Via Esha Neogy on the Our Bastard Language Facebook group, this Andertoon:


Sentence 1 asserts that some text is grammatically active, but sentence 1 itself is a grammatically passive. Vice versa for sentence 2. Each sentence shows a discordance between a grammatical voice as the topic of a text and the grammatical voice of the sentence about that text. Not actually a contradiction, much less a paradoxical self-contradiction, but a language prank that flirts edgily with these possibilities.

What it is like is the discordance of the Stroop effect, where a color name and the color the name is presented in are at odds, as in this New Yorker cover by the artist Saul Steinberg:

(#2) In my 6/15/17 posting “For Saul Steinberg”, a discussion of the effect

The psychological literature on the Stroop effect is about colors and color names and an interference effect, impeding linguistic processing, that results from a discordance between the two.

We can start with colors and go on to other discordances between the meaning of a printed expression (an inscription of an expression) and a typographical property of that inscription:


That is, the inscription


is upper-case, and the inscription


is lower-case. Whoa. And so on for the rest.

It turns out that there’s a literature in philosophy on an even larger set of cases. From my 4/17/11 posting “Trochee-trochee, Grelling-Nelson”:

If E has the property P it denotes, then call it autologous; if not, heterologous. (These are not my labels; I’m using terms from the analysis of paradoxes in 20th-century philosophy.)

(Some discussions use the adjectives autological and heterological.)

The word trochee is a trochee; it’s autologous. But dactyl isn’t a dactyl — it’s a trochee — so it’s heterologous. Further examples of autologous / heterologous pairings:

Short is short, long is not long, polysyllabic is polysyllabic, monosyllabic is not monosyllabic. Eggcorn is an eggcorn, snowclone is not a snowclone.

Asking if heterologous is heterologous leads us to the Grelling-Nelson Paradox (compact but excellent Wikipedia entry here): if it’s autologous, then it’s heterologous, but if it’s heterologous, then it’s autologous, and it can’t be both at once.

Heterologousness / Heterologicality is not in itself problematic, not contradictory, much less paradoxically self-contradictory. No one seems to expect expressions to be autologous, or to care much about whether expressions are autologous or not, or even to notice the phenomenon. It’s a philosophers’ thing. Until we get to inscriptions of expressions, and then we’re likely to be troubled by discordances.

Back to Mark Anderson’s cartoon in #1. I don’t think most people would be much bothered by the sentences the student wrote on the board — because, for most people, using grammatical passives or grammatical actives isn’t much of an issue; you choose one or the other mode of expression to fit your needs in framing a discourse in context, even when you’re talking about points of grammar.

But the student in #1 isn’t creating a discourse, he’s not writing a message or an essay or whatever. He’s writing example sentences, intended to illustrate some point. And his audience isn’t a normal audience, but is instead his teacher — his English teacher, we’re meant to suppose — someone who is forever dinging at him about formal details of his writing, rather than its substance. In particular, she’s been raving on, Strunk & Whitishly, about the vital importance of Avoid Passive.

Here’s his revenge, ostentatously creating example sentences in which grammatical actives are discussed using passive grammar and grammatical passives are discussed using active grammar.

To mess with her mind, as she so accurately perceives.

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