Tuesday, 31 January 2017

the big deal with the passive voice

David Kudler's article What's the big deal with the passive voice? is a good example, perhaps the best example, of misunderstanding the passive voice.
An author I work with recently asked me, “What’s the big deal with the passive voice?”

My first instinct was to answer, “Well, would that question have made as much sense as ‘The big deal with the passive voice is about what?’”
Does he actually think that The big deal with the passive voice is about what is passive? If not, what is he talking about?

As his example active sentence, he gives Dick runs. And his passive example sentence is The running is done by Dick. He could not have given a worse example. The running is done by Dick is not a passive version of Dick runs because Dick runs is intransitive and has no passive equivalent.

And then his reasons for avoiding the passive: it's longer, weaker, and unclear.
My students would write things like The suspect was apprehended by this officer instead of I arrested her or The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle instead of I followed the stolen Ford Taurus in my police car. Honest to goodness — they really did write this stuff. If you were a jury or a supervisor, which would you find clearer and more effective?
What exactly is unclear or weak about The suspect was apprehended by this officer? Kudler doesn't bother to explain.

[I just realized that this officer refers to the author of the sentence, which makes this sentence another terrible example, because it violates the discourse constraint mentioned below.]
The other problem with passive constructions is that they bury the actor, which makes the sentence weaker and more obscure. To stoop to the example that I used in the 1980s with those cops, would you rather watch Debbie Does Dallas or Dallas Was Done by Debbie?
*Dallas Was Done by Debbie is also a horrible example, because it is ungrammatical. I wasn't sure how to explain why it was ungrammatical, so I asked the noted expert on the English passive voice, Geoffrey Pullum. (I could have looked in my copy of Pullum and Huddleston's A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, which makes similar points to those that Pullum made to me, but I somehow forgot I had it. I blame the bourbon barrel aged stout.)

The main reason is lexical: do in the sense of "visit" is never passivized. It's like "have" in the sense of ownership.

1a. The madman has a box.
1b. *A box is had by the madman.

2a. The Doctor and Romana did Paris in the spring.
2b. *Paris in the spring was done by the Doctor and Romana.

A second reason is that we tend to put "older or more definite or more established or more empathy-attracting material" in the subject position, and we put "discourse-new information about goals or affected entities or places" in the internal complement. Debbie is in subject position in Debbie does Dallas because Debbie is a human being and is the focus of the movie, while Dallas is a place. So *Dallas Was Done by Debbie sounds weird because it reverses this trend. Are there any real English movie titles that do this?

Kudler's other example The vehicle which had been absconded with was pursued by me in my police vehicle is unacceptable because it violates the most important discource constraint on passives. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar gives the generalisation "It is not possible for a subject to be new while the internalised complement is old." In Kudler's example, the internalised complement me is automatically old because it refers to the speaker of the utterance. Kudler seems to be choosing bad examples to prejudice the reader into thinking that any use of the passive is bad.

He ends with an old favourite.
This last trick is a great favorite of corporate, military, and governmental folks everywhere. They turn to it in press releases and at press conferences whenever something has gone pear-shaped, solemnly murmuring, Mistakes were made. This much-abused passive sentence makes it clear that whatever it is that happened was bad, sure, but it also completely avoids taking or assigning any responsibility.

So that’s the big deal about the passive voice: it obscures the relationship of the actor to the act. Unless that’s what you want to do, avoid it!
Alright, so the non-passive sentence mistakes happened is much better because it assigns responsibility and doesn't obscure the relationship of the actor to the act, right?

I recommend that Kudler check out Pullum's essay, Fear and Loathing of the English Passive for a description of what the passive is and what it isn't.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

pygmy and fuck

Proto-Indo-European *peuǵ- "to prick" became Greek πύξ puks "with the fist" and πυγμή pugmē "fist". Greek Πυγμαῖοι Pugmaioi (borrowed into Latin as Pygmaeī) referred to a legendary race of dwarfs.

The Latin reflex is pugnus "fist" as in pugnacious.

How a word meaning "fist" came to be associated with dwarfs, I'm not sure. Maybe because πυγμή was in Hellenistic Greek a measure of length from the elbow to the knuckles, and this was thought to be the height of the dwarfs.

The etymology of fuck is uncertain, but the OED Online says it is "perhaps" from "an Indo-European root meaning 'to strike'", which would be *peuǵ-.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


A Series of Unfortunate Events is a good TV show, but I pity Patrick Warburton, who has to serve as decoy for Lemony Snicket so Snicket can remain hidden.

Anyway, I could have done without the digression on literally in episode 2.
Klaus: You're going to marry Violet figuratively and you're going to marry her literally.

Olaf: Literally? That's outrageous. Wait... Literally? Literally...

Klaus: You don't know the difference between figuratively and literally, do you?

Lemony: It's very useful whether one is young or in late middle age to know the difference between literally and figuratively. Literally is a word which here means that something is actually happening. Whereas figuratively is a word which means it just feels like it's happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, that means you are leaping through the air because you are very happy.

Actor: I'm leaping in the air because I'm very happy.

Lemony: If you are figuratively jumping for joy it means that you are so happy you could jump for joy but you are saving your energy for other matters.
Actor: I'm so happy I could jump for joy but I'm saving my energy for other matters.

Klaus: So literally would be an actual marriage whereas figuratively would be marrying her for the purposes of theatrical entertainment.

Olaf: I knew that, I was testing you.
Olaf: Here I am, literally standing at the edge of a pond.

Gustav: He's not literally standing at the edge of a pond, he's figuratively standing at the edge of a pond.

White-face woman: By the gardens of Worthington, if I can't have him, my heart will literally break.

Jacquelin: Figuratively. My heart will figuratively break.
Taken literally, this is just wrong. Of course literally is used as a figurative intensifier and has been used this way for a while by good writers who presumably knew what they were doing.
"Lift him out," said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit. - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 
He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room - Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 
And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell - Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading
Why should I not say my heart will literally break when no one cares when I say my heart will really break or my heart will truly break? Really, truly (and even very) have undergone a shift from meaning "for real" to being used as figurative intensifiers, but no one cares about them.

Why is literally the only word in English we are not supposed to use figuratively?

As Jesse Sheidlower says, the literal meaning of literally is "by the letter" as in he copied the text literally. Every time we use literally to mean "not figuratively", we're using it figuratively.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

यात्रा एजेंसी बम्बई

I saw this tag on a someone's backpack at an airport, and it means I shouldn’t complain any more about unconjoined letters or unattached diacritics.

It's Hindi or Marathi यात्रा एजेंसी बम्बई yātrā ejeṃsī bamba'ī "travel agency Bombay", and the त and र and not conjoined, and the second vowel diacritic of एजेंसी is unconnected. If they do it in India then I guess it's ok with me.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Hawaiian wave words

From the movie North Shore:
You probably heard that the Eskimos have several hundred words for snow, right? Well the Hawaiians have just as many words to describe waves and ocean conditions… Pretty soon it's going to be kai maloʻo, low tide, when the reef gets exposed.
I know nothing about Hawaiian, but I did a little looking in this Hawaiian-English dictionary. kai maloʻo means "n. Low tide, as when much of the reef is exposed. Lit., dry sea". kai is "sea", maloʻo is "dry". If kai maloʻo is one word, why can't low tide be one word as well?

The dictionary has 24 terms for "tide" altogether. There are two terms for "tide", four terms for "low tide" (altho three of them seem to be variants of kai maloʻo), four terms for "mid tide", six terms for "rising tide", three terms for "high tide", and five terms for "turn of the tide".

I did a search for the six terms for "rising tide". kai apo is "n. Rising or high tide. Lit., encircling sea", kai ea is "n. Rising tide; sea washing higher on land than usual. Lit., rising sea", kai piʻi is "High or rising tide, high waves", kai kī is "n. Tide beginning to flow in. Lit., shooting sea", and kai nuʻu mai is "incoming tide". The last term, ʻae, is a verb meaning "to rise, of the tide".

Almost of these items for "tide" are compounds or phrases containing the item kai "sea".

By the way, there's an exotic language called English that has a lot of ways of talking about waves and snow.

Also by the way, because I still talk to people who believe that Eskimo languages have 50, or 100, or whatever words for snow: they don't.