Rewriting Wikipedia in the passive?

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Matt Cherett on Buzzfeed said: "Tonight, my friend Frank sent me a link to the Wikipedia entry for RHOBH star Kim Richards, which he'd just rewritten entirely in the passive voice, making it nearly unreadable and, at the same time, infinitely better." He supplied a screenshot.

But the spoof rewriting, supposed to be in the passive voice throughout, instead provides a fascinating a corpus of new evidence concerning the complete inability of educated Americans to understand the concept of passive voice. The attempts to create passive versions of the original fail as often as they succeed:

  • An American actress, former child actress, and television personality is (born September 19, 1964) Kimberly "Kim" Richards. [Merely reverses subject and complement of an ascriptive copular clause, changing A is an F to An F is A.]

Here are a few more:

  • …several Disney movies were acted in by her. [A passive, but violating the fundamental information-packaging constraint on passives, that the subject must not be newer in the discourse than the by-PP passive complement; see my survey of the main points about passives.]

  • In Mineola, New York, Kim Richards … was born. [Passive, though not converted from an active: born is a possibly unique case of an English verb that is defective in that it must be used in the passive; the sentence also has an ungainly preposing of adjuncts designed to make it unbalanced and unnatural.]

  • In the early 1970s, as a child, her career began. [Not a passive, but deliberately unbalanced by moving all adjuncts to the beginning of the clause.]

  • In the very popular but short-lived TV series Nanny and the Professor … was Richards. [Not a passive; just a copular clause pointlessly turned around so that the subject comes last, as in Happy was I.]

  • Several very successful Disney films … were starred in by Richards. [A prepositional passive, but violating the fundamental information-packaging constraint on passives again (subjects must not be newer than passive complements).]

  • With one leg shorter than the other, in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, as Laura Ingalls' friend she was Olga Nordstrom, whom Laura's Pa fits with a handmade wooden orthopedic shoe that enables her to run and play normally with the other children [Not a passive; apparently produced simply by a disastrously inept reordering of the phrases, plus accidental omission of the subject and verb (the original begins "With one leg shorter than the other, she starred in an episode…").]

  • In Disney's Whiz Kid Capers series … she also appeared. [Not a passive, but with awkward fronting of a preposition phrase that should have been kept after the verb.]

  • In 1977 … appearing were Kim along with her sister Kyle. [Not a passive, but includes a gratuitously inserted "were", which in addition to its ungrammatical position following the lexical verb also introduces a verb agreement error.]

The spoof goes on in a similar manner. Cases of active transitive clauses in the original getting turned into grammatical and discourse-acceptable appropriate passives are rare to nonexistent. (A large proportion of the sentences have the anaphoric pronoun she as subject, referring back to Kim Richards, so that the passive is almost certainly going to violate the information-packaging condition.)

I actually don't think I see any cases of a genuine active transitive being correctly replaced by a passive. The one case I have found where it would have been possible and acceptable was actually missed: the clause a gang member fired a round into her chest could have been turned into a round was fired into her chest by a gang member; but instead it was carried over into the spoof version unchanged.

The humorist's view of what the term "passive clause" means is apparently something like: "badly written or ungrammatical clause with faults such as inept early positioning of things that should have come later, usually with an occurrence of the copula". Or something along those lines. It's closer to the notion of Yoda's syntax than it is to a characterization of the English passive.

The understanding that educated Americans have of the meanings of the simple grammatical terms that figure in style handbooks really does seem to be that bad. There is massive support for this claim. See my head-spinningly extensive list of Language Log posts on this topic or related themes.

[Added 2 April 2012] Let me respond to one person who wrote to me, because he is probably representative of quite a few others. Some people seem to think that the word "passive" has simply been de-technicalized, and in everyday parlance it simply means something else — "impersonal in some hard-to-define way" was the suggestion I received yesterday. I'm not buying it. The things that are objected to by the clueless critics of "the passive voice" simply do not all fall under that umbrella (extraordinarily vague though it is). The examples above just do not submit to that interpretation ("In the early 1970s, as a child, her career began" is no more impersonal than "Her career began during her childhood in the early 1970s", for example). We are not dealing with a simple, clear, non-technical meaning of "passive" that I am too stupid to perceive. We are dealing with a vast cloud of unrelated misconceptions of what it might mean, perpetrated by a huge number of people whose problem is that they don't know what they're trying to say (though they criticize the prose of other people who have said what they were saying perfectly well). Call me intolerant if you like, but I refuse to bow to the idea that this is a situation that should be accepted as quite OK. And in a culture where hundreds of thousands of TA's and writing instructors are right now getting ready to grade millions of assignments and term papers and write "Don't use the passive" in the margin where there is no passive, I think it's actually toxic.

[Many thanks to Chris Flink for the tip. Sorry about the temporarily dead link; after four attempts I got it right. If only comments had not been closed the error could have been pointed out within minutes. I know that. But you know how I am. And with the words "call me intolerant" sitting there just a few lines above, like low-hanging fruit, it's not too hard to predict what the comments would say, is it?]

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