## Annals of Passivity

We've noted, more than once, that the grammatical meaning of "passive voice" is pretty much dead in popular usage, while the ordinary-language meaning, struggling to be born, remains inchoate, a sludgy mixture of dessicated grammatical residues and vaguely sexualized associative goo. Sometimes passive voice is used to mean "vague about who's at fault", which seems to be the grammatical sense gone adrift; sometimes it means "listless, energyless, lacking in vigor", which is one of the more general, non-grammatical senses of passive; sometimes it seems to mean "on the fence, not taking sides", which is a sort of transmuted combination of the two.

Recently, I've come across several additional pieces for the collection.

Rachel Toor, "'F5' by Mark Levine", LA Times, 7/22/2007:

When writing about nature it makes sense to use the passive voice. Things happen. It's hard to attribute agency, unless you do it on a grand scale (deity) or a chaotic physical scale (the "butterfly effect" of nonlinear dynamics, which posits that the flapping of tiny wings can trigger a tornado). But it's tempting to personify, to impute intent. Poets, novelists and playwrights have long used weather to create a mood. Dark and stormy nights do not auger well. Happy endings are often in lambent light.

Here the phrase "passive voice" is clearly intended as a grammatical term, or at least as a characterization of how sentences are put together; but equally clearly, it means "vague about agency".

Rachel Toor, "Writing Like a Doctor", Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/9/2009:

Whenever I ask Godfrey to explain his medical and scientific work to me — something I do frequently — I am captivated. He has the ability to get at the most interesting issues, to draw out the implications of what he's studying, and to explain them in ways that are fascinating. He knows how to tell a story in conversation. He knows which details will enhance suspense, which will come as a surprise.

But when it comes to putting it on the page, those skills desert him. He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences. He endlessly repeats words and phrases. His language is complicated not only by terms of medical and scientific art, but by using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job. He has no idea how commas and paragraph breaks can be your friends, doesn't understand that adverbs are the refuge of the weak and lazy, and that semicolons, like loaded guns, should only be handled by those trained to use them.

Given its local context, passive here again seems to be a description of how sentences are put together; but it seems to contrast with the just-mentioned "ways that are fascinating" and "details [that] will enhance suspense", and thus to mean something like "dull, lacking in vigor".

Simon Johnson, "Too Big To Fail, Politically", 6/18/2009 (emphasis added):

What is the essence of the problem with our financial system – what brought us into deep crisis, what scared us most in September/October of last year, and what was the toughest problem in the early days of the Obama administration?

[…] The problem was: a relatively small number of troubled banks were so large that their failure could imperil both our financial system and the world economy. […]

But instead of defining this core problem, explaining its origins, emphasizing the dangers, and addressing it directly, what do we get in yesterday’s 101 pages of regulatory reform proposals?

1.  A passive voice throughout the explanation of what happened (e.g., this preamble).  No one did anything wrong and banks, in particular, are absolved from all responsibility for what has transpired.

This is clearly the "vague about who's at fault" meaning. Just to verify that Prof. Johnson is not using the term in its technical grammatical sense, let's take a look at the allegedly passive-voice preamble passage:

In the years leading up to the current financial crisis, risks built up dangerously in our financial system. Rising asset prices, particularly in housing, concealed a sharp deterioration of underwriting standards for loans. The nation's largest financial firms, already highly leveraged, became increasingly dependent on unstable sources of short- term funding. In many cases, weaknesses in firms' risk-management systems left them unaware of the aggregate risk exposures on and off their balance sheets. A credit boom accompanied a housing bubble. Taking access to short-term credit for granted, firms did not plan for the potential demands on their liquidity during a crisis. When asset prices started to fall and market liquidity froze, firms were forced to pull back from lending, limiting credit for households and businesses.

Our supervisory framework was not equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude. To be sure, most of the largest, most interconnected, and most highly leveraged financial firms in the country were subject to some form of supervision and regulation by a federal government agency. But those forms of supervision and regulation proved inadequate and inconsistent.

First, capital and liquidity requirements were simply too low. Regulators did not require firms to hold sufficient capital to cover trading assets, high-risk loans, and off-balance sheet commitments, or to hold increased capital during good times to prepare for bad times. Regulators did not require firms to plan for a scenario in which the availability of liquidity was sharply curtailed.

Second, on a systemic basis, regulators did not take into account the harm that large, interconnected, and highly leveraged institutions could inflict on the financial system and on the economy if they failed.

Third, the responsibility for supervising the consolidated operations of large financial firms was split among various federal agencies. Fragmentation of supervisory responsibility and loopholes in the legal definition of a "bank" allowed owners of banks and other insured depository institutions to shop for the regulator of their choice.

Fourth, investment banks operated with insufficient government oversight. Money market mutual funds were vulnerable to runs. Hedge funds and other private pools of capital operated completely outside of the supervisory framework.

Its 23 tensed verbs include 16 actives, 3 copulas, 1 adjectival passive, and 3 true passives. (Or maybe 2+2, I'm not sure about "split"). 13-17% passive is roughly typical of such writing (though far below the 35-70% passive voice found in exponents of old-fashioned authorial vigor like Winston Churchill), and certainly doesn't deserve the description "(grammatical) passive voice throughout". (We could also count the distribution of grammatical valency among infinitives and participles, but the results would not be very different.)

Peter Seibel, who sent me the link to Johnson's article, noted Johnson's use of the indefinite article — "in a passive voice", like "in a hoarse voice" or "in an authoritative voice" — and speculates that "Maybe […] people will start talking about 'a passive voice' when they mean lacking in agency and 'the passive voice' can be reclaimed as a grammatical term". But I doubt that the definite/indefinite distinction can bear that much additional weight.

Semantic evolution is normal and inevitable, and the result is often a panoply of senses diverging so broadly that their relationship becomes obscure. Thus panoply originally came from a Greek word meaning "full armor", and has taken on meanings that include (quoting the OED) "A spiritual or psychological protection or defence" (from Ephesians 6:11); "A complete suit of armour, with connotations of brightness and splendour"; "Any complete covering or protective layer"; "A group of pieces of armour arranged as a trophy or ornament"; "A splendid or impressive array; fine or magnificent display"; and "fig. A full or extensive array of resources; a wide range or array (of)".

Things are more complicated when one of a word's senses is a term of art in some well-established field whose scope overlaps in everyday life with the word's ordinary-language uses. This applies to many legal terms and to some physical, chemical, and biomedical ones. But in the case of grammatical terms, something additional and unusual has happened:  a large class of professionals, who act like maintainers of a body of technical knowledge, have actually lost the thread.

It's as if nurses, as a class, had never learned that fever is a technical term for abnormally high measurements of body temperature, and instead used it variously to mean "A state of intense nervous excitement" or "Contagious but transient social enthusiasm", while still acting as if these were well-defined medical conditions, subject to exact measurement and treatment.

Of course, this scenario is doubly impossible, because most people know the technical meaning of fever, or at least how to quantify body temperature with a thermometer, and nurses are required to have a sound medical education.  But writing teachers and analysts of style are not required or even encouraged to learn any grammar (or any other body of knowledge, alas), though most of them still use terms like "passive voice" and "adverb" as if they had a well-defined technical meaning. And few members of the general public know enough to notice the problem.

Instead, most people fall into a state that Geoff Pullum has described as "nervous cluelessness", brought on "by confusing and confused instructions about writing that give them vague unease instead of a sense of mastery".

1. ### Stephen said,

June 23, 2009 @ 7:52 am

This is sadly something that most of us in other fields face. For example, an organic chemist uses the term organic in a completely different way to the wider community. The term "chemical" is used by people in some ill-defined way, to mean "nasty things".

"Fever" is another good example, in fact because it's not entirely unambiguous any more the term "febrile response" is often used instead.

2. ### peter said,

June 23, 2009 @ 8:11 am

"Things are more complicated when one of a word's senses is a term of art in some well-established field whose scope overlaps in everyday life with the word's ordinary-language uses. This applies to many legal terms and to some physical, chemical, and biomedical ones."

I immediately thought of the word "rational", which has, and has had, a quite broad meaning in philosophy and in everyday usage for some centuries (perhaps since Aristotle in philosophy). And then, in the 1940s and 1950s, the word was adopted by economists with only a very specific connotation. Oskar Lange (1945): "A unit of economic decision is said to act rationally when its objective is the maximization of a magnitude." The term of art here existed in philosophy long before it was stolen and mis-used by economists.

3. ### Yuval said,

June 23, 2009 @ 8:13 am

Tomatoes are not vegetables, from a botanic perspective. They're fruit. Some people know this, and it's considered a curiosity. To me, a "vegetable" is anything that goes in an ordinary vegetable salad.
I assume vegetables also have a botanic definition, but I don't trouble myself at it.

So why can't "passive voice" have two meanings – the grammatical, not-as-useful for laymen term, and the fuzzier everyday meaning, the one you immediately understand when you see the text it is meant to classify?

[(myl) There are certainly more than two meanings. And to the extent that there's a problem, it's that no one — not the students, not the writing teachers, not the analysts of style, and probably not "you" — really knows what a particular red-penciling, or a particular rhetorical claim, actually means. There's a general nervous sense that phrases like "passive voice throughout" and "simple, declarative, passive sentences" mean something specific and even technical, that someone (even if not "you") knows how to measure and count. But this is false, and the resulting confusion is a Bad Thing.

And to the extent that there's a "crusade", the goal is not to police the use of a particular term, but to urge writing teachers and other analysts of language to learn a bit of syntax. This is especially relevant because there's a recent push to base writing instruction solidly on "syntax and rhetoric". Thus Stanley Fish:

All composition courses should teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. No composition course should have a theme, especially not one the instructor is interested in. Ideas should be introduced not for their own sake, but for the sake of the syntactical and rhetorical points they help illustrate, and once they serve this purpose, they should be sent away. Content should be avoided like the plague it is, except for the deep and inexhaustible content that will reveal itself once the dynamics of language are regarded not as secondary, mechanical aids to thought, but as thought itself. If content takes over, what won't get done is the teaching of writing, something the world really needs and something an academic with the appropriate training can actually do.

I don't agree that "content should be avoided like the plague it is"; but I would feel less uneasy about the whole prescription if today's English departments, including the ones that Stanley Fish has managed, required their students to learn anything at all about syntax. ]

4. ### bulbul said,

June 23, 2009 @ 8:19 am

was not equipped
Is that really an adjectival passive? "They equipped the banks to handle a crisis…" doesn't really work for me.

[(myl) Well, the fact that (what would be) the corresponding active doesn't work right is a clue that this is not a true verbal passive. Another clue is the fact that we could also say "… was unequipped to …", where the lack of a suitable active counterpart ("X unequipped the banks to handle a crisis") is even clearer. ]

Johnson's own "banks, in particular, are absolved from all responsibility" is a much clearer case of an adjectival passive.

5. ### bulbul said,

June 23, 2009 @ 8:32 am

MYL,
thanks.

And now that I've though about it, "banks, in particular, are absolved from all responsibility" might just be an ordinary passive. Ah well, time to shut up.

6. ### Things Seen on the Internet | erhebung said,

June 23, 2009 @ 8:38 am

[…] Language Log » Annals of Passivity An interesting piece on the state of "the passive voice". […]

7. ### Steve said,

June 23, 2009 @ 10:07 am

There are, I think, two reasons for all the confusion. The first is the ambiguity of the term 'passive voice', which, as Mark details above, is a little different from some of the other ambiguities between 'everyday-English' and 'specialised usage' – the 'fever' analogy strikes me as very apt.

But the second reason is that the passive can actually be very difficult to spot. I mentioned in an earlier comment that it is easy to confuse 'John was exhausted' (not a passive, but a copular verb with an adjective as complement) and 'John was exhausted by the journey' (which must be a passive, since we can substitute the active voice 'The journey exhausted John'. I recall a posting a long time ago, in which a student asked for help with the use of the passive giving as an example 'X was relieved', which of course is only a passive if it means that somebody else 'relieved' X of a duty, not if it means X felt the emotion of relief.

And here we have the distinguished linguist Mark Liberman 'not sure' if 'the consolidated operations of large financial firms was split among various federal agencies' is a passive or not. I'm not sure, either – and I don't see how anyone could be. It depends, I suppose, on whether we regard the 'split' as a past action (in which case it is a passive verb) or as a present state (in which case it's an adjective.) And, as far as that goes, I would have to say that I think it's probably both.
I wonder if the situation is not similar to the distinction between gerunds and present participles – which, of course, we no longer attempt to distinguish.

[(myl) It's true of all linguistic terms that it's sometimes uncertain whether they apply to a particular case or not. This is sometimes because the example is genuinely ambiguous — which happens to be the case with many instances of be+past-participle — and sometimes because the terms themselves are open-textured or contested.

But this issue isn't limited to linguistics. Pluto used to be considered a planet, and now it isn't. The classification of biological species is frequently ambiguous, often contested, and frequently revised. This kind of uncertainty is a normal and healthy part of rational inquiry.

It would be a mistake, here as elsewhere, to drawn the conclusion that rational inquiry is doomed, all statements are equally true or false, and no one knows anything worth learning about astronomy, biology, or linguistics. (Not that Steve is suggesting this radical conclusion, but some do. ]

8. ### Steve said,

June 23, 2009 @ 11:35 am

Thanks for the response – and no, I'm certainly not suggesting such a radical conclusion. Like many ambiguities (including the gerund/participle one) the differences are clear at the extremes, but tend to blur in the middle. As myl says, that's inevitable, whether we're talking about words or planets.

9. ### Alissa said,

June 23, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

Like any term, "passive" can change its meaning and there is nothing inherently good or bad about that. I think the issue is that while for instance "fish" or "vegetable" are used in their informal meanings when one is not being taught about them, and in their formal meanings in something like a biology class. It is clear (at least from a lot of anecdotal evidence) that even those who are supposed to be experts often have no idea what they are talking about and end up teaching it wrong, confusing students and making them avoid constructions that would have nothing "wrong" with them. If you are telling someone to eat their vegetables it doesn't really matter if they eat a tomato or a carrot, but if you tell them to avoid the passive voice (pretending for a moment that that's a worthwhile thing to do), it helps to know what you are telling them to avoid. The problem isn't that the term has a different meaning from the meaning linguists use (which would be prescriptivism), it's that the term is used in technical contexts without a definite meaning.

10. ### Bill Walderman said,

June 23, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

Completely off topic: I was intrigued by the puzzling image brought up by this sentence in the first example:

"Dark and stormy nights do not auger well."

Is the verb active or middle?

11. ### Boris said,

June 23, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

Re: vegetable, there is no such thing as a vegetable in the botanical sense (except, I suppose, something possessing vegetation. I'm not sure this sense actually exists today, but if it does, all plants are vegetables. Which I suppose raises the mushroom question, but I'm not sure they're vegetables even in the culinary sense). The problem is that in English, "fruit" means two different things. This is not a problem in e.g. Russian where the two senses of "fruit" are two different words, Frukt (culinary) and Plod (botanical)

12. ### Dan S said,

June 23, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

"Pluto used to be considered a planet.."

Is that really a matter of ambiguity? I thought that fuss just demonstrated that "planet" is a *vague* descriptor, with blurred boundaries about its set, rather than an *ambiguous* one, that might refer to any one of various distinct sets. (E.G. "nuts", if I'm simultaneously snacking, assembling hardware, and watching reality TV.)

13. ### Alissa said,

June 23, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

I suppose I'm showing my ignorance of things outside my field and confusing the facts about various plants. Maybe "passive" is becoming like "vegetable" in that it is a vague category of "vague" constructions, but I still think that in English class they should define what they mean by "passive" when they tell students to avoid it.

14. ### Russell said,

June 23, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

> Steve:

Not to be too nitpicky, but given that you can have "X became exhausted by all the frenzy," which indicates that "exhausted+by" can be an adjective phrase, there's nothing preventing analysis of "X was exhaused by Y" as either adjectival or passive, depending on the construal, temporal profiling, etc., of the situation described.

(Okay, but to counter myself, I think there is a difference between "exhausted" and "delighted," since you can say "I am delighted by what's going on," but it's odd to say "I'm exhausted by what's going on" unless speaking generically. Bleah, grammar.)

15. ### Lugubert said,

June 23, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

My favourite passive problem in texts to be translated is examples like "A is filled with B." You have to understand what's happening to correctly choose between "A has been filled with B/A is now filled with B" and "The contraption now fills A with B/(A now fills with B.)?"

16. ### Rubrick said,

June 23, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

Five bucks says the author of the second passage is a reader of Strunk & White. "using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job" is a giveaway; that's almost a verbatim quote.

17. ### David Eddyshaw said,

June 23, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

I think the reason why these uses of "passive voice" grate in a way that other changes in language usage over time do not, is that there is really little doubt that the offenders do in fact really mean to imply that they are using the term in its proper technical sense, but have long since forgotten what that technical sense is, and can't be bothered to find out.

It's the fact that they don't think it matters which is so annoying. Basically they are (in the technical sense) bullshitting.

18. ### Josh said,

June 23, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

Here is a list I give students in the science/tech research and writing course I teach.

Advice on how to write good papers:
Adapted from comments by J. S. Milne (http://www.jmilne.org/math/) and the 'great' George Orwell.
1. Never explain yourself. In fact, begin your paper with a lot of notation but don’t provide any explanation for it.
2. Passive voice should never by used by the writer. Instead, use PSYCHO-ACTIVE, PSEUDO-ACTIVE, or SEMI-ACTIVE.
3. Always be vague and refer to obscure papers. This way, no one can actually prove you wrong.
4. Never define technical terms or primitives.
5. When you mean (a (b, c)) or ((a, b) c) just simply write a b c; brackets and parentheses are overrated.
6. Always assume that everybody knows what you know.
7. Always assume language is in decline and you are here to save it from barbarous usage.
8. Interrupt yourself with irrelevant facts as much as possible.
9. If all else fails, write in Norwegian (unless your audience reads Norwegian; in this case any other language will do).

19. ### Nathan Myers said,

June 23, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

The example of "fever" and nurses is perhaps unintentionally amusing. Teething fever is a phenomenon well known to most parents and to all medical professionals who have frequent contact with children, but in the U.S., at least, it appears to be professionally unacceptable to acknowledge it. Physicians refuse to discuss it at all. Nurses insist that "elevated temperature" associated with teething is normal and of no concern, but may insist in the same sentence that there is no such thing as teething fever.

20. ### peter said,

June 23, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

"by using unnecessary Latinate words when plain old Anglo-Saxon ones would do a better job."

Those damn Romans! They come over here, they take our jobs, they steal our women, and they force us to count without tally marks. Next thing, they'll be making us drink wine, eat olives, and use those fancy new words like antidisestablishmentarianism, for example.

21. ### Suzanne Kemmer said,

June 23, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

From the Toor passage: "But when it comes to putting it on the page, those skills desert him. He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences."
I don't think this use is intended as a description of how sentences are put together. I think it's based on the common exhortation of composition teachers to "choose active and not passive verbs"–by which they mean verbs with more specific and descriptive meaning, which are understood as having more "vigor". So manner incorporation verbs like _plod_ in 'they plodded to their desks' is more descriptive, vigorous, and "active" than 'they went to their desks' or even the less specific manner verb _walk_. Also, copulas and light verbs are seen as "passive" in this use, being more generic and less specific. So _decide_ is supposed to be more active than _make a decision_. (The specific semantic content of _decision_ here is ignored–it's the verb that we are exhorted to make "active") . The exhorters see activity and vigor in what is actually a matter of verbal specificity (but they probably couldn't make that connection explicit). If I'm right, then "listless, energyless, lacking in vigor" is what the writer means by "passive", and she's not making an attempt at grammatical analysis. Not that the writer would probably know the difference.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who was encouraged to "use active and not passive verbs" with this semantically-based but impressionistic and metaphorical usage.

22. ### Noetica said,

June 23, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

Bill Walderman:

"Dark and stormy nights do not auger well."Is the verb active or middle?

Well caught! No one else seems to have noticed the misuse of auger for augur.

But strangely, your post is not "completely off topic", though you introduce it with those words. Consider a correct use of auger:

This wood does not auger well, but it saws easily enough.

Why should auger and saws be considered middle voice, rather than passive voice? The orthodoxy in current linguistics seems to be that there is a passive voice, as a matter of grammatical category; but in fact passivity is shown in many ways. Consider another firm current article of faith: English has no future tense. Futurity is shown in several indirect ways: with auxiliaries like will and shall, with turns like is about to, is going to, cooption of the present, and so on. But it is like that with the supposed passive voice, also: the floor is polished, the floor gets polished, the floor polishes [easily]. Why then do linguists insist that there is a passive voice at all in English? In Latin, sure: there are systems of inflections for a future tense and for a passive voice. But in English we have periphrastic or unmarked contextual means only, for showing futurity and passivity.

Perhaps there would be less confusion out there if linguists were to deploy the terms of their art with more evident rationality and consistency. Future tense has no single and immutable narrow meaning, to be dogmatically safeguarded from depredation by the rabble. OED's definition of tense is still catholic enough to encompass the popular use of future tense, according to which English does have such a thing. Probably too broad even for public consumption, in fact:

2. a. Gram. Any one of the different forms or modifications (or word-groups) in the conjugation of a verb which indicate the different times (past, present, or future) at which the action or state denoted by it is viewed as happening or existing, and also (by extension) the different nature of such action or state, as continuing (imperfect) or completed (perfect); also abstr. that quality of a verb which depends on the expression of such differences.

Compare OED on passive voice, at the entry "passive":

5. Gram. The form of a verb by which the relation of the subject to the action implied is indicated; one or other of the modes of inflecting or varying a verb according to the distinctions of active, passive, or middle.

(Ah, I am pleased to see that Suzanne Kemmer, who has written on the middle voice, has joined the discussion.)

23. ### Noetica said,

June 23, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

Ah, I meant to write at the entry "voice", not at the entry "passive".

24. ### Josh said,

June 23, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

I agree with Suzanne Kemmer. On another angle, we might characterize composition courses as instructing students to take an active' stance in their writing = commit to the ideas and the assertions in your writing. The passive' stance would include using grammatical constructions that sit on the fence, so to speak, of making direct commitments to the argument; which first-year University students tend to do. This is all very impressionistic but it can be used to get at some logic, which itself can be used to get at some actual syntax/semantics/pragmatics. In my comp. classes we cover very basic presuppostion structures and a bit of syllogistic reasoning using this impressionistic active' stance. For example, I caution on using universally quantified statements to describe cause-effect relations in science: "All cases of aphasia are caused by accidents" or differences between "might" and "must." (I am not saying that a real passive construction equates to a passive' stance on writer commitment). And, alas, I doubt any of my students could tell a basic passive 'OBJ was V-ed by SUBJ' from a basic active `SUBJ V-ed OBJ'.

25. ### John Cowan said,

June 23, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

I was just reading the 1632 Author's Manual: Style Sheet, a set of instructions to authors specifying various technical matters for writers who wish to submit stories to the Grantville Gazette, a professional online magazine (i.e. they pay for content). Following the stylesheet proper, there are a set of "editorial conventions" (recte preferences or prejudices). I reproduce the relevant ones, adding emphasis:

2. Putting an action before the comment indicates who said what. It eliminates a "said," something that's usually a good thing.
Bad: Picking up little Steven, Mary said, "That's really crazy."
Good: Mary picked up little Steven. "That's really crazy."
The second is active, the first is less so. And the "said" doesn't have to be there.

3. Don't use adverbs to describe how someone said something.
Bad: Lazily leaning against the fence post, Butch laconically said, "Here's to you, Babe."
Puh leeze, don't do that.
Good: Butch leaned back against the fence post. "Here's to you, Babe."
The second way is more active. You don't need the "said," the "lazily," or the "laconically." You really don't.

4. Avoid "she said, verb"
Bad: It had taken her a week to get around to going through the pile of paperwork and then she found the check. "Wow!" she said, turning to her husband, "Look at this."
Good: It took Mary a week to get around to going through the pile of paperwork. Much to her surprise, she found a check. "Wow! Look at this.
The second way is more active. Active is good.

Lastly, I note that "passive tense" now has a full 30,000 ghits. That's still dwarfed by the 815,000 ghits for "passive voice", but it's significant. (Why tense? It's the only grammatical category most people remember, I suspect.)

June 23, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

Dear Language Log crew and readers:

This is off-topic, but I am extremely curious as to what constitutes appropriate grammatical person for status updates. I am referring to microblogging sites like Twitter, and Facebook's personal status feature, among others. Twitter asks you "What are you doing?" as a prompt to input a sentence, but then displays it to other people as "X " where X is your account name.

My question is this: should a sentence be input in the third person, so that the construction "X blah blah blah" makes sense to other people, or should it be input in the first person, as a genuine response to the prompt? To my non-expert eye it looks like users of such microblogs are more or less split on the notion of appropriate grammatical person. I'd like to hear the thoughts of experts on this topic.

27. ### Aaron Davies said,

June 24, 2009 @ 12:43 am

@john cowan: voice seems to fit reasonably well into the OED's tense 2a definition quoted above (as do mood and aspect–"subjunctive mood" is only 10:1 preferred over "subjunctive tense" in ghits). i suspect "tense" is another one of those technical terms whose restriction is now impossible.

28. ### Bill Walderman said,

June 24, 2009 @ 8:07 am

"Why then do linguists insist that there is a passive voice at all in English?"

There has to be some term of art to distinguish the form of the verb in "The dog bit the man" from that in "The dog was bitten by the man," doesn't there?

And by the way, could someone explain how the term "voice" differs from "diathesis?"

Another question: Levin, "English Verb Classes and Alternations" refers to "middle alternations," which some verbs exhibit:

Janet broke the crytal.
Crystal breaks easily.

and some don't:

Somewhere on LL I read that English doesn't really have a middle voice–I guess because there's no special middle verb form, just an alternation in construction. Is my understanding correct?

29. ### Noetica said,

June 24, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

Bill Waldermann:

There has to be some term of art to distinguish the form of the verb in "The dog bit the man" from that in "The dog was bitten by the man," doesn't there?

Sure. But my point was this: The very same orthodoxy that insists on there being no future tense in English allows that there is a passive voice in English. As I go on to say, though, the terms are comparable. Both apply well to languages like Latin, in which they are associated with well-defined systems of inflections. But the so-called future tense and the so-called passive voice are messy and periphrastic affairs in English. Here I do not claim that English lacks or possesses either; I simply draw attention to an apparent inconsistency in the mainstream of current linguistic usage.

Your question about "middle alternations" uses a term that is not universal. Others do speak of a middle voice in English, or middle uses of active forms. Myself, I find that many uses identified as middle are more aptly characterised as passive – sometimes coexisting and contrasting with similar-looking middle uses. That's why I wrote this, in response to you earlier:

This wood does not auger well, but it saws easily enough.

Why should auger and saws be considered middle voice, rather than passive voice?

Some, like Eric Buyssens ("The active voice with passive meaning in modern English", English Studies, 1979) do speak of these as passive uses. I'm with them. Why should we not be?

An accessible and surprisingly relevant resource: The body in Flannery O'Connor's fiction (Donald E. Hardy, 1987). I've only browsed through it online, but it looks great. See mention of Buyssens, and extensive reference to the work of Suzanne Kemmer (who has contributed to this thread).

30. ### Noetica said,

June 24, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

I meant to put one more comma, like this:

Some, like Eric Buyssens ("The active voice with passive meaning in modern English", English Studies, 1979), do speak of these as passive uses. I'm with them. Why should we not be?

31. ### Marc said,

June 26, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

I think you've read too much into the second example. The sentence "He writes in simple, declarative, passive sentences" is not being used 'to mean something like "dull, lacking in vigor"'; it means exactly what it says, in the grammatical sense. As a science undergraduate I was taught to write reports in exactly that manner. Pages of sentences such as "The solution was heated to 40ºC" might not make for a riveting read, but science is more concerned with being unambiguous and complete. Godfrey was probably similarly trained, so it is hardly surprising to someone familiar with the convention that his writing and conversations should be so different.

Likewise, the Latin terms are another example of eschewing ambiguity, by employing jargon. Laypeople might prefer something in English, but, as has been pointed out, English has a way of changing its meaning. When it comes to something like surgery, being able to uniquely specify body parts is important. And had those parts been named for the first time today, they probably would have English names—to be retained for centuries despite changes in common usage—but since Latin was the scientific lingua franca of the time, those are the names that have stuck.

Of course, if the reader is not used to the conventions for scientific report writing, and has not read the sentences described, the highlighted sentence possibly could seem to be used in the way you have described, but, in reality, it is an inappropriate example for your argument, which is otherwise sound.

32. ### brotzel said,

August 6, 2009 @ 4:13 am

In my day job as a marketing copywriter I recently attended a corporate tone of voice workshop for a big UK brand, largely aimed at customer service people. One of the tonal tenets was "Avoid passive language" which turned out to mean "Don't say things like 'A mistake has occurred' or 'An error has appeared in your account for which we apologise'". This idea of passive voice as language in which the writer shows no "ownership" or "responsibility" for their actions, mistakes etc (and thereby alienates the customer) is becoming a staple of UK business writing advice.

I should add that everyone present – none of whom evinced any detailed knowledge of a grammatical "passive voice" – seemed to understand very clearly what was meant. "Disowned language" perhaps?