Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Annoy a Linguist Day

It's that time of year again. This time I want to write about the fetish for avoiding the passive voice. Recently I've spoken to writers who think it's their duty to avoid the passive at all costs. The irony is sweet when they proceed to misidentify the passive. Look at this article on passive avoidance where of all the examples the writer gives of the evil passive voice, only one is actually passive.

I'm baffled at this hostility towards a completely normal and useful grammatical structure. I like to blame Orwell, but it's older than that. Supposed grammar experts tell us that the passive voice is dull, it's sneaky, it's feeble, it's not used by good writers - and none of these things are true, as Geoff Pullum explains. I've been told it's hard to understand but I don't think that is true either.

I’ve also been told it is unclear, because it hides the agent (the person doing the action). The implication is that all we have to do is avoid the passive, and our writing will be automatically clearer. This seems like very bad advice. The agent can be hidden in the active voice, and it's possible to write passive sentences where the agent is expressed.

I’ll talk about the second point first. 1a is active, and 1b is passive, and the agent (me) is equally clear in both:

1a. I wrote a book.
1b. The book was written by me.

Yes, passive sentences can omit the agent, as in 2:

2a. We served dinner.
2b. Dinner was served.

If you want to focus on the dinner then you could argue that 2b is better, because it places the dinner at the beginning of the sentence, and omits unnecessary information. Clarity has nothing to do with expressing the agent, it's to do with making clear what you want to make clear.

And non-passive sentences can omit the agent as well. These sentences are all non-passive, but they have no agents:

3. The book fell off the table. (Who pushed it?)
4. The case took on racial overtones. (Whose fault was that?)
5. The beer pours easily. (Who's pouring it?)
6. I am afraid. (What’s scaring me?)

Many passive sentences can easily be made non-passive with no change in semantics:

7a. The window is displayed.
7b. The window appears. (Who made it appear?)

8a. Mistakes were made.
8b. Mistakes happened. (Who made them?)

9a. I was given a gift.
9b. I received a gift. (Who gave it to me?)

The A sentences are passive, the B sentences are non-passive. I don't see how the non-passive sentences are clearer than the passive sentences. The agent is equally invisible in both.

Simply avoiding the passive voice doesn't help you write clearly. If your goal is to express the agent, then you need to think about what the agent is, and make sure you've expressed it, and you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence. And if you want to focus on something other than the agent, you can do this with either a passive or non-passive sentence.

Previously on Annoy a Linguist Day:
taking grammar seriously
What is grammar anyway?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

sorry and sorrow

are not related! Not etymologically related anyway. They were associated with each other phonologically and semantically in Middle English.

sorry and sore are from PIE *seh₂i- "suffering" (Old English sār "painful" and sārig "distressed, sad" (cognate with West Frisian searich "sore, spotty, scabby")).

sorrow is from PIE *swergh- "worry, be sick" (Old English sorg "anxiety, sorrow").

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Schleicher's Fable part 3

h₂óu̯is h₁ékʷoi̯bʰi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dʰǵʰémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh₂ h₁éḱu̯oms-kʷe h₂áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ agʰnutor”.

dative plural of *h₁eḱu̯os "horse"
equine, hippo

zero-grade reduplicated form of Fortson *u̯ekʷ- "speak"
vocal, epic

first person singular present? of Forston *speḱ- "see"
spy, spectacle

clitic "and"

third person singular present? of Fortson *h₂eǵ- "drive"

heart, cardio


third person singular passive (I assume because it looks like the Latin passive) of Watkins *agh-¹ "to be depressed"?

h₂óu̯is h₁ékʷoi̯bʰi̯os u̯eu̯ked
sheep to-horses said
dʰǵʰémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh₂ h₁éḱu̯oms-kʷe h₂áǵeti
man I-see and-horses he-drives
ḱḗr moi̯ agʰnutor
heart my is-pained
"The sheep said to the horses: 'My heart pains me. I see a man, and he drives horses.’”

Sunday, 15 December 2013


Cuttlefish ink was used to make a brown pigment for painting, called sepia. The word is borrowed from Latin sēpia, borrowed from Greek σηπία "cuttlefish".
European cuttlefish
European cuttlefish Sepia officinalis

Saturday, 7 December 2013

untranslatable words

Here's an interesting list of untranslatable words. I haven't provided any translations, because they're untranslatable.

(Thanks to Bob Hale for directing me to this list.)

saudida (Portuguese) - untranslatable
sponsz (Hungarian) - untranslatable
rastapopoulos (Greek) - untranslatable
kûrvitaş (Turkish) - untranslatable
txunyayo (Hixkaryana) - untranslatable
avakṣana (Sanskrit) - untranslatable
tlhaqSoD (Klingon) - untranslatable
myludh (Sindarin) - untranslatable

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

female and male

are not related.

Latin fēmina "woman" took on the diminutive -ella suffix, becoming fēmella. This became Anglo-Norman femell, which was borrowed into English.

The English and Anglo-Norman words were also spelled femaile, female, femaul, by association with male (from Latin masculus). female and male have rhymed sine the 14th century. So although the words have different origins, you could argue that they are related now.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Schleicher's fable part 2

The next sentence!
só gʷr̥hᵪúm u̯óǵʰom u̯eǵʰed; só méǵh₂m̥ bʰórom; só dʰǵʰémonm̥ h₂ṓḱu bʰered.

singular accusative of Fortson *gʷr̥h₂u- "heavy"
guru, gravity

thematic accusative of *u̯eǵʰ- "vehicle, drive a vehicle"
wagon, weigh, vehicle

verb form of *u̯eǵʰ- "vehicle, drive a vehicle"

athematic singular accusative of *meǵh₂- "great"
much, major

thematic neuter singular accusative? of *bʰer- "carry, something carried"
bear, infer, metaphor

accusative of *dʰǵʰem- "man"
human, chameleon

accipiter, Ocypode

form of *bʰer- "carry"

gʷr̥hᵪúm u̯óǵʰom u̯eǵʰed méǵh₂m̥ bʰórom dʰǵʰémonm̥h₂ṓḱubʰered
one heavy vehicle drove one big something-carried one manswiftlycarried
"one pulled a heavy wagon, one (carried) a big load, one carried a man swiftly."