July 23, 2006

The ancient roots of passive avoidance

In connection with our discussion on the history of passive-avoidance, I'd like to suggest a connection to a much longer history -- two and a half millennia of variation between "loose" and "periodic" styles.

Here's an explanation of the distinction, quoted from Hardy Hansen's web site for a course on "Greek Prose Style" at CUNY:

[L]et us consider the two main types of sentence structure which ancient critics recognized: the loose style (lexis eiromene) and the periodic style (lexis katestrammene). The first phrase means literally "speech strung together" (from eiro, "to string or thread together", like beads in a necklace); the second, "speech turned or guided toward an end"; the word "period" (periodos, "way around") refers metaphorically to a racecourse, where the starting and finish lines were the same: contestants went out and around the turning-post, then retraced their path. ...

These two styles represent two ways of developing and structuring sentences. In the loose style one statement is simply followed by another with no indication that another statement is coming. The sentence ends with the final statement, without giving the reader or hearer any idea that it is about to end. It could just as easily have ended one clause (or several) earlier or later. ...

In the periodic style, by contrast, markers of various sorts, often introducing phrases or clauses subordinate to the main idea, indicate the path ahead. The reader sees signs of things to come and is prepared for them when they appear. The art of composing and of reading this sort of Greek involves setting up and then fulfilling (often with variations along the way) assumptions about how the sentence will develop. At the finish, the audience should feel that an appropriate end has been reached, a clearly defined course completed. All periodic composition involves, in one way or another, suspension of sense: the arrangement of one or more elements of the sentence so that the thought is not felt to be complete until something else has been added.

Hansen offers an English example of each sort of writing. Hemingway demonstrates the loose or strung-together style, in a passage from The Sun Also Rises:

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain, and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

Samuel Johnson demonstrates the periodic or explicitly-structured style, in a passage from the preface to an edition of Shakespeare:

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox, or those who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy will be at last bestowed by time. . . .

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers, so, in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. . . .

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises, therefore, not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

In addition to differing in clausal complexity and the degree to which the reader is explicitly guided along the rhetorical path, Hansen's examples also differ in their use of verbal mood (in a broad sense). I've divided the two passages up into verb-headed phrases, and put each such unit into one of the four categories active intransitive ("the bus climbed steadily up the road"), active transitive ("we saw the red roofs"), passive ("it was cut by fences") and copula ( "the country was barren"). A tabular view of the results:

Passive Copula

And a graphical view:

These differences in the distribution of different sorts of verb forms no doubt have other reasons besides the difference between lexis eiromene and lexis katestrammene. For example, Hemingway gives a physical description of a journey through a specific landscape, while Johnson offers an abstract discussion of the reasons for valuing older works over newer ones. In passages with other functions, the same authors would no doubt modulate their uses of different verb forms while maintaining their individual styles. Whatever the influence of content, however, I think that the goals of the periodic style will tend to promote heavier usage of passive forms, as one of several methods for keeping the structurally complex sentences "turned and guided towards an end".

As to why the 20th century turned (with the expected hypocrisy and backsliding) towards lexis eiromene, you can find some thoughts in a couple of earlier Language Log posts:

"Modification as social anxiety" (5/16/2004)
"The evolution of disornamentation" (2/21/2005)
I can also recommend a blog post by Francis Morrone, "The Word (and World) made Flesch" (10/1/2004).

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 23, 2006 11:51 AM