Thursday, 9 January 2014

Passive voice

Yeah, I'm going there.

UPDATE: As I was writing this post, Geoff Pullum blogged on Language Log, noting that he has completed a paper describing his excellent position on the matter of passives, and you can read his forthcoming paper there.

So anyway, what I was going to talk about was just a couple of interesting times I've noticed it.

First: someone tweeted Alexander Armstrong to say that he wished he would 'stop being referred to as Zander':

As well as being a bizarre thing to say, this is a bizarre syntactic construction. I guess he has phrased it this way to avoid using a vague subject like 'people' or 'contestants and Richard Osman'. After all, one of the main reasons for using the passive is when you don't know or don't want to make a big thing about the subject. Unfortunately, using stop often implies some sense of agency, when it's predicated of a person. Not always: He's stopped burning would not be any more agentive than the fire's stopped burning, of course. I think it must be because stop occurs with another verb in the present participle form, and when that verb is agentive the whole construction is agentive. And refer is agentive. This gives the weird idea that Xander has to somehow stop a process from happening to him that's entirely beyond his control.

Second: passives betraying speaker attitudes. I was listening to the radio and someone told a very funny story about Stevie Wonder, in which he apparently used to freak out his house guests by picking them up at the gate and driving them half a mile or so up the drive to his house (this being terrifying on account of his being blind). The way the person phrased it (sorry I can't give more info or be specific - I had the details but they were lost in a technical snafu) was this:
Stevie Wonder was taught to drive from his gate to his house.
Was taught is passive, indicating that someone is doing something to Stevie Wonder. Passive reverses the roles in the sentence, so giving it in the active would mean the opposite: Stevie Wonder taught someone to drive. However, we have a nifty little thing whereby we have an active verb that means more or less the same as the passive form of teach: learn. (It doesn't mean exactly the same, but in some contexts, including this one, it's near as dammit.) So we now have a choice with no meaning difference, between these two sentences:
Stevie Wonder was taught to drive.
Stevie Wonder learnt to drive.
If there is no meaning difference, we make the choice on (among other things) stylistic grounds. Some would say don't use the passive - I'm not one of those people. Go ahead and use it if you like. But in this case, I think there is another reason not to use it, and that's again related to agency, although this time not just on grammatical grounds.

If you compare the two, with learnt, it was Stevie Wonder's volition to drive. With was taught, agency is given to some other, unnamed person. While I'm quite sure it was still Stevie Wonder's decision to do so, the sentence may be interpreted as reflecting a subconscious belief that people with disabilities can't or don't play jokes, make decisions or control their own lives to the extent that non-disabled people do.

Language doesn't influence thought (oversimplification - sorry), but it can reflect beliefs and reinforce attitudes.

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