The aggrieved passive voice

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This afternoon, John Baker posted to the American Dialect Society's listserv (ADS-L) the following note:

Mark Liberman recently wrote in Language Log that, for everyone except linguists and a few exceptionally old-fashioned intellectuals, what "passive voice" now means is "construction that is vague as to agency". Disturbingly, a short piece by Nancy Franklin in the March 23, 2009, issue of The New Yorker seems to bear that out.  It is a discussion of Bernard Madoff's allocution, his formal court statement acknowledging guilt:

<<Two sentences later, Madoff said, "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme." As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him. Still, he had faith-he "believed"!-that it would soon be over. Yes, "soon." In most of the rest of the statement, one not only heard the aggrieved passive voice but felt the hand of a lawyer:  "To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties.">>

If there is an example of the passive voice in Madoff's quoted statements, it has escaped my attention.  Unlike the blog Liberman cites, The New Yorker reportedly has professionally edited text.

The "passive voice" spotted in the first Madoff quote is apparently the phrase "it would end shortly", which is technically an active-voice intransitive, but one where (as Franklin observes) Madoff is evading the fact that the scheme could end if and only if he himself took steps to end it — or, on the most charitable interpretation, if his investment strategy miraculously began to work as he falsely claimed it did.

But there's an interesting twist towards the end of the paragraph. In recording the mutation of the term "passive voice", I've been focusing on the way that the word passive has gradually lost its technical grammatical meaning, and taken on a sense crystallizing around notions of passive as "unassertive", "lacking in force", "failing to take responsibility for what happens", "submissive". But Franklin's reference to "the aggrieved passive voice" made me realize that the word voice has undergone a similar change in popular usage, losing its technical grammatical meaning in favor of the ordinary-language sense "mode or style of expression".

It would be nice to know what the historical trajectory of these changes has been. Presumably the grammatical meaning of "passive voice" became unstable in popular usage when grammatical analysis stopped being taught. I believe that with respect to English, this started happening early in the 20th century, though perhaps people continued to pick up some grammatical terminology for a while longer in learning foreign languages, until grammatical analysis was no longer taught in that context either. The knowledge probably lingered longest in Latin courses, but increasingly smaller portions of the population were involved. Despite the lack of any basis for understanding its meaning, I conjecture that the term "passive voice" continued in popular use due to the many stylistic injunctions to avoid it, so that a complex of more-or-less incoherent ideas were evoked to characterize what it is that writers are supposed to avoid.

I wonder what Eleanor Gould Packard, the New Yorker's "Grammarian" for 54 years, would have written in the margins of Franklin's submission. According to David Remnick's obituary for her, "she could find a solecism in a Stop sign", and "once found what she believed were four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence".  But I haven't been able to find any information about whether or not she knew what "passive voice" meant.


  1. Amy Reynaldo said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    Has anyone suggested "weasel voice" as a term for this sort of evasion?

  2. bianca steele said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    It sounds almost as if he believes the Ponzi scheme had existed prior to his involvement, and that by permitting his clients to give him money for the same scheme, he was helping them to extricate themselves. . . Yes, "absurdity" is the right word.

  3. C.J. Jameson said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    Yep, as a Latin student, it is still quite evident to me what the passive voice is.

    I would think, tagging along to the point about the sylistic injunctions, that as Microsoft Word's grammar checker will detect simple passive constructions as such, people would again become aware of what is and isn't passive voice through their own writing. Alternatively, could it be that MS Word thinks Madoff's statement was in the passive voice?

  4. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

    I've heard that the English middle-voice includes sentences like "The bricks baked in the heat of the kiln", where the verb is syntactically active but expresses a passive sense [This is of course different from the middle-voice in Sanskrit and Classical Greek].

    Could "It would end shortly" be likewise classified as middle-voice?

    [(myl) End is like baked in that it has a causative usage ("he ended the scheme"; "he baked the bricks") as well as an inchoative one ("the scheme ended"; "the bricks baked"). And it's easy to see a relationship between this sort of "diathesis alternation" and the "middle voice", because the object in the causative is the subject in the inchoative. But the consensus of syntacticians is that English doesn't really have a "middle voice" as a syntactic category; see here and here for some further discussion.]

  5. latinist said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

    I think there's actually a little more of a relationship between this use of "passive voice" and the standard one. What Franklin sees Madoff trying to do is avoid mentioning the agent (Madoff himself, in this case) who kept the Ponzi scheme going. And this is something that could, in fact, have been achieved by using the passive voice, if Madoff had said, instead of "the scheme would end early," "the scheme would be halted early," rather than (more forthright than either of those) "I would halt the scheme early." So I suspect Franklin sees "passive voice" as referring to any construction that avoids making the actual doer of a thing[1] the subject of the verb.

    [1] There's a standard grammatical term for the actual doer, as opposed to the grammatical subject, isn't there? I can't quite remember it, but it always comes up in relation to Latin reflexive pronouns.

  6. Don Campbell said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

    I blame Microsoft Word's grammar checker for raising the awareness of a thing called "passive voice" without explaining what it is.

    In my experience, the Word grammar checker does get passive vs. active voice correct most of the time (unlike many of its other proscriptions), but I think most people register "Passive voice is bad" rather than "Oh, that's what passive voice is!" from their experiences with it.

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    I certainly learned the grammatical-jargon meaning of "passive voice" and "active voice" in my schooling, which was not nearly as long ago as Mark suggests. (But I went to a Catholic school, so perhaps they were more conservative in their curriculum than the public schools of two decades and change ago.) I don't think we ever learned "voice" as a distinct item of jargon, though; "active voice" and "passive voice" were taught as fixed phrases. Sebranek & Meyer's Basic English Revisited, 5/e (1985) suggests but doesn't define it:

    28. A verb is a word which expresses action or state of being. A verb has different forms depending on its number (singular or plural); person (first, second, third); voice (active, passive); tense (present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect); and mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive).

    The authors then go on (in topics 31 and 32) to define "active voice" and "passive voice".
    Grammarians would find plenty to pick at in the definition quoted above, but for a non-technical reference book (BER also includes lists of standard peeves, instructions for laying out a letter, the text of the U.S. Constitution, cursive letterforms, editors' marks, metric conversion tables, and a great deal of miscellaneous advice about writing, some good and some bad) for a grade-9 audience, it's not horrible.

    I lack sufficient patience to sift through the googlespam to find any evidence of what the authors have done since, if anything.

  8. Philip said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

    latinist asked if there is "a standard grammatical term for the actual doer, as opposed to the grammatical subject" of a sentence.

    My hands are almost shaking as I type an answer in a blog written by real, honest-to-gosh, world-class linguists. But decades ago, in an MA program, I learned the term is "agent."

  9. Troy S. said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 12:57 am

    Another curious usage is of "aggrieved." As a title of the post, it's ironically humorous: the term "passive voice" is grievously misused. But what does the writer actually intend to mean? That the distress of being on trial makes him speak in a hedged manner? I suppose I rather like the idea of "aggrieved" as a syntactical term. It'd be in the same vein as Latin's "dative of disadvantage."

    [(myl) I took Franklin's "aggrieved passive voice" to mean that Madoff was troubled, annoyed or vexed at the fraudulent scheme that somehow happened to him.]

  10. Edward Vitasek said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 5:24 am

    I first noticed the different usage of "voice" on a now defunct creative writing forum. They had a section called "SPAG" ("SPelling And Grammar"), and the description included something along the lines of "Are you writing in a passive voice?"

    The indirect article, for me, was the eye opener. I've been following this sort of thing since (unsystematically), and I think that even pages which do reliably identify the passive voice phrase the subject matter in a way that leaves open the possibility that *the* passive voice (grammar) is not the only defining feature of *a* passive voice (style).

    Example (taken from here):

    To ensure you’re writing in an active voice, you need to understand the difference between active and passive verbs. With an active verb, the action in the verb is performed by the subject of the sentence. For example: The technical documentation finally met the expectations of managers. With a passive verb, the subject receives the action in the verb. For example: The expectations of the managers were finally met by the technical documentation.

    Note: Writing in a passive voice tends to make documents longer. If you notice in the two examples above, the sentence written in active voice is only nine words while the sentence written in a passive voice is twelve.

    If your verbs are passive (grammatical definition), you are writing in the passive voice. This is proto-confusion.

    Another example, where the problem is confused phrasing rather than grammatical knowledge, is Rupert Sheldrake's essay "Personally Speaking":

    When I was at school, my science teachers made me write in the passive voice, but I had no idea it was still going on. Ever since I was a graduate student at Cambridge, I have thought the active voice–"I did"–far more appropriate in scientific writing than the passive–"it was done". Experiments do not mysteriously unfold in front of impersonal observers. People do science, and to portray it as a human activity is not to diminish it but to show it as it is.

    The passive style is not only misleading, it is also alienating. A young medical student told me "it felt strange at first" when a lecturer asked her to write her reports in the active. "But then it felt liberating," she said. "Suddenly I could be myself again, after years pretending I wasn't there."

    Here, Sheldrake is talking about a very specific stylistic prescription (found in many styleguides), but talks about it in terms of "writing in the passive voice", rather than about preferring the passive voice for contexts which describe the scientist's relation to the science. Sheldrake knows what he's talking about, and so do most of his readers. It's a pretty well-known discussion, and this is an informal essay. But what happens if you de-contextualise this essay and hand it to – say – people interested in creative writing?

    I wonder whether searching for the string "in a passive voice" could help, at least exploratively, in tracking the history. You'd have to eliminate compounds such as "in a passive voice sentence", of course.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:13 am

    Philip: Relax, agent is exactly right. The agent is the subject in an active clause (one containing a transitive verb), but not in a passive clause (where, if known or relevant, it comes after by).

    myl: End is like baked in that it has a causative usage ("he ended the scheme"; "he baked the bricks") as well as an inchoative one ("the scheme ended"; "the bricks baked").

    Inchoative? (which I believe has to do with a beginning).

    [(myl) Yes, "inchoative" means something like "denoting the beginning of an action". But even ends have beginnings… More seriously, I'm more comfortable with the idea that intransitive end is an inchoative than that intransitive bake (which doesn't necessarily involve any change of state) is. ]

  12. dearieme said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    Call it a 'vata' – vague as to agency.

  13. Mr Punch said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    It seems to me that "aggrieved passive voice" has a resonance with the very common term "passive aggressive." I doubt that there's any real connection between "aggrieved" and "aggressive" here, but perhaps this points to how "passive" is being (mis)used.

  14. Bobbie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 8:28 am

    Perhaps passive voice has come to mean a voice without much intonation — in other words, a "flat voice" which implies lack of emotion and a lack of personal involvement (and thus has nothing to do with grammar any more)

  15. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    Franklin is hardly talking about science, so it isn't clear why a discussion of the scientific passive applies here.* It isn't clear why the rules laid down for creative writing students applies either. (The suggested Google search, for "passive voice," turns up a list of myths — but who cares about myths, when there's no clue where they came from or whom?)

    Obviously "passive" here is meant to convey that Madoff did not accept moral responsibility for the actions he carried out. If so, it would have been nice if Franklin had made this more evident. The fact that there's currently a fad for using the word "passive" seems to be the only reason.

    * The examples EV linked to aren't examples of "science thinking" but of thinking the goal first, for example "we need meetings," and only then thinking "the group will hold them": so you type: "weekly meetings will be held by the QA group."

    [(myl) The term "passive voice" is not an instance of recently-coined scientific jargon, but rather a term of grammatical art with a simple and well-defined meaning, from its introduction into English around 1400 forwards, and backwards from there to the Greek and Latin grammarians whose ideas were being translated. You could think of the traditional meaning of "passive voice" as being something like the traditional meaning of "gnositicism"; and the distinction between active and passive voice as being analogous to (say) the distinction among Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns.

    It's true that over the past few decades (at least), the traditional meaning of the term "passive voice" has largely been replaced in popular discourse by a different meaning, as documented in tedious detail here in previous posts.

    To continue the previous analogy, this would be roughly like taking gnosticism to mean "complicated ideas that are hard to understand", or writing about the "Doric columns" of the U.S. Capitol Building, meaning "sort of classical-looking columns" (they're actually Corinthian).

    For those who still understand the words in the traditional way, these would be just ignorant mistakes, and ones that we'd expect the New Yorker's vaunted fact-checkers to catch.

    The point of John Baker's note, and my earlier post, is that we've apparently gone beyond that point with passive voice — the new meanings have genuinely arrived, and there's no use fretting about it.

    But this has nothing at all to do with whether Franklin was talking about science or not. You wouldn't use that excuse if she used gnostic to mean "obscure", or called Jane Austen an "Elizabethan" writer, or mis-labeled the Capitol's columns. ]

  16. Plegmund said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    First they came for 'gender'…

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    I don't necessarily accept Madoff's sincerity, but some of the language Ms. Franklin objects to reflects a fairly frequent psychological phenomenon seen in financial frauds. Consider a low-level employee who wrongfully "borrows" $20 from the store cash register with the sincere intent to pay it back before anyone notices it's missing. Something goes awry and the employee "finds himself" telling various lies and engaging in further bad acts to avoid discovery of the original peculation, perhaps while still hoping to ultimately make it good, albeit in a way that prevents the original wrongdoing from being exposed. It seems reasonably common for fraudsters in that sort of situation to feel like the scheme has taken on a life of its own (from which they sincerely desire, somewhat ineffectually, to be extricated), and to feel distanced from a sense of their own agency and free will in committing the various follow-up acts necessary to maintain the status quo. (This is why you might teach your children not to tell even little white lies, because they will frequently give rise to a felt need to tell bigger lies to keep the story going.) This is a claim about human psychology, not morality or legal culpability, but it's certainly a legitimate function of syntax to convey the speaker's psychological take on the situation whether or not some objective third-party observer would consider that take accurate. Again, I'm not claiming that Madoff was actually giving an accurate report of his own historical state of mind, but I'm confident that the judge has seen this phenomenon in other defendants he has sentenced. If Ms. Franklin has had sufficiently little experience reporting on business scandals and financial frauds that she didn't recognize the sort of mindset being conveyed, she has problems that go beyond her understanding of what sort of syntactic construction is meant by "passive voice."

  18. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    BTW, I've assumed everybody is aware of the meaning of "passive aggressive." Technically, it refers to someone who tries to get his/her own way without overtly telling others what to do, and without overtly refusing to follow directions from others. Colloquially, it refers to someone who says "the window is open" when he/she means "you really are a moron."

  19. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    I was saying "this has nothing to do with science" in response to EV's comment, to point out that although I mentioned the "scientific passive" the other day, that doesn't mean that every time I use the word "passive" I have that specific connotation in mind, as if I were doing nothing on the LL blog but explaining my personal uses of the word and what I have in mind regarding it.

    the new meanings have genuinely arrived

    Have seen this argument too many times and now dismiss it without even noticing.

  20. Bloix said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    "But Franklin's reference to "the aggrieved passive voice" made me realize that the word voice has undergone a similar change in popular usage, losing its technical grammatical meaning in favor of the ordinary-language sense "mode or style of expression"."

    I said this in my comment to the last post:
    "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."

    Not that I'm feeling aggrieved or anything.

    [(myl) OK, you're hereby awarded priority for that idea. Except that what I meant here is not a speaker's literal voice, but rather the figurative "voice" that plays a role in expressions like "Hillary Clinton found her voice" or "the omniscient voice of his first two novels". But maybe that's what you meant as well. ]

  21. Bloix said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    bianca makes a good point – "passive" in ordinary usage no longer means "not active." It means "hostile in a non-confrontational way." So nowadays the perceived problem with the "passive voice" is not that it produces bland, uninformative sentences. It's that it conveys a sense of poorly concealed anger or resentment.

  22. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    J.W. Brewer:
    It's not like Madoff saw money in front of him and couldn't resist the natural urge to simply pick it up. He committed fraud. (Not "he was a fraud," though some of his victims have accused him of making them believe "he was God," and not "he felt like a fraud," as in the well-known female pathology known as "impostor syndrome.") He acted with the intention of causing people to believe things that were not true. He knew what people would think, and in fact his scheme could not have continued unless they did think what he intended them to think, and they were victimized.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Let me try to rephrase. I don't disagree with anything Ms. Steele has said. What it sounds to me Madoff was trying to convey (and I reemphasize not necessarily sincerely) is that he started intentionally ("When I began the Ponzi scheme") while thinking he would be able to, and would, stop doing it, but then stopping doing it proved more challenging (as a practical and/or psychological matter, not a moral/legal excuse) than he'd anticipated. Bad decision A created a context in which the subjectively perceived path of least resistance was to make bad decisions B through Z, which might have been made differently on a clean slate and accordingly may "feel" differently to the decisionmaker in terms of agency and responsibility and thus be expressed by means of different syntax.

    A defendant could say something like "If I hadn't started shooting heroin, I never would have found myself snatching purses from old ladies." That's not, to me, necessarily a weaselly or bad-faith evasion of responsibility or an attempt to treat the effects of junkie desparation as a random exogenous force like bad weather. Again, I am not arguing that Madoff is sincere in claiming this is how it actually felt to him, only that it's a reasonably common pattern among certain sorts of criminals who start small, find things snowballing, and can't figure out how to stop doing it without 'fessing up to the original offense. So they just keep doing it until their ultimate exposure to jail time etc. is much larger than if they'd 'fessed up at an early stage.

    Am I the only one who received usage advice in school to avoid using "I" as the syntactic subject of two consecutive sentences and not to use it as the subject of too high a percentage of sentences in any given paragraph or section of running prose? (The idea was I think even in what was supposed to be first-person narrative to mix things up in terms of word choice and syntactic structure a little bit for the sake of variety and to avoid an overly egocentric effect.) It seems the only way to avoid the anti-passive-aggressivists might be to disregard that advice.

  24. Cameron said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    "Passive" and "passion" have indeed taken on a weird array of meanings in English. I've pointed out to people in the past that passive/passion/patient are direct antonyms of active/action/agent and been met with complete bewilderment. Passive/active are antonyms to most English speakers, but passion and patient have taken on other meanings so that only people who've studied Latin recognize them as antonyms of action and agent, respectively.

  25. dr pepper said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    That all may be true, but i think the general public construes such language as an attempt to continue the fraud. "Look, he's still lying, even after he got caught!"

  26. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    myl writes: "we've apparently gone beyond that point with passive voice — the new meanings have genuinely arrived, and there's no use fretting about it."

    Not in my neck of the woods they haven't. Nor (I'm glad to see) in Bianca Steele's.

  27. Edward Vitasek said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    @Bianca Steele: "Franklin is hardly talking about science, so it isn't clear why a discussion of the scientific passive applies here. It isn't clear why the rules laid down for creative writing students applies either."

    I wasn't talking about content; I was talking about mode of presentation. And I wasn't focussing on "passive"; I was focussing on "voice".

    The idea was that people who still think of the grammatical term, "passive voice", often use short cuts when talking about it in texts that advise writers or debate issues (such as the scientific passive). Instead of saying, "I was told to put specific verbs into the passive voice," or something along these lines, they say "I was told to write in the passive voice." (see Sheldrake)

    Clearly, "writing in the passive voice" does not, usually, mean "put every single verb into the passive voice". For example, pretty much every scientific article contains also linking verbs or verbs in the active voice, no matter whether they use the "scientific passive" or not.

    The point, here, is that such advise does not make the relation of "the passive voice" to "writing in the passive voice" explicit, thus causing confusion.

    This becomes, I think, worse if you move from the definite article to the indefinite article: "write in a passive voice," as if there were many "passive voices" to choose from. Now you've fully arrived at a stylistic concept, rather than a grammatical one. It's easy to read my first example as "There are a variety of passive voices. They are characterised by containing 'passive verbs'." This has much the same effect as prohibiting the passive voice in diagnostic, as "passive verbs" are defined – in said example – as "verbs in the passive voice" (in the grammatical sense).

    But once you separate the stylistic "passive voice" from the "grammatical passive voice" in this way, it's not a stretch to expand the stylistic concept to include other periphrastic constructions (such as continuous aspects or existential there).

    I do think there is a continuum, here, from the carelessly phrased grammatical concept of "voice" to the fully-fledged stylistic concept of voice, with specific texts never making clear where they stand. The biggest confusion arises because "the passive voice" is a stylistic component of "a passive voice".

    If the text in question is *not* about the passive voice, we usually only have one example of usage of the term and no context other than the text. So being vague about agency might not be *the* meaning of "passive voice", but one of the aspects associated with the vague and mushy stylistic concept in the writer's head (and "the passive voice" might still be in there, too).

    This is difficult to explain, and I may even be wrong about it. It's just that – as I hang out at creative writing boards – I do get a certain sense of "stylistic unity" about the use of "don't write in a passive voice". But I really haven't worked this out yet. I *do* think that phrases such as "write in a passive voice" mark a shift from grammar to style, though, no matter in what sort of text they appear.

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Let's just say it:

    "Passive voice" has a particular precise meaning; the ignorant and lazy have heard the term but are unwilling to make the effort to find out what it means.

    Hardly a question of years of study, especially what with this interweb thing:

    More charitably, one feels like saying to such people:

    "You are evidently knowledgeable about many things: why talk about things you know nothing about?"

  29. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    my,: I'm more comfortable with the idea that intransitive end is an inchoative than that intransitive bake (which doesn't necessarily involve any change of state) is.

    My opinion too, but I don't think that "inchoative" is the appropriate word for either example. Intransitivity in English is compatible with a wide variety of semantic meanings which have no formal counterparts and it is too easy to "split hairs" to the point that nothing really useful is left.

    [(myl) The classical examples of the causative/inchoative diathesis alternation are things like melt and dissolve. End seems rather similar to those, at least in an abstract sort of way. But I'm not an expert in Levin classes and the like. ]

  30. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    I'm afraid I don't see a new meaning for "grammatical passive." All I see are vague and amorphous uses by people who have more of (what I'd call) trouble than average with a lot of other words, as well — and apparently metaphorical uses by people who use metaphors all the time, too. But it isn't my thread or my blog.

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    This is perhaps off-topic as too focused on substance rather than syntax, but the substantive point Ms. Franklin was trying to make with her peculiar syntax-based arguments seems to be largely contradicted only 8 pages later in the same issue of the magazine in the final paragraph of Ron Chernow's article ("Madoff and His Models" — not currently available on the website to non-subscribers, but the relevant passage is at the bottom of p. 33 in the hard copy, 3/23 cover date).

  32. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    Sorry, that last comment sounded snippier than I meant it to. I just meant that I don't see the evidence for the statement — which I take to be an empirical one, as what else could it be — that "the new meanings have arrived," but that it's Mark Liberman's call whether to provide that evidence, and not up to me to decide whether he's done so or not.

    [(myl) Well, my obituary for the term "passive voice" was (I hope obviously) meant as a joke. All the same, I believe that the factual statements in it are all true; and in something now approaching a dozen cases over the years, we've noted examples where intelligent and well-educated people use "passive voice" to mean something like "vague about agency", as you can see by following the links in the original post. We've ignored many other such examples, because it gets boring after a while to make the same points yet again.

    In my introductory linguistics classes, I often inquire about this, and I find that essentially everyone enrolled has been told to "avoid passive voice", and most sort of think that they know what this means; but very few can accurately identify which of a set of example sentences are passive in the traditional grammatical sense. I haven't tried to do a rigorous analysis — and it would a biased sample in any case, since the students who enroll in such classes are already more than usually interested in language, and many of them are LL readers — but I would estimate the proportion who come into the class understanding the traditional concept of passive voice at around 10%.

    So I do think it's true that only a very small percentage of educated Americans now understand the traditional concept of "passive voice" (or "passive sentences", etc.), and yet the terminology remains fairly widely used, both in advice about writing, and also in political or ethical discussions like Ms. Franklin's.

    It's reasonable to describe this as a situation in which the accepted meaning of the phrase has changed, don't you think? ]

  33. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    myl, thank you, but I don't see that the counterpart of causative is inchoative, unless the latter term is understood as meaning "self-starting", ie the equivalent of the French or Spanish "virtual passive", or of the "spontaneously occurring" morphological construction, both of which were discussed in the earlier thread on Passives a few days ago.

    [(myl) Sorry, but this has been standard terminology for at least 40 years, and probably longer than that. For evidence, just scan Google Scholar for {causative inchoative}. I'm not going to defend the etymology of the terminology, that's just what it's been called at least since I was an undergraduate. ]

  34. mollymooly said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    I think the "passive" here isn't so much "passive-aggressive" as "buck-passive".

  35. marie-lucie said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    myl, I guess I was an undergraduate before you were! but thank you for the tip.

  36. acilius said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    @mollymooly: Three cheers for "buck-passive."

  37. bianca steele said,

    March 17, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    myl: I know only facts: people who use the broader definition of "passive" tend to be poor writers and inexperienced readers.

    [(myl) You mean like the writers and editors at the New Yorker?]

  38. bianca steele said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    I don't know any more about the editors at the New Yorker than I know about intradisciplinary disputes among linguists.

    I mean people who were taught the broader sense of the word in school and who are happy with what they learned in high school. These people, often, are older than me and almost certainly think their teachers were more "conservative" or "traditional" than mine (they went to Catholic school, I went to public school), so the more you talk about the "traditional" definition as, apparently, the scientific one, the more confused I am getting.

  39. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    I'm mystified by J.W. Brewer's attacks on Nancy Franklin's article. Mr. Brewer points out that it's common for financial fraudsters to feel that their fraud was not of their own doing, but rather was imposed on them by circumstances. He argues that we should see Ms. Franklin's failure to acknowledge that fact as "peculiar" and betraying deep "problems." I don't see any peculiarity or problems on Franklin's part, though. Yes, there are psychological drivers pushing fraudsters in the direction of seeing their frauds as something that merely happened to them; the more a wrongdoer lacks self-awareness, the more likely he is to feel that way. In this case, if Madoff believes that his theft of 65 billion dollars was something that merely happened to him, he's showing a lack of self-awareness, a distortion of the reality of the situation, that is so profound as to be pathological. That's what Franklin was pointing at, and rightly so.

  40. acilius said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    @bianca steele: Scientific attempts to define "passive voice" and "active voice" get really murky really fast. I've taught Latin to linguistics students and linguistics to Latin students, and in either class the day someone asks "what is voice, really?" is the day I wish I could just have them chant declensions and conjugations until the period ends.

  41. Older said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    "Buck-passive" — I love it!

    My favorite example of the passive voice is that wonderful sentence, so useful to politicians: "Mistakes were made." LIke, y'know, they just appeared. From nowhere.

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    @J. Weinberg. I'm not sure if I've been unclear or just oversubtle, although I will again refer the interested reader to Ron Chernow's article in the same issue of the magazine and note for whatever its worth his greater fame in the genre of writing about Wall St. personalities. Maybe the most productive contrast to focus on — to move back from crime to syntax — is between two notions of what sort of inference should be drawn from the use of these so-called "passive" constructions (including those that are not in fact in the passive voice as classically understood). The first notion, which one might see in e.g. Geo. Orwell, is that these constructions are generally propagandistic and deployed in bad faith in order to divert the unwary reader/listener from an appropriate focus on agency/responsibility even though the speaker/writer knows full well that agency/responsibility is the most important aspect of the situation being described. The second notion is that these constructions are used to accurately reflect the speaker/writer's conceptualization of the situation being described, in which agency/responsibility is not deemed as salient as some other aspect of the situation that is given greater emphasis by the syntax deployed. I took Ms. Franklin to be invoking the first notion while I was arguing for the possible (and I stress possible — I'm not conceding that the statement was made in good faith) applicability of the second. Of course, under the second notion the speaker/writer's perspective that is accurately reflected by the syntax may itself be subject to legitimate criticism on non-linguistic grounds. An underdeveloped sense of the salience of ones own agency/responsibility may be correlated with the commission of felonies, for example. But we shouldn't blur criticism of someone's character or ideas with criticism of his language usage.

    Stepping back a bit further, there's the point, which Ms. Franklin sort of halfway acknowledges, that plea allocutions are a very specific sort of literary genre, in which any effort by the defendant to tell a story "in his own words" will be mixed with jargon and boilerplate that makes sense only to judges and lawyers, and even the "own words" may be tweaked or edited by counsel in pursuit of clarity or risk-management goals that would not be obvious to a lay observer. So seeking to draw conclusions about the defendant from the syntactic structures employed is a particularly unproductive pursuit in this context.

  43. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    bianca: the more you talk about the "traditional" definition as, apparently, the scientific one, the more confused I am getting.

    acilius: Scientific attempts to define "passive voice" and "active voice" get really murky really fast.

    What do you mean, "confused" or "murky"? Both definitions are the same. It is when persons unfamiliar with either traditional grammar or linguistics (which do agree on some points!) extend the meaning of "passive" from form and function to vague meaning that the problem arises.

    The definition of "passive", the use of the passive voice, and the current misunderstandings, have been discussed on LL on several occasions, most recently a few weeks ago, just scroll down when you first open LL.

  44. marie-lucie said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Actually the date is even closer, and comments are still going on:

    "Passive Voice" — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.
    March 12, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

  45. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    @JWB, still mystified. Franklin notes (as do you) that the language was in part the work of Madoff's lawyers, and her critique isn't inconsistent with your position that Madoff may be self-deluded. Most to the point, she wasn't criticizing Madoff's word choice as a Miss Thistlebottom would. Rather (quoting your words), Franklin was subjecting "the speaker/writer's perspective that is accurately reflected by the syntax . . . to legitimate criticism on non-linguistic grounds." While "we shouldn't blur criticism of someone's character or ideas with criticism of his language usage," we can treat his language usage as supplying a window into his character, and criticize the character this revealed. Thus, in the excerpt Mark L quotes above, Franklin urges (directly or by implication) that [1] Madoff uses language in a way suggesting that his theft of 65 billion dollars is something for which he has no moral responsibility; [2] the proposition he is suggesting is absurd; [3] the fact that he nonetheless puts it forward with a straight face indicates that he is insincere, self-deluded, or both. I'm not sure why that reasoning is problematic.

  46. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    I think we may be at an impasse because I just don't read the quoted language as [1] a suggestion by Madoff that he has no moral responsibility, despite the fact that Messrs. Madoff & Weinberg, Ms. Franklin, and myself are all presumably competent native speakers of the same language. Thus, without [1] I don't get to [2] and [3]. I read the language as saying or suggesting [a] I knowingly began a fraudulent scheme; but [b] at the time I thought it would be limited both in scope and time; however [c] that's not how it turned out; and thus [d] much more damage ended up being done that I had originally contemplated. I have no idea whether Madoff is sincere , but it's a recognizable storyline that we have all presumably seen in movies and tv shows where a character does something [singular] they clearly shouldn't have done and in fact clearly knew was wrong but then ends up over their head and mixed up in a more serious criminal enterprise than originally contemplated. I think we generally view characters like that as sympathetic or at least human in a way that coldly-calculating sociopaths are not, but I don't think we typically view them as completely exculpated from moral responsibility for what they ended up doing, although intuitions may very as to what degree of mitigation of responsibility may be appropriate. If Madoff is being insincere (and from day 1 subjectively intended the scheme to have the scope and duration it ended up having), he's doing so by falsely invoking a plausible storyline which is not on its face absurd. The Ron Chernow article describes this storyline with a quote from Baudelaire to the effect that we descend into Hell by multiple incrementally tiny steps.

  47. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    I'm sorry to belabor this, but one totally different thought on why Madoff might be "passive" in the "vague as to agency" sense: It seems to be commonly assumed in press reports etc. that a) Madoff could not have possibly pulled the scheme off completely on his own; but b) Madoff has refused to identify or implicate his fellow fraudsters. (Let me note lest I seem unduly soft that I don't view that refusal as "honorable" — I just don't think the gov't was in a position to give him anything worthwhile for doing it.) If that's true, drafting a plea allocution in which he explains his own actions without describing or alluding to the relevant actions of other scheme participants might have actually been something of a stylistic/syntactic challenge, in which he would need not so much to obscure his own responsibility as such but to be vague about agency more generally to avoid giving anything away as to the culpable participation of others. (The government's election not to throw in a conspiracy charge presumably means that he didn't need to describe interaction with co-conspirators in order for the allocution to sufficiently set forth the factual predicate for the plea.)

  48. acilius said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    @marie-lucie: Oh, I didn't mean to suggest that any grammarian, ancient or modern, would use the phrase "passive voice" in the way that Nancy Franklin did in the example posted. I was thinking of what happens when my students, most of them drunk on Chomskyanism, are dissatisfied with what I'm able to tell them about voice and want a more ambitious explanation.

  49. Dee Lawrence said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    I think posts above that lambaste persons who use "passive voice" in the way they gleaned its meaning rather than the technical grammatical meaning, are unfair. We learn so very many phrases that way – guessing at their meanings from the context – that once a person feels that understanding has been reached, why would that person then instigate an investigation as to what it really means? I suppose everyone does so sometimes – especially when the origins of the meaning seem vague – but it wouldn't be a good use of one's time to so investigate every phrase, and "passive voice" happens to seem very obvious and not at all mysterious.

    I happen to have first learned it in the context of grammar, so the meaning that relates to my "has been reached" verb above, is the one I think of first, and I can see why it seems ignorant, but no one knows everything. It isn't laziness, there is simply too much to know. Certainly no one knows precisely which of the probably hundreds of thousands of idioms they've learned the meaning of, actually means something specifically else to many people. But given how meaning is conveyed, it's very likely everyone has at least one such misunderstanding in their head.

  50. marie-lucie said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    @acilius, I assume from what you say that you are teaching some form of English composition. If your students are "drunk on Chomskyanism" it means that they must have taken a course (or at least part of a course) in syntax, and if so, there is a linguist around who is teaching them. I wonder what you are telling them that would seriously conflict with syntactic theory, but perhaps by "something more ambitious" they mean a "tree structure" with "movement" of some constituent. Linguistics textbooks (and those who teach from them) differ in how sophisticated (and sometimes abstruse) detail they go into. If you learn something about the current approach to syntax, you may be able to introduce some terms they will recognize: for instance, you could tell them that in your course you are dealing with "surface structure" rather than "deep structure", and you stress "discourse structure" rather than "syntactic derivation". If, on the other hand, you are teaching Latin, where the passive is a morphological category, then Chomskyan-derived syntax (which is good for an analytical language like English) is not so useful, although the parts about subject agreement and adding the agent after a preposition are identical in Latin and English. (Of course, I could be completely wrong about what the actual problem is between your approach and the one your students have been taught).

  51. bianca steele said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    I didn't interpret the issue acilius is describing in the same way marie-lucie did (that's the trouble with being too abstract). I think in too many cases, either teachers are unable to explain the definition of a term, or pupils are unable to understand this concept from its definition, and the result is that the examples are leaned too heavily upon. The pupil scrutinizes the text until he or she feels they've grasped the idea. The result can be — unless the text was written exceptionally carefully (more carefully than we might have any right to expect) — that the pupil gets the wrong idea, for example about what the most salient part of the example really was supposed to be. Incidental features of the explanation might be taken for essential. I think the effects of this could be distinguished from what marie-lucie describes.

  52. John Baker said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Dee Lawrence – I am not suggesting that everyone who misuses a technical term should be lambasted. I actually thought Mark's original post from March 12, criticizing some random blogger, was a bit over the top; not everyone who is wrong on the Internet should be corrected. But Nancy Franklin is a professional writer who was writing for publication, and The New Yorker once had a reputation both for the care given to its writing and for its fact-checking. If Franklin does not know the meaning of basic literary terms, her editor should. This use of "passive voice" was not figurative or a clever innovation; it was an error, and one likely to confuse the many readers who do not fully understand the term.

  53. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    I think a difficulty here is that if I were to put aside the grammatical term "passive voice" altogether and grope around for a short phrase to express the kind of writing originally being described, I would very likely come back to the word "passive" and it's fairly likely I'd also come back to "voice" based on its use to describe writing style ('finding your voice as a writer" etc.)

    When the technical term is so close to a normal English way of expressing the idea there's obvious risk of cross-contamination, especially since waffly writing does correlate to some extent with the use of the grammatical passive voice.

    If we, as a speech community, would like to avoid use of "passive voice" to mean "writing that is waffly about agency and responsibility" I think that, rather than bemoaning the wrong phrase, we should find and use a better one. "Weasel words" or "waffle words" have alliteration going for them.

    One problem here is that mechanical grammar checkers can detect, sometimes, passive voice but are not good at detecting waffliness. (Wafflyness?) But the darned things are useless anyway….

  54. marie-lucie said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    Bianca: I think you are right to point out that many teachers are not quite aware of many basic grammatical definitions and therefore unable to distinguish the relevant features from the incidental ones. There are some books with titles such as "Linguistics for teachers of English" which address the problem, but many teachers are wary of linguistics under the impression that linguists think that "anything goes" and that reading them will make them "loosen their standards". (And the problem I was responding to was indeed a different one).

    Mary: waffly writing does correlate to some extent with the use of the grammatical passive voice

    I think you mean the overuse of the passive voice when not called for, as in "The topic of XXX was researched by me" which students sometimes use in order to "avoid beginning a sentence with I", another of the many injunctions to avoid this, that and the other that can leave the mediocre writer paralyzed and unable to "find their voice".

  55. acilius said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    @marie-lucie & bianca steele: Sorry if I was too terse. I've been trying to stop writing such long comments.

    I teach Latin in a university classics department. Where my students get their Chomskyanism I don't know. I don't think our linguistics faculty includes any committed Chomskyans, and the students likeliest to bring him up are those who have not yet taken a general linguistics class. They must be reading him on their own, maybe because he's a symbol of their politics, maybe just because he's so famous.

    The reason the sun grows dim on days when students ask, "What is voice, really?" is that they get so disappointed at my morphological explanations. You'd think the Chomskyans would be content with the fact that I'm following Chomsky, who defines voice in purely morphological terms, but somehow that is not good enough for them. Once or twice I tried to appease them by talking about the views various philosophy-of-language and general linguistics schools take of the nature and purpose of voice, but that lost them instantly.

    By contrast, the days that make the Chomskyans happiest are those when we summarize the uses of the cases. All I have to do is make a generalization like "The ablative case is basically a way of using a noun as an adverb" and their faces light up. If I then compare the Latin ablative case with its apparent ancestors in Indo-European, and make some remarks about the case system of contemporary Lithuanian, they're happy for a month. It's the grandeur they like, reducing a long list ("uses of the ablative") to a single item (noun as adverb") and subjecting that item to history sweeping over several millennia.

    When I tell them that voice is a way of giving language users the option of either emphasizing or not emphasizing the identity of an agent, I'm not telling them anything they don't know. They get a little more interested when we get deeper into Latin prose compositon, and they start to see how emphasis works in a Latin period, but even so, they would rather have an explanation on a grand scale.

  56. Mike Aubrey said,

    March 24, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The grammatical term passive voice is also live and well in seminaries across the world where Hellenistic Greek is being taught to probably thousands of students every semester – though most students still don't know what to do with the Greek Middle Voice.

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