An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar
October 27, 2015 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Depending on whom you ask, the use of the active voice over the passive is arguably the most fundamental writer’s maxim, thought to lend weight, truth, and power to declarative statements. This absolutist view is flawed, however, because language is an art of nuance. From time to time, writers may well find illustrative value in the lightest of phrases, sentences so weightless and feathery that they scarcely even seem to exist at all.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (30 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
 
Goes hand in hand with this piece [NYT] on Texas's history textbooks. It's funny, till it's not.
posted by Mchelly at 7:04 AM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


I most often have problems with the passive voice in domestic situations:
'The kitchen should be cleaned.'; 'The trash needs to be taken out.'; 'The grass needs to be cut.'
The subject is unspecified, but somehow, it's always me.
posted by MtDewd at 7:10 AM on October 27, 2015 [31 favorites]


I don't understand this as an issue. I have for a long time read over and over that the active is preferable to the passive but that the passive has uses and ought to be used when and as necessary.
posted by Postroad at 7:13 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Postroad: "I don't understand this as an issue. I have for a long time read over and over that the active is preferable to the passive but that the passive has uses and ought to be used when and as necessary."

Did you RTFA? It's not really about grammar.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2015 [35 favorites]


That was clever - fun and silly until it suddenly isn't. Thanks for posting.
posted by aka burlap at 7:15 AM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Protip: before you comment about how your English teachers were humorless dictators and you really like the passive voice, RTFA.
posted by aught at 7:30 AM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Huh.
posted by Phreesh at 7:33 AM on October 27, 2015


Yes, it's better to think of this as a short story that must be read in full. I can't remember being so startled by a piece that posed as a comic bit, but lord, it ended up far more moving than I would've guessed.
posted by mittens at 7:38 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


That is tremendous. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Shepherd at 7:43 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


A posting somewhere on the World Wide Web subjected me to an experience of mild intellectual curiosity regarding topics related to the area of stylistic uses of grammar and syntax to evoke subtle responses in the reader. I forget where I read it.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:51 AM on October 27, 2015


That turn at the end comes suddenly -- even when you know it's coming.
posted by notyou at 7:54 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


PROTIP: The McSweeney's piece isn't about grammar at all. Read it and see what I mean.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on October 27, 2015


As someone who writes for TV news...this is sadly spot-on.
posted by davidmsc at 8:11 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]



This is really good. Glad I made it to the end.
posted by Jalliah at 8:18 AM on October 27, 2015


I don't want to spoil the piece, so I'll just link to pages and pages of search results on The Gray Lady, even in 2015, for a certain lazy stock phrase that annoys me to no end. Who exactly is tense, and why?
posted by mubba at 8:30 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: Funny until it isn't.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:34 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I loved this piece all the way to the end. And then I didn't.
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:36 AM on October 27, 2015


CNN: Air Attacks Kill at Least 19 at Afghanistan Hospital; US Investigating

Hark, Look! A series of bombs materialized from the sky, how curious.
posted by Static Vagabond at 9:00 AM on October 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


BREAKING: An applause-like sound was allegedly reported to have emanated at a point near-in-time to a posting-related incident rumoured to have involved MetaFilter.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:43 AM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


That was incredibly effective. I think it's pretty easy for a lot of people to blow off grammatical complaints as nitpicking and fussiness, and just sort of tune them out as insignificant. But that illustrates just how explicit and how important framing is.

You learn to avoid these things--passive voice and other passive constructions--in primary school. No professional writer (like the textbook authors in the NYT article) is doing this sort of thing because they don't know any better. Everyone knows better. Things are written this way as a result of clear, unacceptable biases, whether they're conscious or unconscious.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Individuals involved with security enforcement are investigating the outcome of an incident involving the velocity of a rock and the velocities of several bullets.
posted by Oyéah at 10:24 AM on October 27, 2015


Things are written this way as a result of clear, unacceptable biases

stealth passive phrase detected

my rule of thumb for grammar is 'follow the rules unless the rules stop you doing what you want to do'
posted by Sebmojo at 1:07 PM on October 27, 2015


Funny coincidence: That's also my rule of thumb for police work.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:16 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


This was awful, as it should be. Jesus.
posted by psoas at 1:37 PM on October 27, 2015


The moment I saw Ronald Reagan say "Mistakes were made," I thought "There must be a name for what he just did." It was revolting, evincing the soul of the conservative political mind. I've looked for a name for it ever since, sure that there had to be one, and here it finally is, the past exonerative tense.

Fantastic!
posted by carping demon at 7:56 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


This is perfect. I want to force everyone I know to read it to the end.
posted by man down under at 10:53 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


"As someone who writes for TV news...this is sadly spot-on."

Can't be sued for things that happened but were not reported as such.
posted by klangklangston at 11:05 PM on October 27, 2015


.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 5:43 AM on October 28, 2015


Punch line becomes punch in the gut.
posted by Edward L at 2:27 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The moment I saw Ronald Reagan say "Mistakes were made," I thought "There must be a name for what he just did." It was revolting, evincing the soul of the conservative political mind. I've looked for a name for it ever since, sure that there had to be one, and here it finally is, the past exonerative tense.

Relatedly.
posted by aught at 1:57 PM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


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