The gentle passive voice

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Jonathan Coulton, "Soft Rocked By Me", 11/21/2008:

(The relevant part of the song starts about 1:00 in, or use this link, since time offsets don't work in YouTube embedding. But Coulton's pre-song explanation is also part of the package: "… ladies like a sensitive man — a little bit — but you don't want to go too far…")

Lyrics and download available here:

I thought we’d start our evening off with a glass of cold rose
Then we can sit here on the couch just holding hands
And I’ll say that you’re beautiful
You might say I’m moving too fast
Baby I don’t mind
Because I know in time

You will be soft rocked by me
Though it may take some time I know eventually
You will be soft rocked by me
I use the passive voice to show how gentle I’ll be
When I soft rock you
You will know it’s true
That you’ve never been soft rocked until you’ve been soft rocked by me

I’ll listen to the things you say about the way you feel
I’ll smile an understanding smile when your boyfriend calls
And you’ll go, but you’ll think of me
And one day you’ll knock on my door
Because you want to be
Soft rocked by me

For earlier discussions of the tendency to associate "passive voice" with inadequate masculinity, see "Passive aggression", 7/18/2006; "How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why?", 7/22/2006; "When men were men, and verbs were passive", 8/4/2006.

[Hat tip: Lee Sullivan]


  1. Vincent said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    Never mind inadequate masculinity, he knows correctly what the passive voice is. There must be a girl somewhere to be impressed by that.

  2. Emily Lilly said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    I also appreciated how he verbed the term "soft rock"…

  3. John Cowan said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Wuddayamean, verbed? Rock (in the relevant sense) is a verb of much longer standing than it is a noun: the musical noun derives from such uses as My baby rocks me with one steady roll (Trixie Smith, 1922). And of course soft is a perfectly well-formed adverb.

  4. Ellen said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    I disagree with soft being "of course" a "perfectly well-formed" adverb. Perhaps it's an adverb, but no "of course" about it; it certainly has not achieved "of course" status as an adverb.

    But, regardless of the status of soft as a adverb, "soft rock" is an existing term, a noun phrase, and if "soft rock" here is a use of that term, then it's a verbing of it.

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    "the tendency to associate 'passive voice' with inadequate masculinity"

    But it's so much more. The self-mocking implication here is that simply possessing such detailed grammatical knowledge can impede one's sexual progress. Or maybe it's the inappropriate sharing of said knowledge? Either way.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    @Ellen: Yes, it's the entire phrase that has been verbed. Were this not the case, substituting "rock you softly" would mean the same thing, which of course it does not. In fact, "Rock me gently, rock me slowly" is reputed to have the opposite effect. . . .

  7. Bloix said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    It's a pun, people. "Soft" is a perfectly good adverb, as when Bert and Ernie sing "I can sing soft, I can sing loud" in the Loud and Soft song. So he can rock her soft (make love to her gently), and he can soft-rock her (seduce her in the way that soft rock music is seductive).

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    Note that you can say both "I will sing to you softly" and "I will sing to you soft" (latter maybe questionable in a more formal dialect/register) but there's no comparable parallelism between "I will softly sing to you" and *"I will soft sing to you," with the latter seeming just wrong regardless of register unless a pun or verbing is intended. So even if "rock" as a verb may frequently be used with informal or dialect syntactic forms (e.g. "rock me like my back ain't got no bone"), that doesn't get you to soft as an adverb in that particular location.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    “You might say I’m moving to fast”

    I might, but am I the only one here who thinks it's more likely he's moving _too_ fast ?

  10. Bloix said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    "I will soft sing to you" seems acceptable to me as poetic or elevated diction. "You'll be soft rocked by me" seems okay, too, as an ironic use of poetic diction – this is a song, after all – in an extremely self-conscious, ironically self-mocking presentation.

  11. dr pepper said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    Even now, some poor sucker expecting to be soft rocked, is getting rick rolled instead.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Contra Bloix, "soft sing to you" still doesn't feel acceptable to me even as "poetic," but I did some googling and found an instance pretty close to what Bloix suggested in the wild here: (just search the page for "soft" and you'll eventually get the line "soft-sing them to your soul.") Of course, this is a text that begins "I invoke the Atlantis of my soul" and includes various nonstandard or coined spellings (is "Alohim" a pun involving "Aloha" and "Elohim"?) so it is perhaps not necessarily indicative of widespread use.

    More generally, "poetic license" is, I think, rule-bound; it permits certain deviations from otherwise acceptable word order (e.g. "my true love for to see"), but not any and all deviations. So I have long thought that the line "I wish I'd known the man a little better that turned my Mama on" is Just Wrong (because "a little better" just can't go in that particular location in the tree), and is better understood as a one-off WTF error than as indicative of some dialect/poetic variation that can be described and catalogued. (That's from "The Man That Turned My Mama On," first a hit circa '74 as sung by the young Tanya Tucker, lyrics by Ed Bruce, whose best-known composition may be "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.")

  13. Nate said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 1:03 am

    @JW Brewer:

    "A little better" might not fit nicely in the tree when spoken aloud, but as a lyric it fits the rhythm of the song nicely. And when you're dealing with song lyrics, the underlying structure of the music is an important factor not only in the composition of the sentence or phrase, but in how the listener understands it. "I wish I'd known the man a little better" is one measure; "that turned my mama on" another.

    I'd say it's just another case of poetic license–fudging the syntax a bit to satisfy a metric concern.

  14. Graham said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 6:15 am

    'Soft c***' is a common enough expression with pejorative (too sensitive) and plain descriptive connotations. Maybe there was a rhyming allusion there?

  15. N. N. said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 7:15 am

    Wittgenstein on 'passive confusion':

    'Asking "Is this object composite?" outside a particular language-game is like what a boy once did, who had to say whether the verbs in certain sentences were in the active or passive voice, and who racked his brains over the question whether the verb "to sleep" meant something active or passive.' (Philosophical Investigations, §47)

  16. GAC said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    I notice this every time this song pops up on my random playlist. Funny to hear the association with "gentleness", refreshing to hear that he's referring to a construction that is actually syntactically passive.

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