March 13, 2006

Voice confused with tense at the Economist

An anonymous reviewer in The Economist [print edition, 11 March 2006, p. 77], where writers are always anonymous unless there is a special reason to reveal their identity, says of the new novel Company that the author Max Barry "is a master of short sentences and the passive tense." Passive tense? The anonymity is a blessing here, since it serves to protect the reviewer from public shaming. I don't really relish the role of pedant, and I can guess what the writer meant; but the passive involves a voice contrast; it has absolutely nothing in common with tense. I am astonished, all over again, at how educated people can commit blunders as extreme as this one in print, and editors don't even notice.

People normally follow Strunk and White obediently in complaining about use of the passive, but it often turns out that they cannot actually identify passives to save their godforsaken lives, as Language Log has remarked so many times before (see this post and this one and this other one and yet one more here and still another one here, for example). In the case at hand today, the passive is apparently being approved of rather than condemned — but by a writer who cannot even tell it from a tense.

I know, you're going to say, why should we care? Well, the view I take is that if we are going to pay any serious attention to the formal properties of prose in our language, which is exactly what this reviewer is trying to do, we have to have a coherent system for talking about it; we can't just talk uninterpretable nonsense.

Tense is an inflectional category of verbs that has time reference as its primary semantic function. English has two orthogonal tense contrasts: the primary one is present vs. preterite (compare writes with wrote) and the secondary one, marked with the past participle preceded by the auxiliary verb have, which contrasts non-perfect versus perfect. The have can be in either present or preterite, so we get both writes / has written and wrote / had written. Subjects and objects are unaffected by tense changes.

In the passive voice, on the other hand, the semantics of the subject is assigned differently. The active voice, as in Mary wrote a letter, has the agent role associated with the syntactic subject (in this case Mary, denoting the person who did the writing). In the passive counterpart, A letter was written, the subject (a letter) is what would have otherwise been expressed as the direct object, had active voice been used.

The problem of people confusing voice with tense is not a huge danger for the future history of the world; but for heaven's sake, if people have absolutely no idea how to use technical terminology of grammar, why do they try, even when writing for print publication? Why do they imagine they can just guess at random and put their unchecked guess in The Economist? And why do the editors let them? I don't know. I'm at a loss for words. So I'll just fall back on repeating a splendid piece of rant that Mark posted a while ago on Language Log, in a depressingly similar context:

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.

Right. What Mark said. Amen.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 13, 2006 09:48 PM