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Dawnstorm
02-09-2008, 08:29 PM
A while back there was a discussion (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1948689#post1948689) in the grammar forum about what the passive voice is and does in English. I was confused about a comment Schweta made about a focus-shift involved. The problem is a confusion between semantics and structure. I said I'd revive this discussion, but haven't so far. I'll do that now.

Voice in English

A major problem we have when talking about voice in English is that only one voice is explicitly expressed: the passive voice. And to complicate matters it's expressed as a "periphrastic construction"; it involves more than one word, none of which is exclusive to expressing the passive voice. It's the arrangement of the words that makes the passive: "was kicked" is passive voice, but "was" isn't passive, nor is "kicked". This has led some grammarians to claim that English does not have a passive voice, even though it can express the concept in predictable ways.

This sounds like a quibble, but isn't once you start to wonder about voice in general. If there is a passive voice, do we have an "active voice"? By semantic analogy, this is a reasonable assumption. But since the "active voice" is not marked formally in English, this raises other questions:

a) When is it useful to talk about "active voice"?

and

b) Are there other voices that are left unmarked in English?

Any enquiry into voice in English must start with passive voice, the marked voice.

Only two types of verbs in English can take the passive voice:

a) transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object)


I kick the ball. --> The ball was kicked (by me).
b) some prepositional verbs (verbs that take prepositional phrases)


I slept in that bed. --> That bed was slept in. (Just look at the sheets!)

You can rely on Joe. --> Joe can be relied on.

So it's reasonable to assume that - if a verb has a marked, passive form - it's unmarked form expresses active voice.

This leaves us with two types of verbs:

- linking verbs

and

- intransitive verbs

Since linking verbs only describe a state (stative) instead of an event (dynamic) it's not reasonable to apply the distinction between active and passive voice to them. I haven't anyone seen do this, so I won't talk about linking verbs.

But what about intransitive verbs? Let's look at the semantics, here:


a) The glass broke.

b) Pete sang.

Is the "glass" in (a) really an agent in the way that "Pete" is in (b)? We might say that "breaking" is a process that the window undergoes. We could easily imagine an agent doing the breaking, say "Pete broke the glass."

It seems, then, that (a) lacks an agent; the subject is an "experiencer".

My own intuition is that verbs like "sing" can usefully be analysed as active, while words like "broke" can't. Some grammarians posit a "middle voice" for verbs like (a), a voice where the grammatical subject undergoes a change. Notice the difference betwee:


- Wine glasses break easily.
- Wine glasses are easily broken.

To me, the passive voice sentence implies agency; the "middle voice" sentence doesn't. However, wine glasses, I think, have the same status on the "agent/patient" continuum. I don't think that the wine glasses are any more active in the former sentence than in the latter. A lot depends on context. When would you use the former? When the latter?

But that's not the extent of it. Take a word like "kiss".

There is a (rare) intransitive use:


In my life I kissed and fought and ate and slept. I have no regrets.

But mostly "kiss" is a transitive verb:


Linda kissed Bill. --> Bill was kissed by Linda.

However, consider this sentence:


Linda and Bill kissed each other. --> NOT: Each other was kissed by Linda and Bill.
Notice that the direct object slot is taken by a dummy slot: "each other". "Each other" is a marker for reciprocity. The meaning is "Linda kissed Bill and Bill kissed Linda." The compound subject contains both agents and patients. This becomes even more obvious if you take:


Linda and Bill kissed.

Reciprocity is no longer expressed. Semantically, the verb could be said to be in the "reciprocal voice", here, but that's a property of the lexical verb; it's not grammaticaly expressed. Compare:


Linda and Bill kissed each other. --> Linda and Bill kissed.
Linda and Bill hit each other. --> NOT: Linda and Bill hit.

Reciprocity also works with prepositional objects, even when passive voice is questionable:


Linda collided with Bill.
UNSURE: Bill was collided with.
Linda and Bill collided with each other.
Linda and Bill collided.

Notice that - in English - it is not possible to express reciprocity and still emphasise one of the agents. You have to say:


Linda kissed Bill, and Bill kissed her back.

If English had a reciprocal voice the second sentence would not be necessary). You could simply express reciprocity through the verb form and leave the second clause off.

As it is, the only voice that English expresses explicitly is the "passive voice". The point here is to show that saying "Use the Active Voice" is not the same as "Don't Use the Passive Voice", and that it's not immediately clear what the person who spouts this rule means.

Yes, I'm heading towards Strunk's Elements of Style (http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk5.html#11). (I'm using the old original because it's available online for free. The only difference I found for the purpose here is one example - "the sound of the falls" have been replaced by "the cock's crow".)

Use the Active Voice

As I said above this is not the same as "Don't Use the Passive Voice". It's potentially a broader rule, and I think that Strunk does make that broader rule. It's not immediately apparant, though. He starts off comparing active and passive voice:


The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. (See link)

At this point he merely talks about that distinction. He then goes on by talking about the passive voice as inferior, talking about the passive voice being "less concise", and the omission of the agent as "indefinite". He then goes on to show how the need to make a specific referent the subject of the sentence determines voice.

But then he switches track, talking about the "habitual use of the active voice". We get the following sentence:


Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as [I]there is, or could be heard. (see link)

Notice the "transitive in the active voice"? The four examples that follow include only two passive verbs ("could be heard", "became impaired"). Only the "could be heard" was the prime focus of the sentence. Most of the sentences contain "was" - a linking verb.

Personally, I think Strunk's point would have been clearer if he had worked with "minimal pairs": sentences that only differ in the one aspect that he means to change. But basically Strunk's making up wordy sentences and replacing them with more concise ones. He didn't do this, so I think he's not talking about "grammatical issues" at all, but about compositional principles:

Strunk thinks that many wordy sentneces can be re-written if you organise them around a single transitive verb. This makes (limited) sense, because transitive verbs have both a subject and an object, and thus allow to get rid of much "filler" (such as prepositions: "lying on the ground" --> "covered the ground").

So basically the passive voice makes you use more words, as it is a periphrastic construction, and it may require you to account for the agent that the passive voice tends to leave out.

As a tool, this is valuable methodology. But it's stated in categorical terms, and causes confusion because it focuses for long stretches about the active vs. passive distinction, and then uses linking verb constructions without comment (apart from the quoted sentences above).

But is this all? Why is the passive voice so prominent then? Is there something else, something implied? The idea of having something done to a subject, rather than than having the subject do something? A semantic, an ideological subcurrent that "victims" aren't worth talking about?

Is there a feeling that word magicians make the subject of a sentence seem more vigorous by using the active voice? That "I experienced defeat," is somewhat more appealing than "I was defeated"? (Notice that this is, again, different from "X defeated me." It's not a simple conversion methodology if I understand right.)

So why is the passive voice passive? To me, it was always just another grammatical structure that can be used in all the wrong places. Should we really construct most of our sentences around the unmarked transitive paradigm? Would this improve our writing?

"It hasn't rained for weeks." --> "Rain hasn't doused our fields in weeks."

I wonder.

Any thoughts?

ColoradoGuy
02-09-2008, 09:12 PM
Thanks so much for your interesting essay. Strunk and White gave various kinds of advice, but I think the Prime Directive was to use the active voice; it's the one folks seem to quote the most. (I've got the "cock's crow" edition--page 34.) However, as you have so well laid out, "use the active voice" is as problematic a rule as "show, don't tell." As you say, commanding writers to avoid the passive is an easier way to put it because of the slipperiness of what the active voice actually is.

When I read a passage heavily laden with passive sentences I notice first a subjective feeling of slogging through deep mud even before I notice all the passive sentences. The writing really does feel sluggish. Every now and then, though, a good writer carefully uses a passive construction for effect. For one thing, it slows the pace. For another, it emphasizes those times when things just happen without an obvious agent causing them. To me, it's the paraphrastic nature how English uses the passive voice that makes it interesting. If we just had an inflected verb form for it the language might be easier, but less interesting.

Dawnstorm
02-09-2008, 11:32 PM
When I read a passage heavily laden with passive sentences I notice first a subjective feeling of slogging through deep mud even before I notice all the passive sentences. The writing really does feel sluggish.

That's quite interesting, because I can't remember ever having that feeling. I first encountered the anti-passive sentiment online, and, quite frankly, it surprised me. I've read lots of literature, and I find that a high passive voice ratio is rare, anyway.

It's somewhat more common in scientific writings and specialised literature, but I never minded that, either.


Every now and then, though, a good writer carefully uses a passive construction for effect. For one thing, it slows the pace. For another, it emphasizes those times when things just happen without an obvious agent causing them.

I wonder how many passives go unnoticed.


To me, it's the paraphrastic nature how English uses the passive voice that makes it interesting. If we just had an inflected verb form for it the language might be easier, but less interesting.

They were married in church. // They've been married for three years now.

Participle: adjective or verb? Hehe.

***

But what about linking verbs? Intransitive verbs? How do prepositional phrases change the dynamics of the verb?

Writers can be creative with word classes, too:


She laughed and laughed and laughed, and eventually she laughed him out of the room.
What happens when we do things like this?

ColoradoGuy
02-10-2008, 12:32 AM
I'm not a linguist. Part of my aversion to the passive is that I spend my days with people who often speak and write in weirdly passive (and pompous) circumlocutions. Here's an example: "It was felt appropriate to start the patient on drug X." Nobody wants to take responsibility for doing things. In my days as a scientist, of course, I wrote in the passive voice like everyone else in that world; if you didn't write that way an editor would change it.

I think you're correct that much of the sort of sly passive goes unnoticed by readers (see? I just slipped one in there).

Medievalist
02-10-2008, 08:32 AM
Passive voice, or, to be more specific the use of passive voice constructions in writing, is not inherently "wrong," or evil.

Sometimes you want to use passive voice, and there are times when it should be used--typically when the person or thing performing the action of the main verb is unknown--this is often the case in scientific, technical, or sociological writing.

In general, yes, I think active voice, and relying on a close syntatical connection between subject and main verb is both clearer and more persuasive.

rugcat
02-10-2008, 08:39 AM
One thing often overlooked, I think, is that a steady diet of active voice has its own stylistic problems. A few passive sentences thrown in here and there can have a wonderful leavening effect and result in balanced and attractive prose.

Dawnstorm
02-10-2008, 09:06 PM
Here's an example: "It was felt appropriate to start the patient on drug X."

Oh my. Does this occur in spontaneous speech?


In general, yes, I think active voice, and relying on a close syntatical connection between subject and main verb is both clearer and more persuasive.

You must be tired of passive voice threads. ;)

May I ask what you mean by "close syntactical connection between subject and main verb"?


One thing often overlooked, I think, is that a steady diet of active voice has its own stylistic problems. A few passive sentences thrown in here and there can have a wonderful leavening effect and result in balanced and attractive prose.

I tend to agree with that, with the stipulation that there's enough variety in the verbs that you can leave off the passive voice entirely with little detrimental effect.

***

A huge simplification, but I generally think that your flow of ideas determines your subjects determines your voice. You can pretty much rephrase every sentence, but I see no reason, really.

You can be vague in both voices:


It was shown...
Studies have shown...

If you want to avoid responsibility, or if you're unsure and want to gloss over it, the passive voice is a very effective tool. You can't hold that against the voice, though. To the extent that people get suspicious about the passive voice, the insidious and clever will turn to other methods. [Notice how vague that is? ;) ]

ColoradoGuy
02-10-2008, 09:15 PM
Oh my. Does this occur in spontaneous speech?
Sadly, yes--and much, much worse as well.

blacbird
02-11-2008, 12:36 AM
Sadly, yes--and much, much worse as well.

Listen to any speech at a business or scientific conference.

caw

Ruv Draba
02-11-2008, 03:20 PM
Listen to any speech at a business or scientific conference.
My favourite ever was in answer to a question at a scientific presentation: That has not been unthought of.

Dawnstorm
02-11-2008, 04:27 PM
That has not been unthought of.

Instant classic. :D

Looks like an adjective ("an unthought-of idea") but quacks like a verb ("haven't failed to think of"). Very interesting usage. Thanks.

Elaine Margarett
02-11-2008, 04:51 PM
One thing often overlooked, I think, is that a steady diet of active voice has its own stylistic problems. A few passive sentences thrown in here and there can have a wonderful leavening effect and result in balanced and attractive prose.

Absolutely!

People are afraid of passive but used judicously it can add a welcomed balance to the text. It can also serve the purpose of placing the proper emphasis where you want it.

Someone used this example once..."The report cards were handed out." Okay...as written it's passive. Active would be "The teacher handed out the report cards."

But let's say the important idea (feeling; emphasis) you want to focus on, is not the teacher (unimportant), but the report card. Say, the exposition immediately prior to this is all about the handing out of the report cards. It's a looming event...something to be feared... the student is waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment of truth...and it comes...

The report cards were handed out.

I could have constructed this differently to avoid the passive constrution but in this case I made the stylistic choice to place all the emphasis on the report cards. The teacher is unimportant in this sense; it's the report cards that loom large and are important.

EM

Dawnstorm
02-11-2008, 06:00 PM
But let's say the important idea (feeling; emphasis) you want to focus on, is not the teacher (unimportant), but the report card. Say, the exposition immediately prior to this is all about the handing out of the report cards. It's a looming event...something to be feared... the student is waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment of truth...and it comes...

The report cards were handed out.

I could have constructed this differently to avoid the passive constrution but in this case I made the stylistic choice to place all the emphasis on the report cards. The teacher is unimportant in this sense; it's the report cards that loom large and are important.

Excellent point, which leads straight back towards the thread I linked to in my original post. Focus and emphasis led to confusion, there.

Schweta said, "The passive construction shifts focus away from the entity doing the action."

I then countered with an example from a story by Michael Swanwick, where I thought the passive voice construction actually helped to place focus on the agent ("the entitiy doing an action") by affording it "sentence final position" (the phrase in question was: "were enforced by neural implants").

In a later post, I wondered whether we were actually talking about the same thing (so I asked - in my convoluted way :o ). Schweta replied that she was talking about "attentional focus", which didn't help me much since so was I.

The difference between our terms ("focus"), I've come to think since then, is that I was thinking in terms of composition, along the distinctions of given/new or theme/rheme. That is: (a) what am I talking about, and (b) what am I saying about (a). So, basically, you have grounding and focus. So if you have:


The boy kicked the ball.

you first set up the sentence (the boy - what about the boy?), then you comment on the set-up (kicked the ball). To my mind the "boy" provides the grounding for the ball-kicking. So "the boy" isn't really the focus of the sentence; the ball is more prominent. Of course, this is completely context-dependent:


Who kicked the ball? - The boy kicked the ball.

Now, "the boy" is the focus of the sentence. The "kicking of the ball" is given. (If you take away "kicked the ball", the question is still sufficiently answered.) So my approach was contextual, and I was arguing that you can use the passive voice to place the emphasis on the agent, by moving it from the un-emphasised subject position to the emphesised predicate position. The flipside of the argument: if you place the "new" element in the subject slot, you risk disrupting the flow of ideas. Let me repeat the Swanwick quote:


The Company had three rules. The first was No Violence. The second was Protect Company Equipment. The third was Protect Yourself. All three were enforced by neural implant.

And now the agent in the subject slot (bolding my changes):


The Company had three rules. The first was No Violence. The second was Protect Company Equipment. The third was Protect Yourself. Nural implants enforced all three.

Now, semantic emphasis and syntactic emphasis are at odds.

I'm not 100 % sure what Schweta meant to say, but I think she could have been referring to a property of the passive voice construction that linguists refer to as valency reduction, and what this does semantically. Valency - in linguistics - is the number of arguments a verb takes. So "The boy kicked the ball," "kicked" has a valency of 2, because both "the boy" and "the ball" are necessary to "complete" the verb. "The ball was kicked," has a valency of 1. Now, only "the ball" is necessary to complete the verb. "The boy" has become optional. So if you're reading "was kicked" your mind focuses the attention on "the ball", because that's the kind of argument you expect from "was kicked". In other words, "was kicked" makes you wonder what was kicked, not who did the kicking. The attention is shifted away from the entity doing the action. You can get away without ever mentioning it.

This is not incompatible with what I said, I think. My reply to this is: Precisely because you do not expect the agent as a necessary completion to the verb adding it as a prepositional phrase marks it for emphasis. It's a curious item. The agent is in a more prominent position than it would be in the active version. This is why it's also more critical to get it right. If it works with the flow of ideas it's a great effect (as it is in the Swanwick example), but if it doesn't work with the flow of ideas it is a disappointment.

To the sentence in question:


The report cards were handed out.

is (most likely) better than


The report cards were handed out by the teacher.

"By the teacher" may be new content syntactically (not mentioned before), but it's not new content semantically (who else would hand them out?) The flow of ideas has come to a stop after "out", and "by the teacher" is three words stating the obvious.

Swanwick's flow of ideas, on the other hand, was not finished after "enforced". You'd expect the company to enforce their rules in one way or another. Here you have your "stating the obvious" before the adjunct. Semantically, the most important information is the agent. Thus the passive voice has been used to emphasise the agent, rather than hide it. By Michael Swanwick, but knew that, didn't you? ;)

Medievalist
02-12-2008, 07:12 AM
Oh my. Does this occur in spontaneous speech?



You must be tired of passive voice threads. ;)

I am heartily sick of them, truth be told.

I can explain it, with the aid of a projector and laptop, a blackboard or whiteboard, and a simple handout, to barely literate undergrads in under ten minutes, and they completely get it.

Writers though . . . ;)


May I ask what you mean by "close syntactical connection between subject and main verb"?

Passive voice constructions use a helping verb--usually a form of the copula/to be, and they typically do not have a clear nominative subject; a pronoun, or noun performing the action of a verb. Active constructions tend to have the subject and the verb close together; it's very clear who's doing what to whom . . .

Dawnstorm
02-12-2008, 03:58 PM
Passive voice constructions use a helping verb--usually a form of the copula/to be,

True, but also true of all grammatical aspect (perfect or continuous).


and they typically do not have a clear nominative subject; a pronoun, or noun performing the action of a verb.

I'm afraid I'm having trouble understanding this. What definition of subject are you using? Does this have anything to do with English being an accusative language (treating the agent and subject alike, and the patient differently)? It's a bit difficult since English doesn't mark case. German, for example, marks the syntactic subject of the passive case with the nominative case; which makes the syntactic relation rather clear. English uses word order.

And what about the difference between:

a) I dropped the glass and broke it.
b) I dropped the glass and it broke.
c) I dropped the glass and it was broken.

blacbird
02-12-2008, 11:16 PM
a) I dropped the glass and broke it.
b) I dropped the glass and it broke.
c) I dropped the glass and it was broken.

None of these is truly a passive construction.

"The glass was dropped by me and broken."

would be passive.

caw

Dawnstorm
02-13-2008, 01:00 AM
None of these is truly a passive construction.

"The glass was dropped by me and broken."

would be passive.

caw

The only one that contained a passive is c). "it was broken" is a passive construction. I think c) is rare, because of the availability of b), but I'd have to check.

Looking at Medievalists definition of "subject", I'd argue that only in a) the verb "to break" has a clear subject, b) is debatable (depending on whether breaking is considered an "action" that the glass "does", as opposed to a "process" that it "undergoes"), and c) has no subject at all. What I'm wondering is: how is this a syntactic, as opposed to a semantic concept?

To me, the subject of an action is not the same thing as the subject of a verb. Two different terms. I'm not sure how to make sense of that sort of "subject", in syntactic terms.

These points may sound like quibbles - but they may well help me understand why some people consider passives vague/passive and I don't.

blacbird
02-13-2008, 02:06 AM
I think to some degree you're confusing "subject" with "object". In general concept, a "subject" does something, an "object" has something done to it. If you say "X broke", X is the subject of the verb. If you say, "I broke X," X is the object of the verb. Neither is a passive construction. But if you say, "X was broken by me," you've essentially juxtaposed what should be an object for what should be a subject, and that is the heart of a passive construction.

Note that the passive construction nearly always requires a helping verb (in the case above, "was") and nearly always results in more words being used to express the idea. So, in general, if you can find ways of shortening a sentence, you'll tend to wind up with active constructions rather than passive ones.

That being said, there are situations where a passive construction might be more appropriate for the context of the writing than an active one would be. But that's a slim minority of situations.

caw

CaroGirl
02-13-2008, 03:49 AM
blacbird is right. "It was broken" is not a passive construction. The verb in the sentence is merely the past tense of "to be", which is not passive at all.

Passive constructions arise when the actor is not named because the actor is not known, or when something is acted upon by a named actor. As in: "The software application is launched", or "The software application is launched by the computer", or (not in passive voice) "The software application launches."

Clear as mud yet?

Ruv Draba
02-13-2008, 06:03 AM
Sometimes you want to use passive voice, and there are times when it should be used--typically when the person or thing performing the action of the main verb is unknown--this is often the case in scientific, technical, or sociological writing.Or it's known, and you don't want to assign blame or credit -- as is often the case in business and political writing.

(Or when you want to claim credit for another's ideas as in "that has not been unthought-of". :tongue)

Medievalist
02-13-2008, 06:52 AM
I would argue that

The ball was kicked.

is an example of the passive voice, and that it is a passive construction.

John kicked the ball is an example of active voice, and an active construction

I would further argue that absolutes about passive voice are usually dangerous. Sometimes passive voice is absolutely appropriate. For instance, when you don't know who or what performed the action of the main verb:

The ball was kicked out of the yard, and across the street. It ended up in the curate's prize rose garden.

We never did determine who kicked it.

Or when someone wishes to avoid responsibility:

Mistakes may have been made (yes, subjunctive and passive are bff)

In certain kinds of writing--say, undergraduate freshman comp essays--you probably want to avoid using passive voice. The undergraduate freshman comp class, by the way, is the original audience, and still the primary audience, for Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

JoNightshade
02-13-2008, 07:11 AM
Ummm, okay I am no linguist so I don't even feel remotely qualified to enter into this discussion, but I did want to jump in one one thing. The OP suggested that if there is a "passive voice," there must also be an "active voice" and perhaps other voices.

I don't think this is true, mainly because I am unable to recognize passive voice. I'm a professional writer/editor, but I "play by ear" in the sense that I can't quote you actual rules; I just know what's right and what's wrong and what sounds weird.

Yes, some passive sentences "sound weird" and should therefore be avoided. Some passive sentences slow down the narrative. However nothing about these sentences is inherently "incorrect" in terms of grammar. And if used in an appropriate way, passive voice is perfectly fine. This is true of "normal" or "active" sentences as well. So I would say that sentences themselves must be judged individually.

Anecdote: In college, my creative writing professor was one of those anti-passive-voice advocates. Every story I wrote would come back with one or two sentences completely scrawled out and "PASSIVE!" scribbled in the margin. I was NEVER ABLE TO UNDERSTAND what was wrong with these sentences. I literally could not comprehend why they were "wrong," since to me, in the context of the narrative, they sounded perfectly fine. Even after an explanation of what passive voice was, I didn't get it. I still don't get it, and most of the time I am unable to identify passive vs. active. Why was it so wrong to have one passive sentence out of 500?

So my point is, to someone whose grasp of grammar is completely intuitive, this distinction does not exist.

CaroGirl
02-13-2008, 07:22 AM
I would argue that

The ball was kicked.

is an example of the passive voice, and that it is a passive construction.

John kicked the ball is an example of active voice, and an active construction


I agree with everything you said, especially the above. The ball was kicked is definitely passive. It was broken, however, in isolation, isn't necessarily passive. It depends on the context. If you're saying, She dropped the figurine. It was broken. That's just a statement of fact (there it was, lying there broken) and not passive. If you say, The figurine was dropped and it was broken, then both halves of that sentence are passive because we know neither who did the dropping nor the breaking.

Of course, to ensure active voice all around, you should say, She dropped the figurine and it broke.

Dawnstorm
02-13-2008, 06:56 PM
In certain kinds of writing--say, undergraduate freshman comp essays--you probably want to avoid using passive voice. The undergraduate freshman comp class, by the way, is the original audience, and still the primary audience, for Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

So, basically, the reason not to use passive voice is to avoid a bad mark from an opinionated teacher? No more than that?



blacbird is right. "It was broken" is not a passive construction. The verb in the sentence is merely the past tense of "to be", which is not passive at all.

Yes and no. The problem is that:

[Subject + linking verb:be + ajective:past participle] and [Subject + auxiliary verb:be + mainverb:past participle] look exactly the same.

Look at the vase! It's broken (in pieces, ect.).

vs.

What happened to your vase? / It was broken. / How? / I suspect the cat.

So, I'd argue that "She dropped the figurine and it was broken," is ambiguous, but that the availability of "She dropped the figurine and it broke," may make the interpretion of "was broken" as adjectival rather than verbal more likely.

Fine. Let's take another verb:


a) They sold 500 copies of my book.
b) My book sold 500 copies.
c) 500 copies of my book were sold.

The meaning, that is the state of affairs these sentences refer to, are the same.

In a) the subject is a dummy variable standing in for all the various agents who sold my book. "They" (bookstore owners, amazon, etc.) are both the syntactical subject and the semantic agent of the action of selling the book.

In b) the subject is "my book" and the "object" is "500 copies". But the "book" didn't literally stand around selling "500 copies" (of whatever). There is no semantic interpretation at all that allows the book to do anything. The meaning of the syntactically unmarked "sell" is passive. The agent is left out. Surely, somebody else did the selling, not the book.

In c) the subject is "500 copies of my book". It is the patient of the verb "were sold".

Only in (a) is the subject doing anything. In (b) the subject looks like it's doing something, but it isn't. In (c) the relationship between subject and object is expressed through a syntactic construction: the passive voice.

Note that (b) is syntactically active voice: The book does something to the copies. But there is a verbal construction that does not have the same structure:


My book sells well.

See how close this is to linking verbs like:


The food smells nice.

The difference is that verbs like intransitive "sell" take adverbs ("well") whereas linking verbs take adjectives ("nice"). But the agency question is similar in that neither the book nor the food actually do anything.

So I don't think I'm confusing subject and object. I think that subject/object of sentences and subject/object of actions are two different (though related) things.


Note that the passive construction nearly always requires a helping verb (in the case above, "was") and nearly always results in more words being used to express the idea. So, in general, if you can find ways of shortening a sentence, you'll tend to wind up with active constructions rather than passive ones.

Yes, the verb usually expands; but then the agent is deleted, and depending on how many words are needed to describe the agent you may actually end up with fewer words. (If the verb's subject doesn't add anything to the sentence, it can be safely omitted, too.)


The OP suggested that if there is a "passive voice," there must also be an "active voice" and perhaps other voices.

Actually, what I meant to suggest was that many people think that presence of passive voice must imply active voice but forget that - since active voice isn't marked - there may be other voices alongside the active voice that aren't marked either. In the case of Strunk, I meant to show that he's telling us to "use the active voice" without actually telling us what he thinks the "active voice" is. I think that this may be one of the sources of the confusion about what passive voice is, since - looking at Strunk's examples - "Use the active voice" is not synonymous with "Don't Use the Passive Voice", even though that's how the "rule" is usually read.

Sorry for being confusing (the above probably didn't help either), but I did post this in the theory section.


Anecdote: In college, my creative writing professor was one of those anti-passive-voice advocates. Every story I wrote would come back with one or two sentences completely scrawled out and "PASSIVE!" scribbled in the margin. I was NEVER ABLE TO UNDERSTAND what was wrong with these sentences. I literally could not comprehend why they were "wrong," since to me, in the context of the narrative, they sounded perfectly fine. Even after an explanation of what passive voice was, I didn't get it. I still don't get it, and most of the time I am unable to identify passive vs. active. Why was it so wrong to have one passive sentence out of 500?

I know what passive voice is, how to recognise it, and how to avoid it. I've never been able to understand what was wrong with it, either. That's why I made this thread in the first place (that, and because I said I would in the other thread).

CaroGirl
02-13-2008, 07:08 PM
I know what passive voice is, how to recognise it, and how to avoid it. I've never been able to understand what was wrong with it, either. That's why I made this thread in the first place (that, and because I said I would in the other thread).
Most of the time there is nothing wrong with the passive voice. It's a valid construction that allows writers to vary their sentence structures within a narrative. Overuse of passive voice in fiction, however, can distance a reader, slow the narrative and even be confusing.

I'm a technical writer. There is very little use for passive voice in technical writing (imo) because stating the actor (if known) in a given situation is important for clarity.

Dawnstorm
02-13-2008, 08:03 PM
Overuse of passive voice in fiction, however, can distance a reader, slow the narrative and even be confusing.

I've read lots of unpublished stuff, and frankly overuse of passive voice is not a problem. Generally, I tend to disagree with other people's edits, when they try to re-write a passive voice. That's an observation of my personal reading response and web-board experience - entirely subjective.

I get the impression that the "don't use passive voice" line is unreflected rote. Either that, or people who believe in that article of faith simply have a different taste. I'm trying to put my hand on the difference.

It is possible to overuse the passive voice according to my taste, but the only example I can think is of comes - ironically - from a writing manual. I don't think I've ever been distanced by a passive voice construction in a work of fiction.


I'm a technical writer. There is very little use for passive voice in technical writing (imo) because stating the actor (if known) in a given situation is important for clarity.

I don't know, I rarely have problems with clarity in, say, warranty statements if they say things like:

"A valid proof of purchase may be required. If you do not have a valid proof of purchase, the warranty period will be measured from the date of sale from Hitachi Global Storage Technologies to the authorized Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Distributor." (Here (http://www.hitachigst.com/hdd/support/warranty/english.htm))

Compare this to:

"Hitachi Global Storage Technologies may require a valid proof of purchase. If you do not have a valid proof of purchase, an agent of or authorized by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies will measure the warranty period from the date of sale from Hitachi Global Storage Technologies to the authorized
Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Distributor."

Clearly, the agent is known in these cases, but stating it doesn't help clarity much; instead it clutters up the text, impeding the comprehension through white noise.

Also, you can always introduce the actor with a "by-clause". From the same place:

"...or failure caused by a product for which Hitachi Global Storage Technologies is not responsible. "

Would you really prefer the following?

"...or failure which a product for which Hitachi Global Storage Technologies is not responsible causes."

What voice you're using depends on the information you need and on the flow of ideas. Not using passive voices in any of the above instances is an option, but you won't solve the "problem" by a simple conversion. You'll have to re-write.

I honestly don't think the passive voice makes for unclear writing. This is not to say that you can't use the passive voice in a way that makes for unclear writing, but then no grammatical construction is immune.

CaroGirl
02-13-2008, 09:15 PM
We can agree to disagree, I guess. When I read "The ball was thrown down the street" in a work of fiction, I want to know who threw that ball, plain and simple. If the writer doesn't tell me who threw it pretty quickly, I feel not only distanced from the narrative but cheated by the writer.

blacbird
02-14-2008, 02:51 AM
I know what passive voice is, how to recognise it, and how to avoid it. I've never been able to understand what was wrong with it, either.

Passive voice is understood by me, too. It may be used by you as much as it is liked by you, and to us an assessment of its effectiveness as a writing style may be made by you. This assessment will eagerly be awaited by us.

caw

Dawnstorm
02-14-2008, 03:21 PM
Effectivity assessment, subjective, with real life examples from Gardner Dozois: The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 20, chosen because it's a big, fat book full of short stories, so I don't have to sit infront of a pile of books while typing this.

Usefulness of passive voice:

Choosing the optimal subject for the flow of ideas:

Example: Michael Swanwick, "Tin Marsh" (already quoted, but it's such a good example, I feel)


The Company had three rules. The first was No Violence. The second was Protect Company Equipment. The third was Protect Yourself. All three were enforced by neural implant.

Flow of ideas: [Company had rules.] - [List: The first, the second, the third.] - [Summary: All three...] The agent ("neural implants") would not have been a proper subject in the way the paragraph is organised.

Emphasising the actor:

Example: Michael Swanwick, "Tin Marsh" (see above):

Notice how the actor is promoted to sentence-final (and even paragraph-final) position? This gives special emphasis to the actor, rather than taking it away. Compare:

"The Company had three rules. The first was No Violence. The second was Protect Company Equipment. The third was Protect Yourself. Neural implants enforced all three."

Um, no.

Co-ordinating verbs to a single subject:

Example: Ian MacDonald, "The Djinn's Wife" (The PoV-character has just announced her marriage with an AI diplomat)


And she knows from the eyes, the mouths, the low murmer that threatens to break into applause, then fails, then is taken up by Neeta and Priya to turn into a decorous ovation, that they can all see Rao as tall and handsome and elegant as she sees him, at her side, hand draped over hers.

Notice how MacDonald hurries through this sentence? I can't even imagine how to re-write this effectively with a passive voice. The murmer threatens, fails, is taken up to turn... Introducing Neeta and Priya as subjects would disrupt the flow.

Smoothing relative clause:

Example: Justin Stanchfield, "In the River"


A long silence filled the room, broken only by the soft, liquid sound of the machinery tending her.

Compare this to: "A long silence filled the room, which only the soft, liquid sound of the machinery tending her broke."

Now the words "silence" and "broken" are too far apart, and emphasis is taken away from the machinery and its tending function, since "broke" now occupies the sentence-final position.


Emphasis of experience:

Example: Corey Doctorow, "I, Rowboat" (Robbie is a sentient rowboat)


Robbie dipped his oars and slowly rowed around to the winch. It probed around for him, then clamped tight with a magnetic clang that vibrated through his hull. Smoothly, he was lifted from the water and hoisted onto the sun-deck. The winch coiled around him twice, anchoring him to the deck, and switched off.

Notice how the paragraph shifts sentence subjects: Robbie - winch ("It") - Robbie ("he") - winch. Wouldn't the paragraph be smoother if the passive voice sentence, the second one, would also have the winch as a subject? Then you'd have an active voice sentence, and - to boot - you'd have a smoother subject flow. (Imagine Robbie weren't a "he", but an "it"; oh! the pronoun confusion!)

Something would be lost, though. It would give undue prominence to the winch, and make scene an objective description of what happens. Using Robbie as the subject in the second sentence on the other hand emphasises the experience of being lifted etc. and gives the scene a more dynamic feel.

Expressing powerlessness:

Example: Paolo Bacigalupi, "Yellow Card Man" (homeless looking for a place to sleep)


He stumbles towards the doorways and the swelter of the highrise, wondering how high he will be forced to climb before he can shove a niche for himself on the stairwells.

This is, formally, the "no clear agent" situation. He can go nowhere else (he thinks) and there are plenty of people already in place (so perhaps they could be construed as forcing him upwards). Here, the alternative isn't really an active version, but a modal verb: "...how high he must climb..." or "...how high he will have to climb..." or even simply "...how high he will climb...". But all those are weaker in intensity than "will be forced to". It emphasis the feeling of powerlessness the character feels.

To be sure, this is also somewhat related to the "avoiding responsibility" or "avoiding to take charge" line you hear levelled against the passive voice. Here, however, this would not act as an argument against the "voice"; it would rather act as an argument against the character or characterisation. Either, "powerless characters are not worth reading about," or "powerless characters should be presented in positive-thinking mode" (like dressing up your CV).

***

That's hardly all you can do with the passive voice, but I'm running out of time. To be sure, I don't expect everyone to agree with my assessments. I hope that at least some of this makes sense, though.

CaroGirl
02-14-2008, 05:38 PM
Most of the time there is nothing wrong with the passive voice. It's a valid construction that allows writers to vary their sentence structures within a narrative.
Don't forget I did say that. I don't despise the passive voice. As I said, it's a valid construction. I use it too, especially in the sense of something was done by someone. All good. In the cases where the actor is completely absent, I should hope such a thing was purposeful and that purpose will reveal itself later in the narrative.

It's interesting to see how other people feel about the passive voice. I've been trained to weed it out of my writing, but I don't always do so, when it fits.

Dawnstorm
02-14-2008, 06:08 PM
In the same vein, I never said that the passive voice is a requirement for good writing. :)

It does make me a bit sad to read, "Tell me how to recognise the passive voice, so I can avoid it." That kind of sentence does trigger a well-worn rant from me, but that's not actually why I made this thread. I wanted to make a thread that actually looks at the passive voice in detail, both it's structural and semantic aspects. That's why you find this thread in the theory section and not the grammar section or general writing section, where I could have put it, too.

I really don't want to go into the same old rant, here, but it's kind of hard to avoid. I am trying. And blacbird is right. If I'm arguing that the passive voice can be effective, I should actually say how. Else, I'm just spouting hot air. Hence my post above (with authentic published examples I approve of).

Personally, I didn't hear about the "don't-use-passive-voice" rule of thumb until I came online, which was in the late nineties. It took me by surprise, to say the least.

ColoradoGuy
02-14-2008, 11:19 PM
Dawnstorm, you post from Austria, so I assume in addition to English you are fluent in German as well--perhaps some Romance languages, too? Although I know a bit of various other languages, I'm one of those ugly Americans who is a relative prisoner of English. So my question is this: does this whole passive/active debate come up for those who write in other languages? The reason I ask is to try to understand if it is something important to human expression, in which case it ought to be an issue in other languages, or if it is a controversy only in English, which would make it an oddity of our language.

Dawnstorm
02-15-2008, 02:12 PM
Dawnstorm, you post from Austria, so I assume in addition to English you are fluent in German as well--perhaps some Romance languages, too? Although I know a bit of various other languages, I'm one of those ugly Americans who is a relative prisoner of English. So my question is this: does this whole passive/active debate come up for those who write in other languages? The reason I ask is to try to understand if it is something important to human expression, in which case it ought to be an issue in other languages, or if it is a controversy only in English, which would make it an oddity of our language.

I was born and went to school in the seventies in Austria where I never heard about the anti-passive sentiment. In the view creative-writing booklets in German I own, this isn't an issue either. I did a websearch just now, and the emphasis on German/Austrain pages seems to be to use both forms properly. There are pages that reference the anti-passive sentiment:

- a German writing blog (which has a clear connection to American writing culture, posting about Seinfeld and linking to Nanowrimo; the blog's called "iWriteStuff")

- a book review of the German translation of On Writing by Stephen King

- a Creative Writing CD-Rom, which advertises strategies to avoid the passive voice ("Umgehungsstrategien für die Leidensform / das passiv"); I haven't found a reference to the authors - it looks like a management product for PR and marketing folks, with sections about layout, product presentation and advertising.

So it seems the anti-passive sentiment exists in German, too, but it looks like an Americanism, to me. I can't confirm this, since I'm not active on German writing boards (I write almost exclusively in English now).

One curious thing about the passive voice in German:

Many intransitive verbs have a passive version in German, too:


Sie lachen. (They laugh.) --> Es wird gelacht. (It is laughed.)

Jetzt lachen sie. (Now they laugh.) --> Jetzt wird gelacht. (Now is laughed.)

The second example doesn't even have a subject anymore. It's pure verb + preposition/adverb (depending on how classify these words). These constructions usually characterise a time or place according to a prevalent activity:


In diesem Haus wird viel gelacht. = In this house is much laughed.
English would express this meaning most likely with a "there is [noun phrase]" construction:


In this house there is much laughter.

***

Although I do speak a bit of Italian (and have learned Latin in school), I know nothing about the Italian creative writing scenes. (Btw, even though Latin expresses the passive voice through verb-endings, Italian uses periphrastic constructions, too. The same's true for French, and, I think, Spanish.)

Shweta
02-15-2008, 03:27 PM
Belatedly joining the discussion.



A while back there was a discussion (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1948689#post1948689) in the grammar forum about what the passive voice is and does in English. I was confused about a comment Schweta made about a focus-shift involved. The problem is a confusion between semantics and structure.

Quite possibly.
The view of language that I subscribe to maintains that meaning drives structure, that semantics and not syntax is primary, and that constructions are form/meaning pairs, so it's not useful to look at form without also looking at meaning.

I think that's quite useful for writers, entirely independent of the evidence in its favor :) But it's a position. I cannot know that it's The Truth.


A major problem we have when talking about voice in English is that only one voice is explicitly expressed: the passive voice. And to complicate matters it's expressed as a "periphrastic construction"; it involves more than one word, none of which is exclusive to expressing the passive voice. It's the arrangement of the words that makes the passive: "was kicked" is passive voice, but "was" isn't passive, nor is "kicked". This has led some grammarians to claim that English does not have a passive voice, even though it can express the concept in predictable ways.

To make things more confusing, there are related adjectival constructions to most (all?) passive constructions.

(1) The bread was buttered by Dawno
(2) The bread is buttered

(1) is a passive construction, (2) is an adjectival construction.

(3) The bread was buttered

might be either.

And in the narrative or historical present tense, we could say

(4) The bread is buttered by Dawno

So maybe if we're talking about the narrative or historical present, (2) is also ambiguous.

And!

(5) He is touched by the fey

might be used to mean "He's crazy", but we would not mean the same thing by

(6) * The fey touched him

so (5) is not a passive construction, it's an adjectival.

(* is linguist shorthand for Not Okay)

SO. It's hard to tell, in terms of the form, what's a passive and what's an adjective. You have to look at the meaning. Adjectives are "about" state, and passives are "about" action, though the agent in a passive construction is oblique, in linguistics terms. That is, the semantic agent is not the syntactic subject.

(The agent in a sentence is the do-er, and the patient is the done-to-er. That's not totally right but I'm not gonna come up with a better explanation than that)

And I think this matters because lots of writers are told to Avoid the Passive, and that the Passive is -ing words. Double wrong. :rant:



back to the passive...

Adele Goldberg (1995) (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbooks.google.com%2Fbooks%3Fhl%3De n%26id%3D0k0pSppxbaEC%26dq%3Dgoldberg%2Bconstructi ons%26printsec%3Dfrontcover%26source%3Dweb%26ots%3 Dfxw8JJj8N-%26sig%3DkJKph22mzLQp0hof8DgYXVZ_tdc&ei=7my1R-TqCozypgTjp7ynDQ&usg=AFQjCNEoDV0-_o9V8BoVz6tfAukYZpS4Cg&sig2=VOQ1j2I-oFPfMGch4EGyHA) and other make what I think is a compelling argument that passive constructions profile the patient, rather than the agent.

Uh, backing up to explain that.

Profile
In "I sold the car to Jim", I is profiled. In "Jim bought the car from me", Jim is profiled. In "The car was bought for $10000", the car is profiled.
To the best of my knowledge this is a Frame Semantics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_semantics_%28linguistics%29) term.



My own intuition is that verbs like "sing" can usefully be analysed as active, while words like "broke" can't. Some grammarians posit a "middle voice" for verbs like (a), a voice where the grammatical subject undergoes a change. Notice the difference betwee:

- Wine glasses break easily.
- Wine glasses are easily broken.
To me, the passive voice sentence implies agency; the "middle voice" sentence doesn't.

I'd say in your first example the implied agency is (however irrationally) on the wine glass. "Damn these wine glasses, they break so easily" -- takes focus away from the agency of the person who broke the glass, implies some characteristic (fault?) of the glass itself that causes this to happen.

In the second, there is an implied external agent. So it could be "wine glasses are easily broken by careless drunken inconsiderate teenagers!"

Or something.

This doesn't have to do with the actual properties of the wine glass. My camp of linguists talks about construal -- how we are cognitively treating the object, via linguistic choice.

So if I say

(7) My computer just died

Then I am construing the computer as a living entity, which can die. You know that's not literally true -- I'm not gonna bury it out back with Spot the Snake.

But if I say

(8) My computer hates me

I am construing it differently from

(9) My computer is malfunctioning

- even though these sentences might well be triggered by the same actual situation. Construal is a powerful cognitive and linguistic tool, and I think it's so very important for us as writers to make sure the construals we're getting our readers to make are consistent with what we want them to be thinking.



But that's not the extent of it. Take a word like "kiss".

There is a (rare) intransitive use:

In my life I kissed and fought and ate and slept. I have no regrets.


So my lot would call "kissed" and "fought" and "ate" (but not "slept") transitive verbs with null instantiated objects in this sentence. So the verb itself is still transitive -- we still know that the speaker kissed someone and fought someone and ate someonething. But the construction does not specify (deprofiles, makes oblique) the someone/thing, because it does not matter.


But mostly "kiss" is a transitive verb:

Linda kissed Bill. --> Bill was kissed by Linda.

However, consider this sentence:

Linda and Bill kissed each other. --> NOT: Each other was kissed by Linda and Bill.
Notice that the direct object slot is taken by a dummy slot: "each other". "Each other" is a marker for reciprocity. The meaning is "Linda kissed Bill and Bill kissed Linda." The compound subject contains both agents and patients. This becomes even more obvious if you take:

Linda and Bill kissed.

Reciprocity is no longer expressed.

Right, and reflexives work in similarly weird ways.

(10) I hurt myself
(11) * Myself was hurt by me.


Semantically, the verb could be said to be in the "reciprocal voice", here, but that's a property of the lexical verb; it's not grammaticaly expressed. Compare:

Linda and Bill kissed each other. --> Linda and Bill kissed.
Linda and Bill hit each other. --> NOT: Linda and Bill hit.

:ROFL:
Love this example!

As it is, the only voice that English expresses explicitly is the "passive voice". The point here is to show that saying "Use the Active Voice" is not the same as "Don't Use the Passive Voice", and that it's not immediately clear what the person who spouts this rule means.

Just wanted to preserve that for posterity.


Personally, I think Strunk's point would have been clearer if he had worked with "minimal pairs": sentences that only differ in the one aspect that he means to change. But basically Strunk's making up wordy sentences and replacing them with more concise ones. He didn't do this, so I think he's not talking about "grammatical issues" at all, but about compositional principles:

Agreed. As you say, since the English passive is itself a periphrastic construction, all else being equal, other voices are gonna be more concise.

And I really think the point about invisible passives is an important one. Strunk and White are only noticing and talking about clunky uses of hte passive voice.

And I can totally get behind a rule that goes:
Wheresoever the use of passive voice causeth undue clunk, make all possible effort to remove it therefrom.

Or, you know.
Avoid ugly prose.


Strunk thinks that many wordy sentneces can be re-written if you organise them around a single transitive verb. This makes (limited) sense, because transitive verbs have both a subject and an object, and thus allow to get rid of much "filler" (such as prepositions: "lying on the ground" --> "covered the ground").

Interestingly, this works okay for languages like English, which have waaay more verbs than most sane languages do. English verbs code action and "manner" of action (manner: consider the difference between walk/run/saunter/sidle/slink/limp/amble). We put our paths, for motion verbs, in prepositional "satellite" phrases. English is a satellite-framed language.

Whereas a language like Spanish, which are verb-framed. The general verbs used here are more like "enter" and "exit" (which exist in English but we rarely use them) -- the path of the action is coded in the verb itself.

In general English (like other satellite-framed languages, but surpassing them because of its tendency to mug other languages for their vocabulary) has a lot of verbs, so you can do a lot with the simple transitive construction. My understanding is that narrative is structured quite differently in verb-framed languages.



As a tool, this is valuable methodology. But it's stated in categorical terms, and causes confusion because it focuses for long stretches about the active vs. passive distinction, and then uses linking verb constructions without comment (apart from the quoted sentences above).

Hear, hear!


But is this all? Why is the passive voice so prominent then? Is there something else, something implied? The idea of having something done to a subject, rather than than having the subject do something? A semantic, an ideological subcurrent that "victims" aren't worth talking about?

Is there a feeling that word magicians make the subject of a sentence seem more vigorous by using the active voice? That "I experienced defeat," is somewhat more appealing than "I was defeated"? (Notice that this is, again, different from "X defeated me." It's not a simple conversion methodology if I understand right.)

I think it's more that passives focus on the experiencer rather than the actor.

so well,

(13.5) I was befriended by a wonderful person
(I have so lost track of my numbers) I was touched in a manner most pleasurable

Are still "passive".
I wonder if it has less to do with being the vigorous winner, and more just being the one acting on the situation.

Traditional narratives have certainly focused on action, and not so much on experience. And we do have this bias in narrative, right? A protagonist must protag, not just experience?

Human attention follows moving objects, especially objects that seem to be moving under their own volition. Survival strategy. If it's grass, it's less likely to eat you than the tiger. So perhaps we just attend better to characters who seem to be moving under their own volition.

And perhaps the active-transitive is a way of making that seem more true, at a sentence level.

Which is not to say Avoid The Passive. It's just me looking at what the tools in our toolbox have to offer us.


So why is the passive voice passive? To me, it was always just another grammatical structure that can be used in all the wrong places. Should we really construct most of our sentences around the unmarked transitive paradigm? Would this improve our writing?

"It hasn't rained for weeks." --> "Rain hasn't doused our fields in weeks."

I wonder.

:ROFL:


any thoughts?

I think it's 3:30 am and I should be asleep, does that count?


Also: Bravo! :Clap:

Dawnstorm
02-15-2008, 06:34 PM
Quite possibly.
The view of language that I subscribe to maintains that meaning drives structure, that semantics and not syntax is primary, and that constructions are form/meaning pairs, so it's not useful to look at form without also looking at meaning.

I think that's quite useful for writers, entirely independent of the evidence in its favor :) But it's a position. I cannot know that it's The Truth.

Thank you for this post. It helped a lot to clarify your position. You did reference the Goldberg book in the other thread, but it's a bit hard to sift through it on Google, when all the important pages seem to be off limits.

The reference to "profiling" proved particularly helpful (the name's "Langacker", in case anyone else wants to check).

(Btw, I don't think Truth has much to do with it. Terms and terminologies are tools and point of views, not statements. They include statements, but they're really methodological rather than essential. Which is why theories that each rely on mutually exclusive claims can still both be useful. - My philosophy when it comes to scientific theories in general, and to the social/cognitive/historical/interpretative sciences in particular.)



To make things more confusing, there are related adjectival constructions to most (all?) passive constructions.

[snip]

SO. It's hard to tell, in terms of the form, what's a passive and what's an adjective. You have to look at the meaning. Adjectives are "about" state, and passives are "about" action, though the agent in a passive construction is oblique, in linguistics terms. That is, the semantic agent is not the syntactic subject.Hm, I think maybe a construction approach could take an inside-out view on that - placing the adjectival examples and the passive voice constructions on a continuum rather than on opposite ends.

For example, we could view the past-participle as a construction in itself that carries a notion of "petrified action" (not sure how to call that), which in turn lends itself to related constructions, say predicative adjective or passive voice construction.

This could lead to real situations where the difference between adjective or verb makes little referential difference, because both the state and the action have similar contextual implications.

This is something I'll have to think through.


And I think this matters because lots of writers are told to Avoid the Passive, and that the Passive is -ing words. Double wrong. :rant:The thing is that continuous tenses, like the passive voice, are also periphrastic constructions. (We hear arguments against the past perfect tense, too. - Interestingly, I've never heard people argue against the present perfect tense.)

That's why it's so important to puzzle out what stylistic advice actually means.

I actually think the advice has two components:

a) Use fewer words wherever possible.
b) Use as few function words as possible.

This pretty much includes all periphrastic constructions (but would lend itself also to statements such as "Don't use articles," which are quite rare.)

The positive way to state this could be:

Maximise your meaningful words, with the epitome of good prose being Tarzan-speak:

Tarzan hungry. Eat banana. Hunger gone.

So it's certainly not a computational approach, but rather something to guide intuition.

[More later; out of time.]

Shweta
02-15-2008, 06:55 PM
Still not asleep.

Sigh.


Thank you for this post. It helped a lot to clarify your position.

Apparently clarity, for me, comes on day 5 of insomnia :D
Who knew?


The reference to "profiling" proved particularly helpful (the name's "Langacker", in case anyone else wants to check).

Oh right, duh, it's a Cognitive Grammar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_grammar) term as well as a Frame Semantics term.


(Btw, I don't think Truth has much to do with it. Terms and terminologies are tools and point of views, not statements.

Terms and terminologies, yes. But I think theoretical positions/frameworks are more than that. That's where it becomes an empirical matter, rather than one of decription alone.


Hm, I think maybe a construction approach could take an inside-out view on that - placing the adjectival examples and the passive voice constructions on a continuum rather than on opposite ends.

For example, we could view the past-participle as a construction in itself that carries a notion of "petrified action" (not sure how to call that), which in turn lends itself to related constructions, say predicative adjective or passive voice construction.

Yeah, that's actually precisely how I'd analyze it, in construction grammar terms. And I'd call it profiling the end state of the action schema.
(If that made any sense at all :D)

Though with the past participle there's also an implication of that end state being somehow currently relevant.

Consider
(256) He lived in Scotland.
(257) He has lived in Scotland.

In (257) that fact is somehow presently relevant. This is a pretty vague statement, I know, but it has to be, since it's a sweeping generalization.


This could lead to real situations where the difference between adjective or verb makes little referential difference, because both the state and the action have similar contextual implications.

Yeah, I think that happens quite a lot, when the state described is the end-state/outcome of an action.



The thing is that continuous tenses, like the passive voice, are also periphrastic constructions. (We hear arguments against the past perfect tense, too. - Interestingly, I've never heard people argue against the present perfect tense.)

I'd call past a tense and perfect an aspect, but that's terminology, and much more important in languages that have interesting tense/aspect systems anyway.

I think the past perfect is dangerous because it takes a point of view in the past, and then talks about an event in the past relative to that but relevant to that past time but not the present time necessarily. It's complicated, and really in narrative, if your temporal structure is that complicated you're losing readers much of the time.

But so. Sometimes it's useful, and I agree about the blanket advice. Much better to understand the tools than to be told not to use half of them :)


I actually think the advice has two components:

a) Use fewer words wherever possible.
b) Use as few function words as possible.

This pretty much includes all periphrastic constructions (but would lend itself also to statements such as "Don't use articles," which are quite rare.)

Interesting. Hadn't thought of it that way. I think you're right. It's part of making every word justify its existence.


The positive way to state this could be:

Maximise your meaningful words, with the epitome of good prose being Tarzan-speak:
Tarzan hungry. Eat banana. Hunger gone.
Shweta write like Tarzan from now on.
Shweta want sleep.

So it's certainly not a computational approach, but rather something to guide intuition.

Perhaps maximize your meaningful words within the constraints of the style, voice, and rhythm of your narrative?

Dawnstorm
02-15-2008, 08:34 PM
I'm back.


back to the passive...

Adele Goldberg (1995) (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbooks.google.com%2Fbooks%3Fhl%3De n%26id%3D0k0pSppxbaEC%26dq%3Dgoldberg%2Bconstructi ons%26printsec%3Dfrontcover%26source%3Dweb%26ots%3 Dfxw8JJj8N-%26sig%3DkJKph22mzLQp0hof8DgYXVZ_tdc&ei=7my1R-TqCozypgTjp7ynDQ&usg=AFQjCNEoDV0-_o9V8BoVz6tfAukYZpS4Cg&sig2=VOQ1j2I-oFPfMGch4EGyHA) and other make what I think is a compelling argument that passive constructions profile the patient, rather than the agent.

Uh, backing up to explain that.

Profile
In "I sold the car to Jim", I is profiled. In "Jim bought the car from me", Jim is profiled. In "The car was bought for $10000", the car is profiled.
To the best of my knowledge this is a Frame Semantics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_semantics_%28linguistics%29) term.

Basically, it's this, if I understand right:

At the basis we have a referential context; a real life situation we are referring to. We can capture that situation through (a) verbs and (b) participant roles.

So, for example a sale can be expressed with varying verbs:

+car/-money --> lexical verb: buy sth
-car/+money --> lexical verb: sell sth

If you wish to topicalise the car, you can do so with the passive voice, which works with both lexical verbs.


I'd say in your first example the implied agency is (however irrationally) on the wine glass. "Damn these wine glasses, they break so easily" -- takes focus away from the agency of the person who broke the glass, implies some characteristic (fault?) of the glass itself that causes this to happen.

"Characteristic" is about right, I think. (cp. "Damn these wine glasses! They're so fragile." or "Damn these wine glasses! They're so easy to break!") A wine-glass could also break spontaneously, with no apparant agency at all.

Following Strunk, for example, the "best" version would probably be:

"Damn those wine glasses! I always break them." Or something like that. A transitive in the active voice.


In the second, there is an implied external agent. So it could be "wine glasses are easily broken by careless drunken inconsiderate teenagers!"

Actually, implied agency might make the difference between:

"The wine glass was broken," as passive voice or adjective, with ambiguity rising to the extent that the agent is de-emphasised. Hm...


This doesn't have to do with the actual properties of the wine glass. My camp of linguists talks about construal -- how we are cognitively treating the object, via linguistic choice.

So if I say

(7) My computer just died

Then I am construing the computer as a living entity, which can die. You know that's not literally true -- I'm not gonna bury it out back with Spot the Snake.

But if I say

(8) My computer hates me

I am construing it differently from

(9) My computer is malfunctioning

- even though these sentences might well be triggered by the same actual situation. Construal is a powerful cognitive and linguistic tool, and I think it's so very important for us as writers to make sure the construals we're getting our readers to make are consistent with what we want them to be thinking.

Personification as conferring the propensity of agency to non-sentient objects. ("die" and "hate" are different, in that respect, as "dying" is not normally a volitional act.)

Interesting: The bomb exploded. Exploding is what bombs do. The bomb fulfills its purpose... (I'm reminded of the sentient bomb in John Carpenter's Dark Star, hehe.)


So my lot would call "kissed" and "fought" and "ate" (but not "slept") transitive verbs with null instantiated objects in this sentence. So the verb itself is still transitive -- we still know that the speaker kissed someone and fought someone and ate someonething. But the construction does not specify (deprofiles, makes oblique) the someone/thing, because it does not matter.

Interesting analysis. So what about "sing":

a) I'm singing.
b) I'm singing a song.

or, conversly:

a) I'm dying.
b) I'm dying a cruel death.

There seems to be difference in the acceptability degree of the passive voice with "sing" and "die":

Christmas Carols were sung.
?A cruel death was died.

The thing is: to what extent is it possible to imply the object in the act without making a case for an extra object. (e.g. The singing constitutes the song, but the eating does not constitute the food. However, the eating confers the food-aspect onto the food object. Dying on the other hand results in death, so "dying a death" could be treated as some sort of figure of speech. Semantics tend to complicate things with lots of subjectivity, I feel.)



Agreed. As you say, since the English passive is itself a periphrastic construction, all else being equal, other voices are gonna be more concise.

Not necessarily, if we include participant roles in the analysis. The extra auxiliary is offset by the deletion of the agent, unless you re-import the agent via the "by"-phrase, in which case the passive construction loses out twice.


Interestingly, this works okay for languages like English, which have waaay more verbs than most sane languages do. English verbs code action and "manner" of action (manner: consider the difference between walk/run/saunter/sidle/slink/limp/amble). We put our paths, for motion verbs, in prepositional "satellite" phrases. English is a satellite-framed language.

Whereas a language like Spanish, which are verb-framed. The general verbs used here are more like "enter" and "exit" (which exist in English but we rarely use them) -- the path of the action is coded in the verb itself.

In general English (like other satellite-framed languages, but surpassing them because of its tendency to mug other languages for their vocabulary) has a lot of verbs, so you can do a lot with the simple transitive construction. My understanding is that narrative is structured quite differently in verb-framed languages.

Interesting. Must have quite a bit of an impact on translation. Do we preserve the original structure as much as possible, or do we impose English for "beautiful prose". (This isn't verb related as much as it is clause and phrase related, by I find Kafka loses a lot of the integral clunkiness in English.)


I think it's more that passives focus on the experiencer rather than the actor.

so well,

(13.5) I was befriended by a wonderful person
(I have so lost track of my numbers) I was touched in a manner most pleasurable

Are still "passive".
I wonder if it has less to do with being the vigorous winner, and more just being the one acting on the situation.

Traditional narratives have certainly focused on action, and not so much on experience. And we do have this bias in narrative, right? A protagonist must protag, not just experience?

Human attention follows moving objects, especially objects that seem to be moving under their own volition. Survival strategy. If it's grass, it's less likely to eat you than the tiger. So perhaps we just attend better to characters who seem to be moving under their own volition.

I wonder whether this is an effect of films? Visual PoV doesn't exactly favour experience. It might also be cultural predisposition.

An example:

I've recently read a book, Xiaolu Guo: A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which is a first-person novel by a Chinese woman who comes to London for a year to learn English. Her English gets better in the course of the book (it starts out bad).

In it (I looked for the quote but couldn't find it) there was a line, something like:


"I was caught by [a word] on the radio"
where the English idiom is in the active voice: "I caught a word...". I suspect that the referential meaning is the same, but the construal differs.

This is one of the things I'm wondering: is there a cultural proponent in the dislike of passives that I don't share?

(Btw, anyone interested in linguistics will find the above book most enjoyable. :D )


And perhaps the active-transitive is a way of making that seem more true, at a sentence level.

Which is not to say Avoid The Passive. It's just me looking at what the tools in our toolbox have to offer us.

This may actually be why the anti-passive sentiment irks me so. That I feel an undercurrent of emphasising action over experience, which doesn't sit well with me. Who knows?



I think it's 3:30 am and I should be asleep, does that count?

...

Still not asleep.

Sigh.


...

Apparently clarity, for me, comes on day 5 of insomnia :D
Who knew?

People have told me that I make more sense when tired. Reduces the chaos in the brain, perhaps? Not as easily distracted?

I hope you can sleep soon. Sleeping is good. Would it help if I bored you a bit more? ;)


Though with the past participle there's also an implication of that end state being somehow currently relevant.

Consider
(256) He lived in Scotland.
(257) He has lived in Scotland.

In (257) that fact is somehow presently relevant.

Hm, I'd probably argue that "presently relevant" isn't a property of the past participle, but of the "has lived" construction (i.e. not of the auxiliary alone, either).


I'd call past a tense and perfect an aspect, but that's terminology, and much more important in languages that have interesting tense/aspect systems anyway.

Actually, I agree. (One continuous aspect, and two/three tenses that uses; three if you count future as a tense, rather than a modal construction.)


I think the past perfect is dangerous because it takes a point of view in the past, and then talks about an event in the past relative to that but relevant to that past time but not the present time necessarily. It's complicated, and really in narrative, if your temporal structure is that complicated you're losing readers much of the time.

Well, my own rule-of-thumb is that if I have lots of past perfects (that don't add up to a paragraph or more, so that I can modulate the past tense) I'll just re-write the thing present tense, since then I have the distinction between past and present perfect. Most of the time, present tense is better for dealing with lots of one-shot memories.


Shweta write like Tarzan from now on.
Shweta want sleep.

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