Archive for the ‘Passive’ Category


May 25, 2018

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


Obsolete technologies and middle verbs

September 5, 2017

A pair of Zits strips, from yesterday and today:


The theme is the looming obsolescence of technologies and their supporting infrastructures and social practices, in this case the system of mail delivery (cue Thomas Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49), with all its parts and accompaniments: postage stamps, envelopes and postcards, mail boxes, mail transport and delivery systems, posthorns and their tunes, delivery personnel in uniforms, mail slots, post offices, conventions for the form of letters, and more. If you’re young and well wired these days, this all could be as mysterious and exotic as analog clocks.

Jeremy is wary of the whole business.

And yes, Pynchon is relevant.


Non-standard sex talk

May 26, 2017

I’ll start with the steamy gay sex talk from an on-line messaging site — sensitive readers are hereby warned about this content — and then go on to focus on a non-standard syntactic construction in this exchange, what the YGDP (the Yale University Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America) calls the Needs Washed construction (using as a label an instance of the instruction), involving a PSP complement of a head V.


boxboys and transitive bottoming

December 29, 2015

(Lots of plain talk about bodies and sexual practces, so not for kids or the sexually modest. But also plenty of stuff of linguistic interest.)

An ad for a Christmas sale on gay porn at an aggregation site for porn (of all sorts) that fills my mailbox with offers, most of which I just trash, but in this case… Here’s the ad, with the sale details cropped out:


We’re left with six naked guys in Santa caps (ohhh, Santa baby!), their genitals covered by the (Christmas) packages and boxes they’re carrying. They’re presented as hot gay men cruising and admiring one another’s endowments — and in the case of one man, Gay 1, reaching into his neighbor’s box to handle its contents.


Pullum on the passive

January 21, 2014

Geoff Pullum writes about an excellent article of his in press:

Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2014)  Fear and loathing of the English passive.  Language and Communication, in press,

(The URL is not yet functional, but will soon be.)

It comes in two parts — one about what passive clauses are, and a longer section on the damnation of the passive.


Misfired indirection

February 22, 2012

Yesterday’s Zits:

Something more direct might have worked better.


Ask AZBlog: passive query

January 15, 2012

From Nicholas Kristof’s NYT opinion column 1/8 (“A Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug”):

The science is still accumulating. But a compelling message from biology is that if we want to chip away at poverty and improve educational and health outcomes, we have to start earlier. For many children, damage has been suffered before the first day of school.

Then on 1/9 commenter Mar Rojo (on Barbara Partee’s 1/4 Language Log posting “Nate Silver knows his passives”) added a query about that last sentence, and e-mailed the query to me:

After reading Geoff Pullum’s description of the passive in English, I thought I knew my passive. Now I’m not sure. A few commenters on a certain language forum have claimed this as passive: “For many children, damage has been suffered before the first day of school.” Is it?

The short answer is Yes.


Verbatim recall

July 22, 2010

A little while ago, I posted about the zeugma in this sentence from a BBC News report on an Amtrak-mooning event in Rancho Niguel CA:

It features directions to Camino Capistrano, the road where trousers and dignity are dropped each year.

But that wasn’t quite the way the report came to me in the first place. What I heard from Chris Ambidge on soc.motss was, instead, what he described as

the musical phrase “lowering their trousers and their dignity”

Still zeugmatic, but different from the Beeb’s version.


Be-less passives and be-ful non-passives

June 12, 2009

Since 2003, the Language Loggers have been looking at what people say about passives: what people identify as “passive” or “passive voice” (or, sometimes, alas, “passive tense”) and what as not; what they advise about the use of this syntax; and so on.

From the very first posting on passives, the Loggers have noted the inclination of a great many people to identify as passive voice any clause that is “vague on agency” (by failing to assign responsibility for some situation to a specific human agent). (Sometimes it’s clauses denoting situations that are not activities that are so identified.) The agency tradition continues, in two postings today, from Geoff Pullum and Mark Liberman, on Charles Krauthammer, here and here.

Concerns about agency and activity have led a surprising number of people (including many who really should know better) to identify as passive all clauses with the head verb be and to condemn such clauses as “weak”, “inactive”, “vague”, “boring”, and the like. But this fails in both directions: there are passive expressions that lack be and expressions with be that aren’t passive.