"Passive voice" in the comics

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Panels two and three (of six) from David Malki's most recent Illustrated Jocularity, "The Wish of the Starhorse":

The trickiness of wishes is a common theme, but this is the first time that I've ever seen an explicit within-fairy-tale grammatical analysis. And the fisherman even uses the technical term "passive voice" correctly, at least in the sense that "One wish will be granted" is indeed passive! But as usual in such fairy tales, the potential wisher has focused on the wrong problem.

The Starhorse's offer would be trickily ambiguous in pretty much the same way if it were phrased in an active-voice form: "Release me at once, and supernatural powers will grant one wish". The most important trickiness in this case has to do with who does the wishing, not who does the granting.  This vagueness is also a matter of unclear agency, and perhaps that's why Mr. Malki's fisherman thinks of the passive voice — in which case, alas, it's purely accidental that the main verb of the clause in question actually happens to be passive.

Of course, the fairy-tale lawyers on both sides of the contract will want to specify many other things, like how the wish to be granted is selected and delimited, how its terms are to be defined, what methods are allowed in executing the wish, when the granting will take effect, in which jurisdiction disputes about the wish will be litigated, and so on.

Meanwhile, David Malki reminds us that Sunday, March 4, was National Verb Day:

On one of the only dates that’s also an imperative, usually families and communities get together to make up new verbs. The official U.S. national verb this year was “scraddling,” defined by a ceremonial Act of Congress as:

scraddle (v): to rub a part of the body against an object in such a way as to scratch an itch

You probably saw the Chancellor of the National Verb Council make her speech calling for parents to begin using the word with their children “so that a new generation will grow up never knowing a world without the joy of scraddling,” and of course President Obama released a statement urging “Americans of every race, color, and creed to come together, scraddle against the obstacles before us, and keep America strong.”

[Tip of the hat to Rick Rubenstein]


  1. AndrewD said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 7:59 am

    Panel 3 also uses a baseball conditional: "I had to guess, I'd say …"

    [(myl) With an embedded conventional conditional!]

  2. mgh said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    one of the only dates that’s also an imperative
    what are the others?

    [(myl) Well, there's the whole month of March. And more seriously, there are things like "Save a Baby Month" and "Eat More Vegetables Day".]

  3. J Lee said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    Buy Nothing Day, the response to Black Friday violence

  4. Adrian said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    One ambiguity does seem to depend on the passive voice: the possibility that the wish granted is just the starhorse's wish to be back in the sea. "One wish will be granted" is ambiguous between "will then" and "will thereby". In the active, the "thereby" sense would need the fisherman as the agent and the future perfect "will have granted", either of which would give the game away.

  5. Helena Constantine said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    Adrian's comment is very perceptive and answers the question I was going to ask: How cow could the creature grant the fisherman's wish if he was so powerless he can't even get himself free. In that case, it is the Fisherman who would grant the wish.

  6. UK Lawyer said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    Sure, who gets to make the wish is not stated and needs to be stated (although I think there is a greater than 50% likelihood that an English court would resolve this ambiguity in the fisherman's favour). But let's get back to the question of granting the wish. Is the starhorse saying (or avoiding saying):

    I shall grant the wish; or
    We (the five heads joined together) shall grant the wish, and I have agency authority to commit all five of us;
    I shall cause a supernatural force to grant the wish; or
    I have no powers in this matter, but my knowledge of supernatural forces leads me to believe that your action releasing me will result in a supernatural force granting the wish.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    How could the creature grant the fisherman's wish if he was so powerless he can't even get himself free

    This situation is a take on all the traditional folktales featureing a genie, dragon, etc caught by a man and unable to free itself from the net or snare. Such beings are powerful, but not omnipotent, and they cannot free themselves, otherwise they would do so and there would be no point to the stories. Instead they offer to grant the captor's wish in exchange for their release. In this case, the starhorse is very clever in NOT saying that it will grant the man's wish (unlike other legendary beings), and the captor is also clever in correctly interpreting the starhorse's statement. Release is the only possible outcome, since the "mighty" starhorse is actually powerless and therefore useless to the fisherman.

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    I presume that the designation as a "[date] that's also an imperative" is more specifically due to the homophony of "March fourth" and "March forth!", and so the rest of the month of March would not qualify to the same degree. Of course, that doesn't work for those of us who would call the date "the fourth of March".

    [(myl) But "march first!" is an equally valid command, syntactically and semantically; and so are the other dates in that month…]

  9. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Oops, I should have looked at all the panels first, or at least read the whole of No. 3 (on the right above): the last balloon also has the conditional: "I release you, … that's sure leave me high and dry".

  10. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    sorry: … that'd sure …

  11. Rod Johnson said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Man, with all this analysis happening, it's a wonder magical wishes ever get granted at all.

    (It's too bad the calendar doesn't count from zero like programming languages do–then we'd have May 0 along with March 4 as linguistically parseable dates.)

  12. Ellen K. said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    Any date in March is linguistically parseable as a command saying where in a line (or other series) to March.

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    @Rod, how do you pronounce "May 0"?

    With some stretching, I think a case can be made for

    * March, thirst! (addressing thirst personified)
    * March to {year} (where {year} could easily be a nightclub or a grid reference)
    * March free!
    * March for {year} (some campaigning organisation with a numeric name)
    * {name}, thirst!
    * Second {name}
    where at least January, April, and June are first names, and May is a surname.

  14. Henning Makholm said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    Twenty-seventh, march!

    And the 27th RMCL battalion (the Royal Mounted Combat Linguists — motto: Hunc coniugate!) marched.

    After first dismounting, one assumes.

  15. Bruce said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    @Peter Took me a second, but I realized he means 'may nought' rather than 'may zero'!

  16. Brian said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    And here I thought he was referring to "mayo".

  17. Xmun said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    @Peter Taylor
    May is also a first name. For example, May Sarton (novelist), and I believe Queen Mary (consort of King George V) was known in her youth as Princess May of Teck. That's how Muriel Spark refers to her anyway, in one of her novels.

  18. Doug C said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    The comic artist spells his name with an exclamation point, like so: David Malki !


  19. jan said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    Another March 4th strip.


    And how about advice given to the heir to the throne about how his top priority should be inspiring reverence, showing dignity or grandeur, being majestic–in other words, how it's so important to be august first?

  20. Acilius said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    I'd say that the indirect object "you" is implied in a sentence like "Release me, and the supernatural powers will grant one wish." Certainly this would be true for purposes of fairy-tale legality; a story in which a Starhorse or genie or whatever it is followed that statement with "I never said to whom the supernatural powers would grant the wish" would just frustrate a child. As for the passive construction not only allows the speaker to omit the agent, thus enabling the joke in this comic, but also, perhaps as the legacy of so many years of peeving, calls attention to the vagueness of the indirect object relations. So this might be a case where a passive construction would be less serviceable to a would-be swindler than would an active one.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    @Peter: yes, May nought (not).

  22. Graeme said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 2:33 am

    Isn't the real issue for a language blog the implications of language amongst aquatic animals?

    (Mind you, since starfish can eject their stomachs out their mouths and into mussels to devour them, speech may be a lesser form of magic).

  23. deadbeef said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    The trick isn't in hiding the agency (or party responsible for granting the wish); it's "Release me, and" and the omitted direct object. It could be

    Release me, and I shall grant one wish (active, agent is Starhorse)
    Release me, and supernatural powers shall grant one wish (active, agent is supernatural powers, whose supernatural powers, if belonging to anyone is unclear)
    Release me, and one wish shall be granted (passive, unclear agency)
    Release me, and one wish shall be granted by me (passive, agency is Starhorse)

    and they all suggest to the same extent (i.e. not technically) that the fisherman is the receiver of the wish.

  24. davep said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    "One wish will be granted". This is ambiguous on both sides: who is doing the granting and to-whom the wish is being granted.

    If the "starhorse" was clearly doing the granting, the conventional implication would be (more) that the fisheman was the grantee.

    If the fisherman was clearly doing the granting, it begs the question of why he would do so (presumably, being able to show-off "starhorse" might have some benefit to him).

    I'm going to suggest that the point is that the "starhorse" needs to encourage the fisherman to release him and can't itself grant any wishes.

  25. davep said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    Oh, and that the "passive voice" is intended to be a vehicle for the ambiguity (not sole ambiguity).

  26. Matt said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    Also note that morphemes "star" + "horse" apparently add up to "aquatic star-shaped horsoid" here. Question: Is this semantic leakage via "star-" (as in "starfish"), "-horse" (as in "seahorse"), or both (some sort of statistically weighted lexical phenomenon)?

    [(myl) I'm not sure of the answers, but more evidence is here:


  27. Joseph F Foster said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

    Mr. Johnson (11 above) wrote: "It's too bad the calendar doesn't count from zero like programming languages do–then we'd have May 0 along with March 4 as linguistically parseable dates.)"

    The Maya Civil Calendar, or Ha'ab, does start with 0 and counts through 19. So the first day of the Civil Year is 0 Pop, the 20th day is 19 Pip, and the 21st day is 0 Uo. (0 – 4 Uayeb are the last 5 days of the year, and then the day after 4 Uayeb, assuming there is a next day, is 0 Pop again.

    The Maya were doing this and using place notation arithmetic while Europeans were wallowing in Roman numerals and counting boards.

  28. richard howland-bolton said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 7:09 am

    And of course when scraddling one must always say, as I was taught by my Scotish mother, 'God bless the Duke of Argyle!' I do hope that was part of the ceremonial Act of Congress.

  29. KevinM said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    @Mr. Johnson (11 above)"It's too bad the calendar doesn't count from zero like programming languages do–then we'd have May 0 along with March 4 as linguistically parseable dates.)"

    Plus we wouldn't have to put up with the pedantry about when the turn of the millennium occurs.

  30. J. Goard said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    Hasn't the fisherman already lost his chance, since he didn't release the starfish "at once"? Pascal's wager somehow seems much more reasonable once an echinoderm is speaking with you.

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