Submitted by Skeeter Lewis on July 30, 2014

What’s happening to the Passive?

Nowadays one routinely reads such sentences as...

 “The situation transformed into something quite different.”

“That translates as ‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts.’”

It’s a curious phenomenon that the passive is so often ditched. What’s going on?

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What passive are you talking about? I see no passive.

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Exactly. There is no passive there. And there should be.
The sentences should run this way:
"The situation was transformed into something quite different."
"That is translated as 'Beware Greeks bearing gifts.'"
Situations can't transform and words can't translate. They lack volition.

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@SL I think quite a number of style guides suggest that one should avoid the passive wherever possible.
There are still a few verbs pairs in English (like rise/raise, fall/fell) where the causative transitive is marked, but for the most part we do not mark it in English; thus we say:
a) "Interest rates increased" (somehow by themselves)
b) "Interest rates were increased" - (someone/thing caused them to rise)
What has happened here with "transform" is that the writer has applied the same (ergative) approach to avoid a passive: no reason why not, although it may be new to some of us.

A similar thing happened in Hungarian, and under pressure from style gurus the passive has all but disappeared from modern Hungarian (it remains only in the verb for 'to be born'); the 'ergative' forms are often distinctly marked. The end result is that professional Eng->Hung translators are often left scratching their heads when faced with an English passive; this is why I believe that those who preach that the passive is to be avoided at all costs are misguided: it is there to be used as and when needed, but not to excess.

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@Jayles. "Interest rates increased." Good example. Clever old interest rates.
It leaves one wondering where the rest of the sentence is. I don't mind the passive in moderation so long as it is a true passive, not this strange form that obeys no rule of logic.

Oddly, in my previous post I was about to do the same thing myself. I nearly wrote, "The sentences should read this way." Sentences don't read. People do.

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@SL

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergative_verb

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:English_...

"Transform" is there on the list of so-called ergative verbs.

I must confess when I first came across this stuff, it took me months to get to grips with it all; but in fact it is rather important when teaching English to speakers of languages where the passive either just exists not, or works not in the same way as English.

Enjoy.

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First, jayles is right that there is a lot of antipathy to the passive from people who really should know better, especially in American writing schools - their reason being that they see it as 'wimpy' and avoiding responsibility. One striking aspect of this criticism, is that many of these critics routinely misidentify the passive. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum has collected many of these examples at Language Log, and I've written about it here (with links to Pullum):

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/11...

Funnily enough, I've also written about ergative verbs on my blog, and I gave this example of one, which is where the object of a transitive can also be used as the subject of the same verb used intransitively:

"Little Johnny broke the window when playing with his ball." - transitive active
"The window was broken when little Johnny was playing with his ball." -transitive passive
"The window broke when little Johnny was playing with his ball."- intransitive use

Naturally, the window didn't break of its own accord, but I think most of us would accept the third variation as being OK. Of course children use this as a way of trying to avoid blame - "Mummy! My toy broke!" Most ergative verbs are related to cooking - "the pasta was simmering away", changes of state - "the door opened", general movement and the movement of vehicles - "the plane circled overhead".

I notice that under the heading "Verbs expressing change" I've included a section on "Beginning and ending, increasing and decreasing", including such verbs as "begin, finish, decrease, grow, fade" - "The sun had faded the colours / The colours had faded in the sun."

Ngram graphs would suggest be true that the intransitive use of some of these verbs has increasing in the last forty years or so:

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=tr...

It seems to me that this intransitive use is more common with some of these verbs than others, and I can see no reason to object to the intransitive use with "increase", for example. And I would argue, that this is really more about transitive vs intransitive use, than active vs passive. Take, for example:

"The government have increased taxes again!"
"Taxes have been increased again!"
"Taxes have increased again"

Now we all know who is the agent that increases taxes, and so a passive example is very unlikely to mention the agent - so I can't see any great improvement in using the passive here. But perhaps that's because I'm so used to teaching students that "increase" and "decrease" can be both transitive and intransitive.

Although the growth in the use of "translates as" seems fairly recent, it seems perfectly idiomatic to me, and this use is listed in Oxford Online. It goes back at least a century: this is from 1911 - "In the second volume of the historical annals of Korea is found a reference to rain gauges which translates as follows: "In the 24th year ..."

The lack of any mention in either Fowler (3rd ed) or MWDEU would suggest that this has not been considered problematic by commentators. I would also suggest that your passive example - "That is translated as 'Beware Greeks bearing gifts.'" sounds as though it has been translated like this on a particular occasion, by a particular translator, not simply that that is its meaning in English.

I agree that the "situation transformed" example sounds a bit odd at first, and at a cursory glance at Google Books I can't find any examples of this use much before 1980. But Oxford Online has this example:

"a wry cynicism rapidly transforms into an overwhelming sense of sourness" - I don't suppose cynicism has volition either. The definition given here being "Undergo a marked change".

(Incidentally, I don't think volition has a lot to do with it - "It was an event that would transform my life.". Events don't have volition either. And even when chrysalises transform into butterflies, I don't suppose there's much volition involved there either. The question for me, is whether a verb that is normally used transitively sounds natural when used intransitively.)

I doubt there would be any objection to “The situation changed into something quite different.” , so I can't really see any logical reason why transform shouldn't be used in a similar way.

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"Now we all know who is the agent that increases taxes" - something not quite right there: "Now we all know who it is that increases taxes, who the agent is"

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"The situation was transformed into something quite different." - this is fine when we know that there was an agent who/which transformed the situation, but situations have a habit of changing under their own steam: here are a few intransitive examples:

"The situation turned nasty"
"The situation improved"
"The situation worsened"
"As the situation darkened on the Northern Plains, Sheridan was pulled away"

Incidentally, Skeeter, I much prefer your first choice of "the sentences should read this way" to "The sentences should run this way". After all, we can say "It says here ..." when nobody is saying anything. And we also say things like "This reads more like an advertisement than a review", so what's wrong with "the sentences should read this way". This is from "All About Grammar", by Rosemary Allen (2007):

"James ran in the house to tell Mum." This should read:

"James ran into the house to tell Mum."

I can't see any problems there. Trust your instinct!

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/08...

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Just to clarify something - not all these verbs are ergative verbs, one test for which is to interpose 'and so' between the transitive version and the intransitive one:

'Little Johnny broke the window, and so the window broke'
'The sun melted the ice, and so the ice melted'
'The government increased taxes, and so taxes increased'

This is obviously not the case with 'translates (as)', 'reads' and 'says' - where something else is happening.

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Nothing to stop a verb having more than one meaning, or the meaning changing slightly according to context, and varying between transitive/causative and intransitive:

Children grow quickly.
Flowers grew on the trees as summer approached.
He grows peppers and squash.
The boy grew wise as he matured.
Peppers and squash were grown in the allotment.
The trees grew flowers as summer approached.

Secondly, an idea may be typed as passive in one language but typed as active in another:

Opening of the Knight's Tale:
" Whilom, as olde stories tellen us
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;"

"highte" is active in form but means "to be called" (cf heissen in German)

"I miss you" in English is expressed in some other languages as "You are missing for me".

So one cannot make rules about what should be passive or not.

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Incidentally we are not simply limited to active or passive; in classical Greek there was a 'middle' voice too, meaning to do something 'for one's own behoof'; in Latin there are 'deponent' verbs - passive in form but corresponding to an active form in English.
In English we but seldom change distinguish some of these changes in meaning; 'The concert began' and "He began his homework" show no change in the form of the verb; however in other languages this might be two different verbs each with more specific meaning.

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In the UK there is a Plain English Campaign (www.plainenglish.co.uk/) which promotes the use of plain English, as opposed to awkward, long, inefficient or jargon-filled sentences that are difficult to understand, in public communications. Many public organisations such as local government and councils have adopted Plain English for their public and internal communications. Some private enterprises have also followed suit. One of the outcomes is that they avoid the passive tense where possible as the active tone is easier to understand and also makes the communication more immediately relevant. So, that could partly explain why the passive tense is not used as much in official communications.

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@Sophie - I'm all for simpler English, but the passive should be regarded in the same way as any other construction - not get the blanket (and unthinking) disapproval it does in certain quarters.

It is very easy to be long-winded using only the active voice, and it is equally possible to be informal using the passive. Which is the more long-winded here, I wonder:

The company have dismissed him.
He's been sacked.

The passive is especially useful in English, where we don't have reflexive verbs, and for information packaging - starting a sentence with given, known information and putting important new information to the end (end weighting). This is what might happen if we couldn't use the passive:


"This is a picture of Canterbury Cathedral. Augustine founded it in 597 and various people rebuilt it between 1070 and 1077 after a fire destroyed it in 1067, the year after William of Normandy conquered England. Builders greatly enlarged the east end of the cathedral at the beginning of the twelfth century, and others largely rebuilt it in the Gothic style following another fire in 1174.

The cathedral is especially famous for the story of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who two knights murdered in the cathedral in 1170. Pilgrims used to visit his shrine, which builders placed in the Trinity Chapel, above his grave. Somebody removed the shrine in 1538, when Henry VIII summoned the dead saint to court to face charges of treason. Having failed to appear, they found him guilty in his absence and they confiscated the treasures of his shrine , and carried them away in two coffers and twenty-six carts"

(Adapted from Wikipedia with all passive verbs changed to active. - check the original to see how useful the passive is) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canterbury_Cathedral


Here are some non-formal (and easy to understand, plain English) examples of the passive (from a blog post I wrote some time ago):

Apparently he was born in Hungary.
They were married in the local church.
It's supposed to be a genuine Rolex, but I have my doubts.
Do you know his first book was published when he was only 15. Amazing!
Peter's flight has been delayed because of some strike or other.
It's a shame the youth club was so badly damaged in last year's fire.
We came by bus because the car's being serviced today.
The report? The final version is being typed up as we speak.
He was had up for speeding twice last year.

And some even less formal examples:

Three quid for a coffee! You've been done there, mate!
Would you believe it! I've just been given the heave-ho. Again!
Late again! You're fired!
I've had enough of being screwed around like this.
Some ref he is! We were robbed!
Don't tell me you fell for that email scam. You're so easily had!
I've been tweeted three times this week. And 'liked' on Facebook.
Like I was so not taken in by his smarmy charm!
So I use the Passive sometimes! Am I bothered?

And then there's the 'get' passive:

She got caught cheating.
We got soaked in the rain yesterday.
He got arrested for fraud.

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One way of writing simple, plain English is to make the topic of the paragraph the subject of the sentence.

Thus :
Eggs. Eggs are eaten the world over. They are fried, boiled, scrambled, poached and eaten raw. They are considered highly nutritious, although somewhat high in cholesterol.

The above is more coherent and cohesive than the following version which jumps around more:

Eggs. People eat them the world over. They fry, boil, scramble and poach them and eat them raw. They consider them highly nutritious, although eggs are somewhat high in cholesterol.

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Hungarians who learn English "tend to avoid using the English passive voice" : believe me it does NOT make for plain and simple English.

http://www.acta.sapientia.ro/acta-philo/C2-2/ph...

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WAIT HERE UNTIL RED LIGHT SHOWS.
Shows what?

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@Skeeter Lewis - what's wrong with intransitive 'show'?

From various dictionaries:

Fear showed in his eyes.
She tried not to let her disappointment show.
She's nearly forty now.And it shows.
They managed to fix it so that the break wouldn't show.
Her scar doesn't show, because her hair covers it.
Shirl was four months gone and just starting to show.
Now showing at a cinema near you!

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And it's not particularly new:

"The rain poured down, and never a light showed" - Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, 1899

"Close to the top of the staircase, however, there opened a door, through which a warm light was showing" - Margaret Oliphant, 1884

"and at night the light shows plain enough to warn vessels that it is time to haul offshore" - US Lighthouse Board 1852

"The fact, however, is that nearly every merchant vessel's side lights show not from right ahead only, but from half a point to a whole point or more across the bow." - The Practical Mechanics Journal 1868

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"WAIT HERE UNTIL RED LIGHT SHOWS." Was this in the USA?

In my experience US usage of "show" differs slightly from UK.
"He never showed" vs "He never showed up"
"The chef was a no-show" vs "The chef went AWOL".

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@jayles - It's a standard road sign in the UK, approved by the Department of Transport, and often used at road works - http://www.google.com/search?q=%22when+red+ligh...

The UK press had some fun when a pedestrian stopped at one earlier this year - http://metro.co.uk/2014/01/18/coventry-pedestri...

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@jayles - incidentally, while I agree that 'show' to mean 'show up' is mainly American English (and is shown as such in, for example, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary), I don't think that there is such a distinction with 'a no-show'.

Unlike the former, OALD lists it without any mention of it being American; in Ngram its use is almost exactly the same in American and British books, and I certainly use it myself when no students turn up for a class (not such an infrequent occurrence when you teach in-company).

Strangely, it seems to be used more in the British media than in some of their American counterparts: The Guardian gets 119 hits whereas The New York Times gets none, although there seem to be plenty at the Washington Post (176) and the LA Times (125); The Daily Mail gets 437, but at the tabloid NY Post it's zilch; at the BBC there are 91, while ABC, NBC and CBS together can only muster 9. As it is seen as informal, it is perhaps not surprising that it crops up a bit more on Fox News - 152 hits.

These site searches don't seem to be 100% accurate, however, as I've found an example at the NY Post - "Super Mario ‘granny groper’ a no-show in court", and being used as an adjective at the NY Times - "No-Show Jobs and Overstaffing Hurt New York Harbor, a Report Says".

Other examples of adjectival use:
"How Restaurants Can Deal With No-Show Diners" - Eater.com
"Hotel's no-show charge" - TripAdvisor
"A $15.00 per player no-show fee will be charged" - NY State Parks

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if one Ngrams the following:

[no - show]:eng_us_2012,[no - show]:eng_gb_2012

it becomes evident that "no-show" was originally a US phrase. It was one of the many phrases I had to get used to whilst working with US multinationals in the early eighties; along with "maintenance and repairs", "miscellaneous", "inventory", "payables" instead of the Brit "R&M","sundry","stock","creditors". And "labor" not "labour".

However my cringe moment came later in the eighties, when in a downunder business meeting I had to ask what "dzarvo" was.
('Strine = this afternoon)

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According to that Ngram, 'no-show' started to take off in Britain in about 1970, which means it's been around here all of my working life, and about the same time as quite a lot of words that originated in hippie or black American culture around the same period, such as 'hype', 'uptight', 'the munchies', 'laid back' etc, which I wouldn't now regard as particularly American, although their origins undoubtedly are.

And like those other words, its use is now deeply embedded in the British media, so again, despite its origins, I don't really think of it as American. But then again, I spent much of the late sixties and early seventies reading Rolling Stone and American books.

I imagine that what mainly accounts for the difference in usage between AmE and BrE is its use in the former as an adjective, which seems to dominate at Google Books, whereas as far as I know its use in Britain is restricted to it being a noun. The earliest examples at Google Books are of adjectival use, from 1957 and 1958, noun use from 1965 (funnily enough, referring to students).

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Bewildered by English mores (or hating the class system), in the early seventies I took a PanAm flight from Heathrow, never to return to Blighty - apart from a brief sojurn there in the early nineties.
So my instincts about Am vs Brit English are often somewhat dated. It all depends on what context one hears or reads them first.

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@jayles - Fair enough.

In history classes at university we had a lot of discussion as to whether certain changes that took place in the UK after WWII, such as the rise of consumerism and the new availability of certain household appliances, constituted Americanisation, or whether it was simply modernisation, which had started in America.

I'm sure it's much the same with language: because a lot of social and technological change first appeared in the US, not to mention the whole idea of business as a 'science', and the cultural domination of Hollywood, we are bound to have taken on a lot of words which though they may have originated in America,are simply part of our modern lifestyle.

But then again, we still seem to keep our differences, even for some of these advances, for example hoover, fridge and telly, which are far more prevalent in the UK than in the US. And that that sign in question - "Wait here till the red light shows" - seems to be uniquely British.

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