May 25, 2007

Let's put it in the passive tense

A startling grammar terminology goof came up on NPR's Morning Edition a couple of weeks ago, on May 11. (I hope the two-week delay in posting this didn't make NPR think this one would slip by without getting a mention here on Language Log. I heard it live early in the morning, and was jolted out of semi-slumber, but it was a teaching day, and I was busy (teaching students in my course on The Structure of English what a passive clause is). Thanks to Jonathan Lundell for reminding me to blog it by sending me the NPR story link — the quote is about four minutes in.) Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep was interviewing U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan. General McNeill was sounding reluctant to speak about another general's effort to establish a ceasefire with the Taliban (he thought that if he spoke about it in personal terms he might be construed as criticizing another NATO officer); so Inskeep put it this way:

Let's put it in the passive tense: there was a ceasefire agreement in Southern Afghanistan with some members of the Taliban at one time. Is that something you would pursue if the opportunity came up?

No passive clause at all there, in any sense whatsoever. The first clause ("there was a ceasefire...") is an active-voice existential clause; the interrogative that follows is also in the active voice.

My mind is filled with only partly rhetorical questions, none of them in the passive tense. (1) What on earth do people imagine the passive construction is? (A tentative answer, of course, is that they mostly think a passive clause is one that is vague about agency, nothing more and nothing less. Which is of course untrue in both directions: you don't have to be vague about agency in a passive clause, and you don't need a passive clause to be vague about agency.)

(2) How could people ever think passives have something to do with tense? (Remember, it has happened before.) The passive construction is so obviously independent of tense: I am irritated by such things is a present tense passive while I was irritated by such things is a preterite tense passive — the tense contrast is orthogonal to the voice contrast.

More broadly, (3) why do people in public fields like journalism attempt to use grammatical terminology — even in contexts where it is not strictly necessary — when they do not control it well enough to tell a passive clause from an existential clause? And (4) how could grammatical education in this country have fallen to such a low point that you can refer to an active existential clause as being in the passive tense when speaking to millions of educated people and almost no one who is not a Language Log reader will even notice, let alone choke on their morning coffee?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 25, 2007 12:53 PM