Wednesday, November 19, 2014

We need another name for it, obviously

The writer asks:
It “went through the windshield”… by accident? By magic? Why this use of the passive voice?

"Went" is not in the passive voice. "Go" isn't transitive and can't be made passive, in the first place, and if it could it would be "was gone". (I know, but "it was gone" isn't a passive construction - try adding "by him" to see what I mean - it's a participle used as an adjective.) "The bullet went through the windshield" is an active-voice sentence.

Clearly, what the writer is complaining about is that the reporter seems to be implying that the shooter had nothing to do with the bullet's going through the windshield; it's not his fault somebody ended up dead, the bullet did it all on its own. That implication may be reprehensible; agency may be being denied; culpability may be being covered up; but the passive voice isn't to blame.

Passive != "avoiding laying blame/taking responsibility". You can do that with the passive, of course, but (a) the passive can actually stress blame ("the victim was killed by the criminally careless shooter!") and (b) you can do it with the active, as well. As here.

Perhaps, if people are going to continue using the term "using the passive voice" to mean "avoiding assigning responsibility" we should take Mark Liberman's suggestion and rename it - maybe to "thematic" or "focussing" voice - and let people use "passive" to mean whatever it is they think they're talking about.

PS: If you think this might be just a one-off, I invite you to browse the Language Log archives to see just how often "passive" is used to mean "language I just don't like".

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At 2:27 PM, November 24, 2014 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

On the radio this AM I heard the now common usage re the start of an ice hockey game, "The puck will drop at [time]." Isn't "drop" a transitive verb that takes a direct object, so the correct form ought to be "The puck will be dropped at [time]," i.e., by the referee. Seems the verb "to drop" is being used to replace "to fall."

At 2:37 PM, November 24, 2014 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Well, you can say "the temperature will drop" or "prices will drop", can't you?

But yes this seems transitive. Still, it seems to me this is more the middle voice than an error.

At 2:57 PM, November 25, 2014 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Don't know if it's comparable, but Portuguese has lots of reflexive verbs that sometimes have the option of being translatable in the passive voice, depending on context. E.g., "the infinitive "vestir-se" can equally mean "to dress oneself" and "to be dressed."

At 3:34 PM, November 25, 2014 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

The middle is more like "this bread slices well" or "she doesn't frighten easily", where the patient is the subject, the verb is active-form, and the actor can't be mentioned.

Russian uses the suffix -sya to convert transitive verbs to what are usually called "reflexives" but are best translated as passives. Interesting that Portuguese uses essentially the same one.


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