April 06, 2004

The Passivator

Grammar advice in turquoise and lemon, from Paul Ford, the guy who brought us the ontological guide to Harper's Magazine. Though The Passivator is billed as a "passive verb and adverb flagger", it just flags certain strings of characters -- final "-ly" for alleged adverbs, forms of "to be" for alleged passives.

Rory Erwin pointed out to Ford that "to be" has other uses, but Ford decided that this is OK because these other uses are probably bad too:

It is true that be-form verbs do not always indicate passive construction, but I've found that be-form verbs, when they indicate tense, often appear in sentences that could do better. Sometimes they can just be omitted. “The press seems as gullible today as they were when they bought his claim.” could also be “The press seems as gullible today as when they bought his claim.”

Sometimes such constructions indicate soft thinking: “The cat was tired,” or “Jim Kerry was angry about the recent vote” aren't passive, but neither sentence does much work, and if a piece contains many of them it can indicate laziness on the part of the writer. Sentences should take responsibility for themselves: “The cat, sleepy, rubbed David's ankles and mewled—and was ignored, her desires lost in the gap of language,” or “Angry and frustrated despite the applause, John Kerry stood at the podium, preparing a response to the just-announced vote in favor of the budget.”

Words -- adverbs, passives, "be-forms" and all the rest of them -- fail me.

I'll limit myself to one small comment. Ford suggests that the sentence "The cat was tired" should be replaced -- because it "should take responsibility for itself" -- by "The cat, sleepy, rubbed David's ankles and mewled -- and was ignored, her desires lost in the gap of language." The proposed replacement is certainly more self-consciously writerly, as well as nearly six times longer. But didn't Ford notice that it also introduces an actual instance of the dreaded passive, "... was ignored ..."?

A few months ago, when Ford wrote a defense of the Semantic Web, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The application that he delivered, in the form of Harper's Connections, was not overwhelming. The Passivator, an unusually confused and thoughtless implementation of dubious grammatical advice as eye candy, makes me wonder. He takes a bad idea, misunderstands it, applies it earnestly and systematically in a visually attractive form, and then rationalizes its failures as features. Is this what future Semantic Web applications will be like?

[Update: although words failed me, they didn't fail several correspondents, who sent a variety of fluent criticisms and fulminations. For example, Daniel Ezra Johnson wrote:

I can't believe you left this other recast sentence out:

"'He walked into the room. Sally was typing a report.' could become, 'Turning the corner, he heard the sound of Sally's fingers on the keyboard, as she typed her weekly report.'"

As Daniel pointed out, this is subtle but effective revenge on the originators of the anti-passive campaign, such as Strunk and White, who must be writhing in their graves to see what they have wrought.

As for the rest of the critique -- "soft thinking" next to "Jim" Kerry, "be-form verbs" instead of "forms of to be", the peculiar connection between tensed forms of to be and sentences that "could do better", and the general strangeness of eschewing ""laziness" by filling sentences up with unmotivated appositives and irrelevant details --- well, erro longus, vita brevis. Life is too short.

Also, I have to say that I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren't constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren't always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.]

[Update 2: see Paul Ford's response, and my re-response.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2004 07:59 AM