuus.  Whether in Latin or in English, the meaning of this term, the OED explains, is "Denoting, relating to, or using a voice of a transitive verb in which the subject undergoes the action of the verb".

In English, the passive voice usually consists of an auxiliary (freq. be; occas. also get, become, etc.) plus the past participle of the verb; comparable formations are found in other modern European languages.

In passive constructions, the word which would logically be the object under a corresponding active construction functions as the grammatical subject, while the logical subject either is absent or is represented in a prepositional phrase (e.g. the food was eaten or the food was eaten by them rather than they ate the food).

But despite this long history, I'm afraid 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".

We've documented this development in many previous posts. The latest evidence is from Kent Scheidegger, "The Passive Exonerative Voice", 3/11/2009:

I propose a new rule. A person caught in a misdeed should get zero or negative credit for an expression of remorse if expressed in the passive voice.

Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. has acute pain from its former chief of acute pain, Scott S. Reuben. Keith Winstein and David Armstrong report in the WSJ that the "prominent Massachusetts anesthesiologist allegedly fabricated 21 medical studies that claimed to show benefits from painkillers like Vioxx and Celebrex…." Faking data is the cardinal sin of science.

"Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened," said the doctor's attorney, Ingrid Martin.

Excuse me, Dr. Reuben and Ms. Martin, but how did "this" just "happen"? Did fabricated data grow spontaneously on your flash drive?

"Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened" is certainly an attempt to evade responsibility. But there's no passive voice in sight, in the traditional sense of that term. In particular, the subordinated sentence "this happened" is the active-voice preterite form of the intransitive verb happen. However, in the contemporary sense of "construction that is vague about agency", Ms. Martin is clearly guilty of using the passive voice.

If you've read any of the earlier posts cited above, you will have noticed that we've repeatedly been guilty of ordering this particular linguistic tide to retreat. This was foolish of us. As usual for such gestures, the only effect is to make us feel virtuous and superior in a depressive sort of way. We should know better.

So I'll simply point out to Mr. Scheidegger that he could sharpen up his proposed rule by phrasing it so as to withhold credit for expressions of remorse that fail to accept responsibility, whatever the grammatical structures used.  This will avoid unfairly negative treatment of candid — if passive-voice — expressions of remorse like "I should be held fully responsible for trying to change the way people use the phrase passive voice, and I'm mortified by the realization that I have been so foolish as to suppose that mere informative protest would affect anyone's linguistic behavior". This will also prevent legalistic cavils about whether to give credit to things like Ingrid Martin's active-voice — though evasive — statement that Dr. Scott Reuben "deeply regrets that [fabrication of 21 medical studies] happened".

As an extra — though tiny — benefit to Mr. Scheidegger personally, this modification will also prevent linguists and a few other pedants from feeling depressively superior to him.


  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Mr. Scheidegger was called on his mistake in a comment to his post:

    FWIW, the sentence "Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened," is not actually in the passive voice and thus would not trigger your proposed rule. "Regret" is an active verb.

    His response:

    I expect that a more technically correct way of saying this, and some chastisement for the way I said it, will be forthcoming at the Language Log.


  2. John Cowan said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    That use of "happened" seems unnatural to me: I suspect that some more natural wording was revised away by an Idiot Copy Editor God because it actually did use the (linguistic) passive voice.

  3. joseph palmer said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    In my opinion, ordering the tide to retreat may be effective if you do it from a powerful soapbox, especially when the tide in question is essentially a misuse of a technical term which makes what people are saying less precise. This is exactly why arbitrary prescription can be useful – unless a lack of precision or a conformity to a norm is pointed out while the numbers using a term wrongly are quite small (and the same mistakes will almost always be made by a certain number of people) then they will tend to multiply and the language will be a less effective tool of communication across groups.

    The internet now provides the opportunity for the linguistic community to create an powerful, interactive tool which people can easily refer for all kinds of usage. If the right names and organizations are involved people will respect its judgements just as they have respected the tyranny of dictionaries for centuries.

  4. Faith said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    I've always wondered about "run down the curtain." Shouldn't it be "rung down the curtain"? Or should it? I can't actually tell which one is said of the Norwegian Blue in the text Mark is citing.

    [(myl) I'm pretty sure that the traditional expression is "ring down the curtain". I wrote that originally, and then changed it under the influence of what I took (perhaps unadvisedly) to be a definitive transcript of the parrot sketch. Neither version is entirely transparent in contemporary language and culture, and it's hard if not impossible to tell them apart by sound, as you point out.]

  5. James said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Yes, ring down the curtain: OED sense 10.c

    To direct (a theatre-curtain) to be drawn up or let down by making a bell ring. Also absol. and intr. for passive (with the curtain as subject). Also fig.

    So, linguists are going to part ways with (other) scientists, namely those who claim ownership over terms they use in a technical way? (Cf. 'fruit', 'monkey', 'insect'…)

    [(myl) I've known several botanists, and when someone refers to cucumbers, tomatoes, or beans as "vegetables", they've learned to let it slide. In fact, they sometimes join in.

    I'm not sure that's the right attitude to take towards "passive voice", since the colloquial usage is more inchoate, and colloquial users generally believe that they're using the word in the same way that (say) Prof. Strunk was in 1918, so there's more conceptual confusion involved. But we've got about as much chance of fixing the colloquial usage of "passive voice" as botanist have of fixing the colloquial use of "fruit."]

  6. Jair said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    Sure, Scheidegger could have been more precise, but it wouldn't have been nearly as funny. The second sentence is a gem.

  7. Don Campbell said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

    If we give up "passive voice", what do we call it then? "Inactive voice"?

    Or continue to contribute to the confusion between the two meanings – much like the biologists mentioned by James above?

  8. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    Remember that the chap who tried to order the tide to retreat, King Cnut, did so not because he thought he really had the power to control the tides but to show his fawning yes-men courtiers that in fact he had no such power. Unless the story – either way – is apocryphal, of course.

  9. TB said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    The real question is, what do we call the Construction Formerly Known As Passive Voice now?

    [(myl) As a (completely ineffective) public relations stunt, I once suggested ("When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006) that the bad associations of the word "passive" could be avoided by deriving a new term from Greek (the "hyptic" voice), or by adapting terms like "thematic verbs" or "the focusing voice". But those were (unserious) suggestions for public discourse about writing style, not for technical discussion of syntactic structures.

    More seriously, I feel that linguists and others interested in syntactic analysis should continue to use active and passive in the traditional ways. My (half serious) suggestion in this post is that we should face up to the fact that the public at large now has a very different understanding of those words, and is probably not going to go back. The only thing likely to make a difference would be a return to near-universal instruction in grammar. That would be a Good Thing, in my opinion, but it's not about to happen any time soon. ]

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    James: and cf. "dinosaur". My favorite of such confusions is "safe": the U.S. Department of Energy has elected to redefine, for its own use, the word "safe" as used in legislation and applied to nuclear weapons to mean "it pops when you push the button". They actively encourage confusion with the conventional meaning of the term, particularly where budgeting is concerned; everyone agrees the nuclear arsenal must remain safe, for some definition of the term.

  11. Passive voice: not what he used to be « Mackerel Economics said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    […] No Comments As a follow-up to this post, I thought I should point out that Mark Liberman at Language Log officially declared today the end of the passive voice as we know it: [D]espite this long history, […]

  12. joseph palmer said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    Do you imagine that we will quickly move towards a situation where the old sense of the passive voice will become extinct? There will be many tedious battles and confusions before then.

    Coining a handy new term for the apparent new definition would preserve the old term, and be a kind of backhanded prescriptivism.

  13. Brett said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    @TB: That should be obvious. We'll call it O(+>).

  14. Older said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

    "Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened" — the passive-aggressive voice.

  15. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    "Passive-aggressive voice": 299 GHits, of which the best is this one, which describes several important advances in verb-tense technology that were recently developed by the State of Og Department of Theoretical English:

    Passive Aggressive Voice

    Use: Any use of the passive voice for passive aggressive purposes.

    Example: (sigh) I was am workest on the project you told me to. I thought you would want me to finish that before putting the fire out.

    Note: Formerly known as the assive tense but changed due to possible sexual connotations.

    Several other new theoretical tenses are also discussed, including reflective past pejorative, reverse future cowgirl, and hypothetical insensitive.

  16. Cath the Canberra Cook said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    Just a nitpick the fruit vs vegetable issue: the problem is a mix of technical terminologies. Botanically there is *no such thing* as a vegetable. Plants may have fruits, stems, leaves, berries, roots etc, but there is no such part of a plant as a vegetable.

    In culinary terms, a vegetable is any part of a plant that is eaten predominantly as a savoury food. Culinary vegetables may include include botanical stems (eg, celery), fruits (tomato), leaves (lettuce), flowers (broccoli) or other parts. Culinary fruits are mostly actual botanical fruits, but they might also be berries or stems (rhubarb, angelica).

    [(myl) Linguistically, there's no such thing as a "construction that does not explicitly assign responsibility for some referenced or evoked action". But that's roughly what people seem to want passive voice to mean.

    However, if we banned terms that are scientifically incoherent, the demise of newspapers would be hastened to an alarming degree, and the production of text and speech on the internet would come to a nearly complete halt as well. ]

  17. Spectre-7 said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 1:23 am

    For the past few weeks, I've been involved in a forum attached to a writing contest which has several thousand entrants, and so have been in contact with (far too many) amateur writers. During this time, I have witnessed nearly every English verb conjugation denounced as passive. I have seen several kind people mention that they're currently eradicating the word "was" from their novel. I even saw one soul mention that he's removing every last instance of the past perfect, for what purpose I'm sure I cannot begin to fathom.

    For a while, I fought the good fight. I tried to point out which phrases were passive and which were not, while reminding folks that using the passive voice is not, in fact, a mortal sin. I tried to send people toward good usage guides, such as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. I doused out as many of the mob's torches as I could, yet there were always more angry villagers waiting in the wings.

    I did, however, find something that I think might be of great interest in this continuing grammatical soap opera. Someone linked me over to Stephen Kings' On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Professor Liberman… I think you should take a look.

    If you've been wondering who's responsible for this whole "passive tense" debacle, look no further than King's memoir. If you're curious who beside college English teachers is championing Strunk & White, take a glance inside its pages. This dinky little book is considered by some to be one of the 100 greatest books written since 1983, full of invaluable advice to aspiring writers, and it manages to elevate Strunk & White to scriptural proportions.

    …and the very first sentence (discounting the foreword) is in the passive voice, despite King's vociferous denouncement of the construction.

    A sizable preview is available at Google Books:

    No matter how hard I fight, I don't think I can beat Stephen King.

    Deepest apologies for the lengthy and somewhat off-topic post. I think I need to take a nice long nap now…

    [(myl) You might direct your writing-forum friends to the cartoon (and the examples) found in "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006. Not that it will do any good, overall.]

    [(amz) Here on Language Log, we've mentioned Stephen King's writing advice, and Elmore Leonard's as well, but in connection with adverbs (which they dislike), rather than passives.]

  18. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 1:48 am

    The passive voice is nothing to get worked up about.

  19. Cheryl Thornett said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    If it's any comfort, I've specified that my adult second-language students should use at least one passive sentence in a spoken presentation (instructions and explanations) to be given at the end of this month. One of the assessment points is formal language so the preparatory work will include appropriate usage as well as the structural form.

    In general, usage and appropriacy are often more difficult to teach and to learn than constructions. I suspect that this is part of the problem even with native speakers. While I would never want to go back to reciting non-descriptive rules in class as a way of teaching English (or any other language), which is what I had to do in fifth grade, I do think that some explicit grammar instruction, both constructions and usage, needs to be restored to classrooms.

  20. Tim said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    I'm not sure that the comparison to terms like "fruit" and "vegetable" really works. Surely, those terms existed in general language before botanists and cooks gave them technical definitions? "Passive voice", on the other hand, would have been a technical term from its inception.

    Basically, I would think that, if members of a technical field want to borrow a word from the general public, they can redefine it however they want for their own purposes. But they shouldn't expect the public to observe that redefinition. However, when they come up with their own technical terminology, and the world at large decides to borrow from them, it seems reasonable for them to expect the definitions to be borrowed more or less intact, too.

    (And I make no apologies for my use of the (actual) passive voice in that last sentence. Deal with it, Stephen King.)

  21. D.O. said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:31 am

    Some what off-topic question. It seems that part of the problem are people calling a "complicated" tense "passive voice" and then exorcising it. Does anybody know whether some "complicated" tenses (whatever it may mean) are really falling out of use?

    [(myl) That's certainly not what's going on in the case under discussion — there's nothing complicated about "it happened".

    Can you give a specific example where people seem to be interpreting "passive" as "complicated"?

    My impression is that most people think that "passive voice" means "a construction that does not explicitly assign responsibility for some referenced or evoked action". ]

  22. peter said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    And all that discussion in the Noodle Bar at Language Log Plaza this week on WU2WEI2 ("no action"), and not a subject in sight!

  23. Spectre-7 said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 3:43 am

    Awww, that ninja makes me smile every time. Thanks for that.

    For what it's worth, I linked the aforementioned article a couple of times, hoping that you distinguished linguists might succeed where my poorly educated derriere could not, but to no avail. It certainly didn't help that I'd already revealed myself to be a big pedantic meany who thinks people should at least *try* to use technical terms correctly when giving others advice.

    In all honesty, I'd be pretty satisfied if I could just convince one or two writers to turn Word's "grammar checker" off.

    As a side note, I find it surprising how many people are desperate to become published novelists, but have absolutely no interest in studying grammar. It seems strange that someone would jam 80,000 words into a manuscript without wondering about how they work and interact.

  24. D.O. said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:03 am

    I agree. Certainly "this happened" is as simple for past tense as it may be. And most of the examples are just "missing agency". (Permit me an aside. My native language is Russian, where we have this nice undefined-person sentences that is "missing agency" par excellence. They are used, and misused, precisely in order not to point out who is the perpetrator. But grammatically they are absolutely different beasts from what is discussed here)

    Still other examples of "passive voice" are of somewhat different nature. These two examples are from the LL list cited in the original post
    and the observation of Spectre-7: "…I have witnessed nearly every English verb conjugation denounced as passive. I have seen several kind people mention that they're currently eradicating the word "was" from their novel. I even saw one soul mention that he's removing every last instance of the past perfect …"

  25. Picky said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:52 am

    Do we know how widespread the expression "passive voice" actually is? Could it be that most folk go through life without using it once? If it's an expression (as I guess it is – and that's a BrE guess, I mean it's just guesswork) used only by those who are, or think they are, reasonably well educated (particularly by professional writers), isn't there still a chance it can be saved from the villagers' brands? Because many of those who think themselves educated may be particularly sensitive to accusations of ignorance.

  26. Jon said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    The point about scientists not protesting over the common use of 'fruit', 'vegetable', etc is irrelevant. These (and others, like 'energy', 'work', etc) were words in common usage before scientists adopted them for their own use, and applied narrow definitions different to the common understanding. Scientists have no right to protest if people continue to use the words as they always have done. The situation is different with 'passive voice', which was always a technical term, now misused.

  27. Matt Heath said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    Cath the Cook is right to point out that calling a tomato a vegetable is not really analogous to calling "this happened" passive. "A tomato is a vegetable" doesn't contain any terms that a botanist would use differently, so even if they did think that their technical definitions were the only correct ones there is no reason they should object. The better analogy would be "rhubarb is a fruit", which is false for the botanical meaning of "fruit" but true for the culinary meaning.

  28. James said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:35 am

    "A tomato is a vegetable" is fine for a botanist, yes, but "A tomato isn't a fruit" is not. (Imagine someone telling the waiter that she doesn't want any fruits in her salad. If the waiter is a moonlighting botanist and tells the chef "No tomatoes in the salad", there's going to be a problem.)

    In culinary terms, a vegetable is any part of a plant that is eaten predominantly as a savoury food.

    I think the Ordinary Diner would be unlikely to call olives 'vegetables', even though they are parts of a plant eaten predominantly as a savoury food; they'd be quite likely to call a beet a 'vegetable' even though it's sweet.

    (But I didn't mean the analogy to be perfect, anyhow — and I do remember the 'dinosaur' war linked from a fairly recent Language Log posting, that was amusing.)

  29. Andrew said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    I think things are more complex than some people are allowing. I think that, while 'passive voice' is widely used of any construction which is vague as to agency, it doesn't actually mean that; the people who use it generally think they are using it to denote an actual grammatical form. For this reason, sentences which are passive in the traditional sense, such as 'I was attacked', are liable to be condemned as 'passive voice' even when they are not vague as to agency. What is more, some sentences which are neither passive in the traditional sense nor vague as to agency are still liable to be condemned because people have an uncertain grasp of what 'passive' means.

    When an expression simply loses an old meaning and gains a new one, or when it gains a new meaning while leaving the old one undisturbed, there is little point in complaining. What is more disturbing is when it comes to have an indeterminate meaning, connoting A and B at the the same time, and leading people to think that whatever is B must be A; and I fear that is happening in this case.

  30. Jorge said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 8:00 am

    @Tim & Jon: Why the double standard? Why is it acceptable for scientists to borrow words from the general public and adapt them to their needs, but not acceptable for the general public to borrow words from the scientists and adapt them to their needs?

  31. Bob Zuruncle said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    This is just baffling. It is not the general public that chronically misuses the term "passive voice", which is sometimes rendered as "passive tense" (or passive mood or passive whimsy or passive fugitive-virtue, depending on who does the mangling, p.v. hereafter). Passive voice has in my experience been a hammer that any self-anointed usage authority can pick up and make use of to force others to write as the authority (NOT!) thinks best. More to the point, these syntactical control freaks can wield the idea of p.v. simply to humiliate novice writers who are often rightfully confused by this insidious, polymorphic boogeyman and its indiscriminate application to any construction that said control freak just does not like the sound of. So, this is not some benign case of the public genericizing a technical term for their own use and convenience. The corrosion of p.v.'s definition is problematic in that as it undergoes semantic creep, it becomes an ever-greater trauma for the very people who should be getting encouragement as they learn to use their marvelous language with a lucid, personal style. That is my basis for objection: I could not care less about the issue of technical purity here, but I care very much about the way that prescriptions of this sort cow and discourage novice writers, particularly when said prescriptions are wont to change form and leap up in new places (BOO!). We do enough to discourage young people from taking the leap into literate self-expression already (while bitching disingenuously about the mysterious alleged lack of motivation that is supposed to characterize every successive young generation [bluck!]). As the mavens say, "This far and no farther!" This treachery must not stand. Let us rally together to restrict this type of insidious prescription to its narrowest possible sense, at least. If someone is concerned about lack of agency, they should just frigging say so. It is not a difficult distinction, certainly not for the great anointed few who are after all so clever about all the things we should or should not say or write. AAAARRGH!

  32. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    I agree with Jon and Andrew. In most cases, when a word is borrowed from a specific field into more general use, that general use is not in the same field, so there is little chance of confusion. If a person feels "full of energy" or "low in energy", no one will think that they might be talking about electrical or nuclear energy. Here the point is that the technical term "passive" is applied to language forms in both a strict and a vague sense, resulting in considerable confusion and in the condemnation, by speakers themselves, of a huge number of perfectly ordinary sentences, coupled with a lack of recognition of many true passive constructions. The overgeneralized use of the word "passive" is absolutely NOT a case of speakers "adapting a technical term to their own needs", since it leads them to grossly restrict their repertory of sentence structures.

  33. Mark F. said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    There's a fine line between error and metaphor.

    This is a lot like the way psychiatric terms steadily drift into the popular lexicon. People are always looking for novel ways to talk about stuff, and so they're unable to resist grabbing and distorting terms from psychiatry and psychology to describe behavior patterns they see. Idiot, anal retentive, neurotic, -phobe, hyperactive, schizophrenic; the list is long. Very often these words end up taking on a life of their own. Passive-aggressive started out as a diagnosis for a personality disorder, as I understand it. Over the years I think it's been either discredited or much debated as a diagnosis, but as a behavior it's certainly recognizable and has solidified itself as part of the lexicon.

    Anyway, I think it's the same thing with 'passive voice'.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    Mark F, even though it might be the same thing in principle, it has different practical consequences. If "passive-aggressive" is now debatable as a diagnosable disorder, "passive voice" is not debatable as a linguistic term. If "schizophrenic" is misinterpreted in daily usage, a psychiatrist's diagnosis (positive or negative) will still be respected. People concerned about the technical meaning of such a term ("Is my son schizophrenic?") can look it up or consult a professional. But note that all these terms are descriptive.

    As concerns language, misuse of the term "passive" among the general public would not be of great concern if it solely concerned language description, but it also plays a role in prescription: the prescriptivist injunction to "avoid the passive", proffered or obeyed without an understanding of what "passive" means in linguistic terms, causes havoc in actual use of the language, especially in the attempts of insecure writers or the prescriptions of insecure teachers and editors.

  35. Bloix said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    The problem is three-fold, two having to do both with the "active-passive" distinction and the word "voice" and the third having to do with the use of auxiliary verbs.

    First, the technical word "voice" is incomprehensible unless you've studied grammar – and no one has, unless they've taken several years of a foreign language. So most people assume that the word "voice" refers to the speaker of the sentence – the conceit that the verb itself has some sort of "voice" never occurs to them.

    Second, the "passive-active" distinction refers to the active or passive nature of the verb itself. Like "voice," it's a non-obvious metaphor. The verb is speaking actively? Passively?

    And third, in English we form the passive voice by use of the auxiliary verb "to be" very similarly to the way that we form some active voice tenses. So "We read the books" (active) and "the books were read" (passive); but "the flood waters rose" (active) and "the flood waters were rising" (also active).

    The way to understand it is that in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is passive – the action of the verb happens to it instead of by it. This doesn't always work. Some "active" verbs are pretty passive – "The clothes dried in the sun" (active); "the sun dried the clothes" (also active); "the clothes were dried by the sun" (passive). But in general it's a good rule of thumb.

    But unless someone teaches this to you, you're not going to know it. Worse, you're going to think you understand it because both "passive" and "voice" have ordinary non-technical meanings.

  36. John Ross said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    The invention of the Spanish term "desaparecidos" for those who had been made to vanish by, e.g., a South American military dictatorship led to the intransitive verb "desaparecer" acquiring a transitive sense I don't think it had had before, not just because it's more convenient to be able to say "they disappeared him" than "he was made to disappear," but also because a great deal of meaning can be packed into those few words. Perhaps Mr Scheidegger is trying to read something like that into this Orwellian use of "this happened" instead of "he did this thing."

  37. Spectre-7 said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    Bob and marie-lucie,

    You've both described exactly what bothers me so much about the situation. I can't count the number of times I've run across amateur writers using the word "passive" as a utility bludgeon against other aspiring writers, who are usually so eager for any feedback at all that they take the advice at face value. These admonitions are typically accompanied by claims that the passive makes writing weak-willed, cowardly, circuitous, unnecessarily wordy, fill-in-insult-here, and they never ever offer references for the victim to investigate should they desire more information.

    In my experience, this leaves the advice-giver feeling heroic and magnanimous for having helped another poor soul avoid certain ruination, and leaves the receiver deeply confused and paranoid about the grammaticality of their work.

    It's as if the amateur writer lives in a world overflowing with witch-doctors and quacks, each with their own theories about the humors and phrenology of writing. It's getting to the point that, as a fellow amateur writer, the only advice I could give in good conscience is to resist taking advice.

  38. Gordon Campbell said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    When I am advised to avoid the passive voice, I humbly thank the person for their help and ask them for specific help with this sentence: Kelly was arrested, convicted and sentenced. Can we activate (depacify?) this sentence to make it clearer and more succinct?

  39. linda seebach said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    In less financially constrained times, some newspapers employed people they called "writing coaches," who freely dispensed bad advice about grammar. If there was any single thing they all got wrong, it was the passive voice. I recall one declaring that a crime victim who staggered into the convention hotel crying "I've been mugged!" was committing an egregious grammatical solecism.

  40. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    I sympathize with Spectre-7, and I like Gordon Campbell's response to the unsolicited advice. Seriously, if the passive voice is so bad, why does it exist at all? Why has it existed in all periods of the English language, and in most other languages too? Anything can be overused, but this blanket advice (even if the passive is identified correctly) is even worse than the split-infinitive and preposition-ending prohibitions, since sentences with these features can at least be changed with minimal effort and damage. Don't the advice-givers ever read "the best authors"? (I guess they do, only to complain of how badly those best authors write).

    The struggling writers are left at sea, and then the "writing coaches" think that it is all the linguists' fault.

  41. D.O. said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    @Spectre-7 and others interested
    Why give your writing for an advice to (another) amateur writer? Isn't it more reasonable to give it to an intelligent reader, who does not aspire to write and does not pretend to know the trade. You can receive all sorts of vague responses including "this sounds weak", "passive", "dispassionate", etc. but nobody will assault your grammar, which is not the point in the first place, right?

  42. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    (myl) Linguistically, there's no such thing as a "construction that does not explicitly assign responsibility for some referenced or evoked action". But that's roughly what people seem to want passive voice to mean.

    Well, when I was learning Spanish, I was taught what my instructors called the "no-fault passive", which in fact was a use of an active reflexive verb, e.g. "se ha quemado el pastel" (the cake has burnt itself, i.e. the cake got burnt), which neatly avoids blaming the culprit who let it get burnt.

    If a personal pronoun is included in the construction, the person is represented as the victim rather than the perpetrator, e.g. "se me ha roto la jarra" (the jug has broken itself on me, in lieu of I've broken the jug).

    (Spanish examples taken from Butt and Benjamin, A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish, but the translations and explanations here are mine.)

    [(myl) I expressed myself badly. What I meant is that there is no single term for the collection of ways of referencing or evoking an action that fail to assign responsibility for it. There are many ways to do this in Spanish, as in English — there's just no term that encompasses all of them. ]

  43. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    D.D.: Why give your writing for an advice to (another) amateur writer? Isn't it more reasonable to give it to an intelligent reader …

    In an ideal world, yes of course. The problem is that quite often your writing is subject to approval or at least oversight by another person, such as a teacher, supervisor or editor, who might have their own ideas about how you should NOT write. You may know very well that this person's "advice" or requirements will mess things up, but you have no choice in the matter.

    Simon Cauchi: Your Spanish examples are typical of Romance languages.

    In French the forms with reflexive pronouns are sometimes called "virtual passives", for instance if you warn a person about to pick up a fragile object: Attention! Ça se casse! the meaning is not "it breaks itself" but "it is liable to get broken" even if no one is deliberately trying to break it. And some things can and do break apparently spontaneously, for instance a fan belt, or an old glass placed in hot water, in which case you can say Ça s'est cassé! (Je l'ai cassé would imply that you deliberately broke it, for instance if you break your piggybank). Often the best translation of such a verb into English is with can followed by a passive: A Paris, la Tour Eiffel se voit de partout "In Paris the Eiffel Tower can be seen from anywhere": the idea is that if it can be seen, it is seen, not by specific seers but by anyone who looks. In every case, the object in question possesses some quality (its nature, position, etc) which might result in its being affected by the action represented by the verb, even though the object itself is not perceived as sentient or in participating in the action when it does occur.

  44. Liz said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

    Re: Linda's comment about "writing coaches" at newspapers and magazines:

    Undoubtedly this is the cause of the immortal

    "Backwards ran the sentences across the pages of 'Time'".

  45. John Lawler said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    There are constructions that work somewhat similarly in English, or at least spread around the blame in various ways:

    o He was arrested by the police.
    (no implication of responsibility)
    o He got arrested by the police.
    (weak possibility of responsibility)
    o He got himself arrested by the police.
    (strong likelihood of responsibility)
    o He had himself arrested by the police.
    (assertion of responsibility)
    o He got/had his tires slashed.
    (this one sounds like an accident)
    o He got/had his tires rotated.
    (but this one is clearly causative)
    The first two are often called "passive", though none of them are "voices" in the grammatical sense of that word. For the record,

  46. John Lawler said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

    Whoops! for the record, as I almost said, I agree thoroughly with Mark F's remarks on metaphor and how such a thing could happen.

  47. David J. Fried said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

    Re Simon Cauchi's "no-fault passive" in Spanish:

    This is a "Whorfian" meme about Spanish that I really dislike. In college I attended one class of a Latin American history class and left, never to return, when the instructor invoked it as demonstrating the reluctance of Spanish speakers, presumably as opposed to English speakers, to take responsibility for what happens. "Se me ha roto la jarra" is simply "the jug broke"; the addition of "me" is equivalent to adding "on me" in colloquial English, but it's pretty much grammatically required. (It's often equivalent to English "my" prefixed to the object, which Spanish tends to avoid.) Spanish speakers are perfectly capable of saying "I broke the jug" when the situation requires it.

    The Spanish seems more "passive" than English, at least to English speakers, because English employs verbs like "dropped" both transitively and intransitively, " whereas Spanish carefully distinguishes the senses by using the reflexive to mark the intransitive use. Whorfian conclusions are really inappropriate here.

  48. Cath the Canberra Cook said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

    Er, I wasn't suggesting banning anything, or that anyone had stolen anything. My little nitpicky point is merely this: the common claim "a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable" relies on a mixup of botanical and culinary terms. To make that claim, you have to use "fruit" in a botanical sense and "vegetable" in a culinary sense. That's all.

  49. John Lawler said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    Then there's the case of the entomologists' claim that only members of Order Hemiptera (which includes, among many others, the Box Elder bug Boisea trivittata) are truly, technically bugs, within the actual meaning of that term.

    I've always considered this a case of terminological overreaching. Bug is an English word far beyond the authoritative reach of entomology, and no amount of labelling Hemipterans as "true bugs" is ever going to matter.

    This is different from the "Passive Voice" problem, because while everybody except for the occasional entomologist can agree that "bug" is just a slang term for insects, nobody except for the occasional linguist appears to know what anybody else means by "Passive Voice".

  50. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 10:55 pm


    o He was arrested by the police.
    o He got arrested by the police.

    The first two [constructions] are often called "passive", though none of them are "voices" in the grammatical sense of that word.

    In the first sentence, the verb "arrest" occurs in the "passive voice": it refers to what "he" (the "patient") was subjected to. In "the police arrested him" the verb would be in the "active voice" and refer to what "the police" (the subject or "agent") did. I don't know what other grammatical sense you attribute to the word "voice" in this technical context. (The second sentence is also in the passive voice, shown in an alternate form using the verb "to get" as an auxiliary instead of the verb "to be").

  51. John Lawler said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 11:35 pm


    I'd call those examples of (two different) Passive Constructions, but not of the Passive Voice.

    As I use the grammatical term voice, it's a morphological category, just like tense, mood, number or case. So I would say that English verbs have two tenses, no moods, and no voices, and English nouns have no cases, all because they're not inflected for them.

    It's not always clear what "Passive" means, in general terms; it's not a reliable universal term. The fact is that what gets called "Passive" in European languages is very different in form, frequency, and use in each one. And we won't even mention Indonesian or Acehnese.

  52. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 2:39 am

    @ David J. Fried (re my remarks on the "no-fault passive" in Spanish): "This is a "Whorfian" meme about Spanish that I really dislike. . . . Whorfian conclusions are really inappropriate here."
    I know nothing of Whorf except his name, which I've occasionally seen mentioned here. So the conclusions I drew were not in the least Whorfian. I owe them, as I said, to the instructors who taught me Spanish. (PS I've just read the article about Whorf in McArthur's OCELang and learn, incidentally, that it's to him that we owe the word "flammable". Good for him. But I wasn't arguing a Whorfian point or knowingly reiterating a Whorfian meme.)

    "Spanish speakers are perfectly capable of saying "I broke the jug" when the situation requires it."
    Of course they are. I didn't say they weren't.

  53. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:11 am

    @ John Lawler: This is different from the "Passive Voice" problem, because while everybody except for the occasional entomologist can agree that "bug" is just a slang term for insects, nobody except for the occasional linguist appears to know what anybody else means by "Passive Voice".

    I'd have thought anyone who has learned a foreign language — I mean those commonly taught in schools and universities in the English-speaking world — would know what "Passive Voice" means. Granted it means somewhat different things in different languages. The Maori passive is not at all the same thing as, say, the passive in the Romance or Germanic languages.

    But I must confess that despite repeated reading of an expert's explanation I still have trouble understanding what an anti-passive is.

  54. Spectre-7 said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:26 am


    In regards to asking other amateur writers for advice, I totally agree with your sentiments. These days, I personally neither ask for advice from other amateur writers, nor offer my own unless specifically solicited. I used to do both once upon a time, but have since come to the conclusion that my peers' feedback is substantially worse than that of regular readers, precisely because it's so infected with these strange and useless mythologies.

    An ordinary reader will tell you what they like and dislike. They'll let you know what bothered them personally, what stopped their progress, and what confused them. These are all invaluable bits of information. By contrast, writers are so mired in their petty stylistic dictates of dubious quality that they're incapable of offering actual, honest opinions.

    I don't think there's anything particularly surprising about the fact that so many amateur writers seek advice from their peers, though. They're genuinely interested in improving their writing, and it seems reasonable enough to assume that other writers would be best equipped to identify and repair their failings. Who better than other craftsman, right? Of course, few have access to professional authors, so their attention naturally turns to the legion of accessible amateurs also toiling away at their keyboards.

    It's unfortunate that reality is in such stark disagreement with reason in this case. It seems that neither amateurs nor professionals are very often capable of articulating what separates good writing from bad, and their advice rarely has any baring on their own usage, let alone that of most respected and celebrated authors. I think that makes their advice–in the technical sense local to these parts–bullshit.

    But how do you convince someone that taking E.B. White's advice won't make them write like E.B. White?

    marie-lucie: Your sympathies are greatly appreciated. :)

  55. Spectre-7 said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 3:32 am

    Ak. That should say "has any bearing". Blast you straight to heck, you dastardly homophones.

  56. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Liz, about writing coaches at newspapers and magazines: "Undoubtedly this is the cause of the immortal "Backwards ran the sentences across the pages of 'Time'"."

    We can scarcely blame writing coaches for this sentence or for its writing style. The style was an affectation of Time magazine. The example (which was originally "Backwards ran the sentences until reeled the mind") is from a wonderful parody of Timestyle, "Time … Fortune … Life … Luce", by Wolcott Gibbs (originally published in the New Yorker on November 28, 1936).

  57. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Regarding Simon's comment on Mark's statement that "[l]inguistically, there's no such thing as a "construction that does not explicitly assign responsibility for some referenced or evoked action" —

    I suspect that what Mark meant was that the field of linguistics does not recognize "construction that does not explicitly assign responsibility for some referenced or evoked action" as a distinct grammatical category, not that instances of such constructions do not exist.

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. Perhaps there should be a term for this — though often even a simple phrase references or evokes several different actions, which complicated matters — but it would have to be a term of pragmatics or rhetoric, not syntax. There is no syntactic structure that reliably assigns responsibility, and none that reliably fails to do so. ]

  58. bianca steele said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    Although this thread seems played out, and I don't know, if I had to guess, possibly two different writing guidelines are being lumped together: revise to eliminate passive verbs when possible, and make agency explicit when possible. (Here is a revised version of a sentence that I happened to have face-up next to me, breaking both these rules: "In the early 1950s, shortly after the Chinese Communist revolution, one of the largest peacetime mobilizations in modern history was set into motion." The actual sentence attributes the setting into motion to "Chairman Mao Zedong." I really don't think it's reasonable to deny that the actual sentence as printed in the NYTBR is better.) I don't think it's only misunderstanding of what these rules are and why they exist that leads to other, more dubious guidelines being labeled "passive construction" or "passive voice." One reason is, however, a sense that science teaches a view of the world as lacking objectively existing moral values, and that a symptom is statements made without a clear agency: so one might consider "the salt has been dissolved in the water" to be a sign that the writer lacks an important moral sense (!) or adheres to an immoral philosophy. (I don't think I'm making a Whorfian point here but I could be wrong about this.)

    It seems to me that those who attempt to make "passive" do more work than it's able to do illustrate this by the fact that all they seem able to do is yell, "THAT'S PASSIVE," and "IT LACKS OVERT AGENCY." Yelling rarely teaches much.

  59. dl said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    John Lawler:
    As I use the grammatical term voice, it's a morphological category

    I'm not sure that all linguists would agree with your use of the term "voice". Many seem to use it in a more general way to refer to mappings between thematic and grammatical roles (canonically, Agent -> Subject & Patient -> Object is some kind of active, etc.). The particular morpho-syntactic instantiation is incidental. I noticed this not long ago when writing a paper on voice because it turned out to be much more difficult to find a precise but general and widely accepted definition of grammatical voice than I'd expected.

    (By the way, the term "tense" is often also used more broadly than to designate a morphological category. Languages can and do make semantic distinctions of 'tense' without having a morphological category for it.)

  60. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    JL, As I use the grammatical term voice, it's a morphological category

    Now I see what you mean, but I found the phrase "in a grammatical sense" confusing, since grammatical meanings can be expressed in a variety of ways, including, but not necessarily, through morphological means.

    MYL, There is no syntactic structure that reliably assigns responsibility, and none that reliably fails to do so.

    I agree that "assigning responsibility" is too restricted a category, since only beings capable of moral judgement can be said to bear responsibility, and Subjects or Agents of verbs do not necessarily indicate such beings (as in the case of an inanimate Subject). But perhaps the category of "control" used in Salishan languages can be said to indicate responsibility. On the other hand, there are languages which have special means of indicating spontaneous, apparently agentless action, such as the "virtual" or "no-fault" reflexive passive in Romance as mentioned above, or a prefix with similar meaning in some languages along the Pacific coast of North America.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that "active" and "passive" voices refer to constructions with (or, as in Latin, alternate forms of) transitive verbs, not those with intransitive verbs, which only have a subject and therefore cannot be rephrased with a (grammatically) passive version. Treating intransitive verbs as uniformly "active" causes problems when the lexical meaning of such a verb is not compatible with what is usually called "action". Some languages maintain a formal difference between "active" and "stative" verbs.

    Bianca: revise to eliminate passive verbs when possible, and make agency explicit when possible.

    Like many such rules, these guidelines are not wrong in themselves, and they can be very useful, but treating them as absolutes can lead to poor results.

    The first guideline ignores the possible roles of the passive and active voices in maintaining coherence in a paragraph (X did …, then was …ed, later did … and finally was ….ed , etc). The second assumes that "possible" is automatically desirable. In English it is always possible to indicate overt agency (if known) after a passive verb, using "by" in front of the "agent", but there are many cases where treating this agent as Subject of the corresponding active verb would break the coherence of the paragraph, or throw a contextually minor or predictable detail into high relief.

    For instance: "He went downtown, was caught up in a demonstration and arrested by the police", rather than "He went downtown, a demonstration caught him up (?) and the police arrested him". Note that "a demonstration caught him up" is not exactly the active equivalent of "he was caught up in a demonstration", and "by the police" adds little if anything to "was arrested" (who else has the power to arrest?) Using the passive maintains the initial focus on "he", while the active version shifts the focus to different subjects with each clause.

    As another example: "He died in an accident. He was killed when his car was crushed by a falling tree", versus "He died in an accident. A falling tree crushed his car, and the car (?)/this event (?) killed him."

  61. marie-lucie said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    p.s. I started this post earlier in the day and had a long interruption before finishing it now, so I had not seen dl's comment.

  62. Mark F. said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

    Bianca — I think it's much too strong to say "eliminate passive verbs when possible," unless you define "when possible" to mean "when it's not a bad idea." Lots of good writing has passives that could , with no grammatical error, be rephrased in the active voice. But it might make it sound worse or be less clear. The strongest I would say is "Often it helps to try rephrasing a sentence in the active voice." Or, "Don't think you have to use the passive all the time just because it's a formal paper."

  63. bianca steele said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    Perhaps I should have added a footnote containing the definition of "guideline"; apparently I failed to make my meaning clear to the normally competent reader and writer of English.

  64. Mark F. said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    bianca — Looking at my message I see that it looks more sarcastic than I remembered it being. Sorry. I do see your point, but I'd still phrase it more weakly.

  65. marie-lucie said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    Passive and Antipassive:

    Both of these terms refer to what could be called transformations from a basic ("deep structure") transitive clause.

    In a typical clause with a transitive verb, the (grammatical) Subject (or, semantically, the Agent) performs an action which affects the Object (or Patient). Both Subject and Object are required to be mentioned in the sentence. One example is

    "George shot a moose".

    A Passive construction focuses on the Patient and downplays the Agent:

    "The moose was shot".

    The Agent, if known, or relevant to the sentence, can optionally be integrated into the Patient-focused sentence in a prepositional phrase, as in

    "The moose was shot by George" (eg not by Bob).

    This extended construction is considered by Chomsky-influenced theories of syntax to be the typical Passive construction.

    On the other hand, in some languages one can focus specifically on the Agent, whlie omitting or downplaying the Patient, in a construction called the Antipassive. English does not have a specific construction for this, but there are examples of antipassive meaning of some verbs used intransitively. To go back to the original example, it is possible in such a language to say literally

    *"George shot" (meaning that George performed one or more acts of shooting, as for instance in target practice)(English does allow this use with complements, as in "George shot first/twice" (etc but there is no mention of the effect of the action).

    but note that English can integrate the Patient through a prepositional phrase, by saying

    "George shot at the moose",

    which means that George did indeed shoot, and the moose was the intended target, but without the implication that the moose as Patient was affected in any way.

    For other examples consider:

    Active: "That dog bit my cat".

    Passive: "My cat was bitten (by that dog)".

    (Antipassive meaning):
    "That dog bites" (= will bite any bitable Patient if given the chance),

    "The dog was biting at the mosquitoes" (probably with limited success).

    Typically, languages called nominative-accusative (such as Indo-European languages) have a distinctive Passive construction, languages called ergative-absolutive have a distinctive Antipassive construction. Some languages have distinctive forms and/or constructions for both. I believe this is the case for at least some Austronesian languages.

    English does not have much of a formal machinery for turning transitive verbs into intransitive ones, and the semantic interpretation depends on the context:

    From "George cooked the meat"

    one can derive both

    "George cooked" (antipassive meaning: G did some cooking, object unmentioned)


    "The meat cooked" (passive meaning, though not Passive form)

    but few verbs lend themselves semantically to all those possibilities.

    The last example, especially in the progressive form

    "The meat was cooking",

    could be interpreted as Passive by people not familiar with the strict grammatical description of a Passive construction.

  66. [Idiom] An idiom in passive voice? - UsingEnglish.com ESL Forum said,

    March 15, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    […] on the passive voice, including the shift in the meaning of the term, you might enjoy reading this: "Passive Voice"

  67. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 12:58 am

    Many thanks to marie-lucie for her lucid explanation.

  68. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:21 am

    Thanks, Simon. It took me a long time figuring out how the Antipassive worked, when I was learning a language of ergative-absolutive orientation.

  69. Aaron Davies said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    istr reading about some obscure language (something in the caucasus?) that had intentional and accidental moods–the difference between "i fell" and "i was pushed" was only one of inflection.

  70. Aaron Davies said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    when i was a kid, i once broke something or other (a glass?) and when my mother asked what happened, i said "it got broken". she replied "don't use the passive voice!" so i changed my story to "it broke".

  71. Janice Huth Byer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    My view is actively expressed by Bob Zuruncle. [Take that prescriptivists!] The confounding of passive style with passive voice or tense follows logically from a time-honored error made by virtually all style mavens of my reading. These "experts" have long warned us against passive tense verb use, claiming it renders prose weak, notwithstanding great writers routinely use passive tense verbs to powerful effect. Am I right in sensing those experts confound grammar with semantics?

  72. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Janice, you are right. Most people (including style mavens) tend to consider individual examples and generalize from them. Linguists try to assemble large numbers of examples before making generalizations.

  73. Paul said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Did anyone else find the irony in Scheidegger's proposed rule?

    "A person caught in a misdeed should get zero or negative credit for an expression of remorse if expressed in the passive voice."

    A person caught by whom? Should get zero or negative credit by whom? Remorse expressed by whom?

  74. Review: The Elements of Style, 4th edition | The Reforming Mind said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 2:53 am

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  75. Wallace Bierce said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

    Acute pain might be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. In most cases, acute pain does not last longer than six months, and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. Unrelieved acute pain, however, might lead to chronic pain.

  76. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    I don't quite understand why the semantic role is alternately termed "patient" (latinate, from the same verb that gives us "passive", meaning suffer or undergo) or "theme" (greek, from a verb that means "put"). If we're really worried about marketing, just flip "thematic verb" back into latin as "positive verb". (The greek verb corresponding to patior would appear to be tlenai, not tithemi, but, and I can't emphasize this enough, I don't know any greek.)

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