November 27, 2007

Unfolding in the passive tense

What is it with these people who think the passive voice has something to do with tense? Where do they get this stuff? Jim Salant has pointed out to me that Greg Grandin, a historian at New York University, has reviewed two books about Henry Kissinger in the current London Review of Books (see it here), and he says (fourth paragraph back from the end):

For Suri, Kissinger’s ‘career, like the American Century as a whole, unfolded in the passive tense. Both were ‘deeply affected — sometimes distorted — by external factors[...]’

This does not seem to be due to any grammar book. I do not know of any grammar book that confuses voice and tense. All grammarians talk about tense as the contrast between present (writes) and preterite (wrote), but a a voice contrast between active (wrote) and passive (was written). But Language Log has found mentions of a mythical passive tense in The Economist, and in a confessional on a NaNoWriMo forum, and on National Public Radio... And now The London Review of Books joins this List Of Shame.

Probably Arnold Zwicky is right: we're never going to find a grammar-book source for these errors. There is no book that recommends this usage. It's just that so many extensions of the use of the term "tense" have been made in various grammars where "tense is extended to cover all sorts of verbal categories (often realized by morphology on the verb)", and in addition in so many cases verbal form "is extended to cover multi-word combinations -- periphrastic expressions -- as well as single words", we can hardly be surprised if some people think it covers voice as well. Arnold points out that in various grammars he has found references to infinitive tense, conditional tense, subjunctive tense, negative tense, causative tense, permissive tense, inceptive tense, plural tense, imperative tense, and interrogative tense.

Non-finiteness, modality, mood, negation, transitivity, deonticity, aspect, number, clause type... it's all about tense. And will doubtless remain so. Only it isn't.

I don't like to harrumph, really I don't. But honestly... Harrumph.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 27, 2007 09:34 AM