Crystal on Grammar and Be.

Yes, I know that post title reads oddly, but I’m trying to mash together the titles of two new books by David Crystal which I received in the same review-copy package from Oxford: Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar and The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language. As you would expect (I’ve praised Crystal many times here), they’re excellent.

Making Sense is a combination of a practical guide for improving the instruction of grammar, with which I am not concerned, and an explanation of how English grammar works, which he carries out with gusto. His “top ten” manifesto begins with the points that “Grammatical change is normal and unstoppable” and “Grammatical variation is normal and universal,” which warms my heart — I’ve long since boiled down my descriptivist approach to the basic points that both language change and language variation are inevitable, and that’s OK. He finds gems like John Keats writing to his publisher in 1819 “I should not of written,” a good example from 200 years ago of a confusion many people assume to be a product of these degenerate times. He has a chapter on the benefits of the internet to language investigation; you can find out about, say, Singaporean usage without having to go to Singapore or buy Singaporean newspapers, simply by going online, and you can study grammatical change as it happens. It’s Crystal at his best, regardless of whether you agree with his grammatical theories (“My approach to grammar is expounded in its fullest form in the two reference grammars written by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, A Grammar of Contemporary English […] and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language“).

The Story of Be is a detailed look at the history and uses of the most complex English verb; it has chapter titles like “Being, as was,” “Time being,” and “You’re cheeky, you are,” and a great many vintage cartoons with piquant captions like:

Squire. “Well, Matthew, and how are you now?”
Convalescent. “Thankee, Sir, I be better than I were, but I beant as well as I were afore I was bad as I be now.”

Of course, I particularly enjoy detailed historical exegeses like the sidebar “The infinitive form, be,” with sentences like “That depends on how you date the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, south-west Scotland.” I’m looking forward to delving into it more thoroughly; this is exactly the sort of book I like to keep around for random perusing.

While I’m here, I’d like to thank effusively whatever LH reader sent me a copy of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter C. Perdue; it’s absolutely gorgeous (the maps! the color plates!), and I can’t wait to dig into it and learn all about the tragedy of the Dzunghar Mongols.

Comments

  1. Let be be finale of seem.

  2. Anatoly says:

    I’ll note (sorry, this is a pet peeve of mine) that in _Making Sense_ Crystal repeats in passing the silly myth that the proscription to split infinitives arose due to confusion with Latin grammar by clueless grammarians:

    “We’re still trying to get rid of the pernicious influence of Latin on the way we think about English grammar […] If you’ve ever been uncertain about “it is me/I” or “between you and me/I”, or worried about whether you should split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, then you’ve been led into the Latin trap…”

  3. Good point, and I’m glad you noted it — I wish he’d pay attention!

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Crystal repeats in passing the silly myth that the proscription to split infinitives arose due to confusion with Latin grammar

    If this is a myth, is there another explanation? Influence of French instead?

  5. It’s not clear; you can read Anatoly’s discussion here:

    It is not true that the prohibition against split infinitives was decided in the 18th century (they started debating it mid-19th century), and more importantly none of the grammarians railing against it in those times based their arguments on anything to do with Latin. Never happened. The story seems to be a modern 20th-century invention, and has spread widely among those who oppose prescriptive grammarians because it makes them look very silly. It is repeated in many popular articles and books (e.g. Pinker’s The Language Instinct), but for all that is completely untrue.

    The interesting question, then, is – why did prescriptive grammarians of the 19th century start railing against the split infinitive, whereas the grammarians of the 18th century didn’t much care about it? And the answer is, in the 18th century the split infinitive largely wasn’t there. There are some examples we can find going back all the way to the 14th century, but they are rare examples. In fact, if you just read some random 18th century prose, you’re likely to quickly run into phrases that sound a little awkward to the modern ear, because they seem to intentionally avoid splitting the infinitive. But those authors didn’t try to write awkwardly or intentionally avoid the split infinitive (which wasn’t known as a prohibition). They were using the conventions of their time in which it was a rarity.

    In the 19th century the split infinitive started occurring more often (perhaps became a fad of sorts), and that’s why the grammarians noticed it. […]

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks LH.

    I remember reading (perhaps in one of Crystal’s books) 18th C quotations recommending the unsplit infinitive as something more fluid, elegant (or similar adjectives), but not prohibiting the split one.

    The timing of the “rare” examples of the split infinitive going back to the 14th C seem to suggest that its non-use was due to French influence on bilingual writers, since it is as impossible to split a French infinitive as a Latin one. (True also for other Romance languages, but they would not have influenced English). As English writers became monolingual, perhaps the split infinitive more congenial to English structure was avoided as less cultured, less sophisticated, etc, before being prohibited by grammatical pundits.

    This reminds me of a discussion a few years ago about the prohibition of “ending a sentence with a preposition”. There were a few examples of approximately the same (Late Medieval) period, showing questions beginning and ending with the same preposition, as with “To whom are you speaking to?” (not an actual example), which also seemed to me to result from a conflict between the French and English word orders: an English speaker enjoined to place the preposition at the beginning (as in a French question) would still use it at the end, since the question would seem unfinished without the preposition.

  7. So it was my Latin master who railed on about split infinitives (and other peevery). And he certainly claimed it was because Latin had no such thing. (He also taught Classical Greek, and spoke reasonably colloquial French — didn’t teach it.)

    If I could go back in time armed with all the knowledge I now have, and Geoff Pullum at my elbow … I’d have a go at my English teacher as well, who (it turns out) must have failed to notice all the split infinitives in Shakespeare. And the Chemistry teacher who insisted we wrote up experiments using only passive sentences!!! “The test tube was heated over the bunsen burner, and the fluid was observed to turn blue.” Fail: run-on sentence beginning with a conjunction. Grrrrrrrr

  8. So it was my Latin master who railed on about split infinitives (and other peevery). And he certainly claimed it was because Latin had no such thing.

    Sure, lots of people claim that now; Anatoly’s point is that that wasn’t the reason for the prohibition, just an after-the-fact justification.

    And the Chemistry teacher who insisted we wrote up experiments using only passive sentences!!!

    !!!

  9. marie-lucie says:

    And the Chemistry teacher who insisted we wrote up experiments using only passive sentences!!!

    This was to follow the style of professional articles!

    Some years ago I bought a small cookbook which looked interesting at first sight, but when I tried to follow some of the recipes I discovered that it was entirely written using only passive sentences!!! So for instance: The potatoes are peeled and diced. The oil is poured into the pan, and so on. It was so offputting that I ended up throwing it in the garbage after only a few tries – an extreme action on my part as I hate to get rid of books.

  10. Yvy tyvy says:

    It was so offputting that I ended up throwing it in the garbage after only a few tries – an extreme action on my part as I hate to get rid of books.

    Is that… prescriptivism???

  11. Just irritation, I think. I might have done the same. Everyone is entitled to write as they like, but that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to have their writing enjoyed.

  12. Speaking of science and the passive voice, it is argued in this letter to Nature that “use of the passive voice encourages precision and probity” whereas the active voice “encourages carelessness [and] partisanship.”

    (As I recall, many correspondents disagreed vehemently with this nonsense, but still…)

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks LH. Yes, irritation in the extreme! Imagine every sentence like that, page after page. Cookbook style is usually a series of imperatives: Peel and dice the potatoes, etc, one action after another, each one a step on its way to the desired result. Passive sentences give the impression that things have already been done, the ingredients have already been subjected to the various procedures, there is no impression of a progression towards a goal. Pick up a cookbook and try turning every imperative into a passive. The effect is exasperating in the extreme. Done once, it is strange, but through 100 recipes?

  14. The consistency is surprising. Perhaps some overzealous editor took it on himself to decide that books shouldn’t order their owners around, and converted the original (and natural) imperatives to passives.

  15. I started trying to imagine some dance-craze songs of the Sixties, with the instructions all converted to the passive. Then I quickly decided to stop.

  16. Oh, I don’t know ….

    Your right hand is put in
    Your right hand is put out
    Your right hand is put in
    And it’s shaken all about
    The hokey-pokey’s done
    And you’re all turned around
    That’s what it’s all about!

    Perhaps not.

  17. Just let money be given,
    That’s all that is wanted…

  18. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Perhaps some overzealous editor took it on himself to decide that books shouldn’t order their owners around

    At the time I remember talking about this with a friend who said that some cookbook authors objected to using imperatives because they did not want to sound like they were “giving orders”. But surely those imperatives are “instructions” describing how to perform a procedure that a person wants to learn, not “orders” which tell people what to do, or else!

  19. How is it done in other languages? German and French seem to use the infinitive, as a non-imperative imperative..

  20. I just wrote to the egregious Dr. Leather (the author of the letter to Nature mentioned by David L.). I went through a copy of one of his papers counting the passive sentences, and found one on the second page and another on the fifth page, all the rest of the sentences in those pages being active or debatable (participle vs. adjective, like The door is closed). Alas, I don’t seem to have access to a copy of the message, but I ended up Johnsonianly thus: “Sir, I would never presume to tell you about herbivorous insects [the subject of the article], about which I know nothing. What justifies you in telling the entire scientific community about the passive voice?”

    We’ll see what happens.

  21. Well done!

  22. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian uses a mix of passive present constructions and imperatives. I think there’s a preference for imperatives in bullet-point-like instructions and the passive in more general descriptions of a process or the end result.

    But I can also do some actual research. Of the two cookbooks I have at hand, the expensive one is almost consistently imperative, while the cheap one switches to passive present for serving instructions.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    How is it done in other languages? German and French seem to use the infinitive, as a non-imperative imperative..

    Yes, but that’s telegraphic style and comes with things like omitted articles. If you want complete sentences, resort to the impersonal pronoun.

    The traditional German cookbook style, now probably extinct because it’s hopelessly formulaic, is to combine the impersonal pronoun with the present subjunctive: every recipe used to begin with Man nehme, expressing the wish that one take the ingredients and do something with them.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Depending on the degree of generality and formality, French uses the infinitive, the imperative or the present, as in : Eplucher/Epluchez les pommes de terre “Peel the potatoes” or Vous épluchez les pommes de terre “You peel the potatoes”. The latter style is more conversational, as if the writer was right there in the kitchen with you, taking you through the various manipulations.

    It seems to me that the passive could be used occasionally to describe a result, either at a given stage of the proceedings, or at the very end.

  25. Bathrobe says:

    I’m not sure why this Leather fellow should be described as egregious. He is merely protesting against the extension of Strunk and White into scientific English.

  26. Thanks (not!) @David L for the aggressive passive letter to Nature — that took me back to a very dark place.

    Seems it was originally written in 1996 but re-published last year(?)

    Its arguments are very familiar, but somehow twisted almost to the point of parody. Is it serious or is it a spoof?

  27. @Bathrobe, If you’d suffered under my Chemistry teacher, “egregious” would be the mildest term to describe “this Leather fellow’s” nonsense — that is, if it’s not parody. (As parody, it’s a very sophisticated slow build-up to a position as outrageously non-scientific as claiming that the passive leads to moral degeneration.)

    He seems to be entirely unaware of S&W (writing in 1996), which is no surprise to me. Looks like he’s a Brit (as am I). At no time through the education system (grammar school, 1970’s Uni) did I encounter admonitions against the passive. (Against split infinitives, or ending a sentence with a preposition, yes plenty) If anything (as I described), there was pressure for the passive.

    The usage guides to reference would be Fowler or Quirk, not S&W.

    He says “… 20 years ago when the passive voice was de rigeur” amongst his lament for the crumbling of (scientific) civilisation. As far as I recall, S&W simply hadn’t crossed the Atlantic even by 1996.

  28. Bathrobe: My point is that if he truly rejected the active voice, he wouldn’t write so much using the active voice. From which I deduce that he does not know the passive voice from a hole in the ground, and is using “passive” to mean something like “impersonally written”. Which is egregiously ignorant.

    (“A sentence fragment. Another. Good device.” —David Moser)

    I didn’t realize that it was first published in 1996. The posting date on ResearchGate is 2016.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    OK, so what we know now is that 1) he is an ignorant hypocrite, and 2) the decline in the passive in scientific writing that he is castigating is not a result of the campaign against the passive, merely a progressive change in writing practices.

  30. @John C …I deduce that he does not know the passive voice from a hole in the ground, …

    Clearly Leather does know the passive. That’s why I think it’s a spoof.

    As you say, he does write mostly using active clauses. I think that’s knowing and deliberate. (To say “active/passive voice” is a shibboleth for thinking in Latin. The English verb system does not have ‘voice’. Active/passive is a characteristic of the clause structure. See Pullum passim. There’s more Latin thinking: “cases must agree” — English does not have a case system, except in the pronouns, but you wouldn’t have them in scientific writing; “tenses must be used correctly” — is there any writing in which tenses must be used incorrectly? and tense is orthogonal to active/passive.)

    When Leather asks, rhetorically, How many of the most memorable prose passages in English literature are written in the active voice? The only answer he can be expecting is: nearly all of them. But then scientific papers do not (usually) aspire to be literature.

    When he says Most authors using the active voice show no consistency of use. he surely intends his own consistency (using the active) to be a shining beacon.

    I can see only three passives [not that I’ve looked very hard]. The passages … are written above; It is claimed that … seems unexceptional in scientific writing. But there’s no “by …” PP so this is exactly being evasive as to agency/failing to attribute the claim. Bad scientific writing!

    And there’s this clunker: By standing at a distance, an unbiased viewpoint is much more likely to be reached. Does it need to be evasive as to agency? No, the preceeding sentence talks about … the researcher to stand at a distance ….

    So what Leather is demonstrating — precisely show, don’t tell — is how scientific writing is perfectly possible using the active throughout; and that the use of the passive voice is more difficult for the reader ….

    It’s very clever! I hope your message was suitably appreciative.

  31. David L says:

    @AntC: I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether the Leather letter was a spoof or not. I hoped it was, and you have (almost) convinced me…

  32. I’m (almost) convinced! Excellent analysis.

  33. Gary says:
    June 16, 2017 at 5:24 pm
    How is it done in other languages?

    In Croatian, cookbooks traditionally use infinitives.

    On a different note, older cookbooks tend to use some singularly unhelpful instructions such as “put in the oven and cook until cooked.” My theory is that it is a relic of the days when you cooked things in the old fashioned wood-fired range, without dials and setting that modern ovens have.

  34. In English that comes out as “cook until done”, and I remember seeing it as late as the 1950s, when wood-burning stoves were mostly a thing of the past in the U.S. Cookbooks do copy each other a lot, though.

    I don’t believe for one minute that Leather’s manifesto is a spoof, and if it is, I don’t believe the editors of Nature thought so, or they would hardly have published it. Abysmal ignorance explains everything that needs explaining: see this Geoff Pullum post from 2003 in which someone did an actual study of active and passive voice headlines without knowing what the English active and passive voices are.

  35. I just want to point out that one of the two best scientific papers I have read [R. Laughlin, Phys. Rev. Lett. 50, 1395 (1983)] was written in a strongly active voice. In fact, it reads almost like a personal narrative of the steps Bob Laughlin took in figuring out the solution of the fractional quantum Hall effect. (Of course, the paper doesn’t include the correct mechanism that it lays out was actually the second theory that Laughlin had proposed to explain the fractional quantization. He is very open about the fact that his first idea was totally wrong, and I guess he can afford to be that open about the mistake, since his eventual correct explanation won him a share of the Nobel prize.)

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Pullum did another Language Log post on the same topic at a later date (after LL started to allow comments). I remember not only reading it but adding a comment.

    It seems to me that “voice” is being interpreted not as a property of the language, a grammatical category with definite morphological properties (in the passive, presence of the verb ‘to be’) but as a property of the speaker or writer, as in “Find your voice” and similar advice to beginning authors. So a sentence with does not seem to be confidently asserting a fact or action, including the details of “who” and “what”, is deemed to be “passive”.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Brett: The first mention of a “passive voice requirement” above was about students’ lab reports on chemistry experiments. Since the passive voice avoids mentioning the actor (subject), it can be considered quite suitable for describing procedures which could be reproduced by any qualified person or team. On the other hand, the paper you mention (on a topic I am totally ignorant of) seems to me to refer to something which required a lot of thought and imagination, and was therefore highly dependent on the author. In this context, using the passive voice would have been quite artificial, as well as stylistically disastrous.

  38. Thanks @marie-lucie, the students’ lab report was mentioned by me. And the requirement was described as “only passive sentences”. The term “passive voice” was not used by me, but was mentioned as a shibboleth.

    An example sentence in a lab report was given as “the liquid was observed to turn blue”. What should be noted by all is this Chemistry teacher didn’t allow “the liquid turned blue”. Such a locution would be criticised by him as similar to claiming that a tree falling in the forst made a crash, even though there was nobody to hear it.

    So no! The observation could not “be reproduced by any qualified person or team”, because they were not there, only yours truly (and a bunch of similarly unobservant schoolboys).

    Fatuous pedantry of this ilk should be condemned by all (is what was learned by me). Identifying the passive was not learned by me in Chemistry lessons; nor in English lessons. (What was learned there was near-terminal hatred for English literature. Later, luckily, it was realised by me that it was the pedantry I hated, not the literature.) Identifying the passive was learned by me in Latin lessons. (So an excellent understanding of “passive voice” was obtained; perfectly prepared to be informed by Pullum that p v is wot English does not ‘ave.)

    The upshot that could be observed in my later school career was that Chemistry was abandoned at the earliest opportunity (despite decent exam marks being obtained), and Physics was favoured, because those experiments could be written up in more flowing language. School: amongst the worst days of my life.

    Strangely, the names of the masters than can be remembered by me are the overbearing pedants. The name of the Physics teacher has been forgotten; as has that of the enthralling student teacher who switched me on to literature after the pedant had given me up as not University material (he was wrong, of course).

  39. @marie-lucie: What is remarkable about the Laughlin paper I mentioned is that it does give a forthright discussion of how the author came to his conclusions, presented almost as a personal narrative. However, this is certainly not the standard in physics, even for papers that lay out similarly original ideas, where how the authors came by the ideas is a potentially interesting and valuable part of the story. I can think of several papers on really original ideas in which the authors take a paragraph or two near the end to discuss the the thought processes that led them to their solutions, but a paper with the tone of Laughlin’s is really quite rare. Particularly in experimental physical sciences (which is not my field, by and large) papers are often written in a completely impersonal style, including a fair amount of grammatically passive constructions. Some scientists feel this writing style is preferable, since involving the identity of the experimenter is seen as artificially personalizing experimental results that ought to be independent of whoever is performing the actual experiment. However, often the most illuminating papers are the ones where the authors do not hold themselves aloof, and their personal interactions with their experiments provide additional illumination for their readers.

  40. Bathrobe says:

    Ok, AntC, you’ve made your point! Now could you switch back to active, please!

  41. From a LL post quoted here last year:

    H. V. Nagaraja Rao is one of the most versatile and literate Sanskrit pandits of the last half century. Practically no Sanskrit pandits speak as well as he does. Most of them do not resort to subtle or complex verb forms, but speak almost entirely in passive forms, with special emphasis on the past passive participle, for the simple reason that it’s an easy form in a complex language. It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    Brett, AntC, sorry if I seemed to misattribute and misunderstand your points by not quoting your exact words but more or less paraphrasing, thereby no doubt making obvious my lack of familiarity with the practices of the hard sciences.

    AntC, you did make your point beautifully! I have read things like “X was …ed by me” in some student work where they were completely out of place (no, the work was not lab reports). Overuse of such sentences in some contexts may have been part of what turned composition teachers against the passive voice.

  43. @Bathrobe,@marie-lucie, no, no ignore me! I’m taking advantage of Hat’s welcome mat to vent at all those wasted years in the English education system. (I say “English” deliberately: I understand the Scottish system to be qualitatively better.)

    Pullum’s definitive write-up http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922. He thanks all his contributors (that must include m-l) http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=9576. As prolegomena to explaining just why “by me” is so wrong (in section 3). It’s not really the passive to blame. That’s a long doco http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/passive_loathing.pdf so I’ll just quote:

    > (19) The denotation of the passive complement NP in a passive clause must denote something at least as new in the discourse as the subject.

    The first person can never be new in the discourse. There are exceptions where the first person is getting contrastive stress. That would be exactly applicable to the very first sentence in my reply to m-l. (Her post had not attributed who did the mentioning.) Thereafter (and quite deliberately on my part) every “by me” was entirely gratuitous and increasingly grating (I hope).

    And the peevery both against and for the passive entirely misses the point: If you need to put new information to its rightful (!) place in the sentence, usually the active form achieves that. But sometimes you must move the NP and reorder the sentence; in which case you must use the passive.

    Pullum goes on to clearly demonstrate Strunk is an incompetent nitwit. (And I enjoyed that split infinitive. And all the sentences beginning with a conjunction.)

  44. Trond Engen says:

    It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs.

    I think this is a mechanism for development of an ergative-absolutive system. Are there even languages where the original nominative was completely replaced by an oblique case, and the original active by a (medio-)passive?

  45. Ok, AntC, you’ve made your point! Now could you switch back to active, please!

    This is the passive voice of the Borg. Your point has been made. You will be assimilated. Existence as it is known to you will be terminated. Your active constructions will be transformed and your agents omitted or deemphasised.

  46. Thanks Borg. It’s wose than that! My follow-up post (not a passive in it) “is awaiting moderation”. My only sin seems to be linking to three Pullum posts. (He’s very likely to have used a naughty word, I suppose.)

    BTW, your opening sentence could have been: The voice of the Borg shall be heard by you!

  47. Now these recommendations are interesting (and salutary):

    Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”) as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. We have also found that use of several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers. We encourage authors to “unpackage” concepts and to present their findings and conclusions in simply constructed sentences.

    https://www.nature.com/authors/author_resources/how_write.html

    Use active voice when suitable, particularly when necessary for correct syntax (e.g., “To address this possibility, we constructed a λZap library . . .,” not “To address this possibility, a λZap library was constructed . . .”).

    http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/contribinfo/prep/res/style.xhtml

    My impression is that scientists generally prefer passive constructions in the abstract and active ones in the body of a journal article (usually hiding behind the auctorial we, which can often be construed as 1pl. inclusive, and therefore reader-friendly).

  48. SFReader says:

    This discussion was read with interest by me.

  49. And it has been taken account of by me.

  50. ə de vivre says:

    Are there even languages where the original nominative was completely replaced by an oblique case, and the original active by a (medio-)passive?

    Yes! Or rather, the nominative isn’t ‘replaced’ so much as it becomes the absolutive case. This is (to my knowledge) the main way that (split-)ergative systems emerge. In fact I wonder if this peeve is related to the development of split ergative systems in Indo-Aryan languages.

    I’d have to poke around, but I recall a paper showing that some Neo-Aramaic languages have gone through this process twice: becoming ergative, back to accusative, then to ergative again with a new oblique case.

  51. Neat!

  52. I just read a paper last night that I’m not naming or linking to, because I think it’s turgid and intellectually muddled. But it does have an interesting (though I think ultimately false) idea about how split-ergative systems work, namely that the point of voice systems is not to lower valence, that being merely a side effect, but to get the discourse-relevant persons or things into the most-favored places. So given that 1st and 2nd persons are more discourse-relevant than 3rd person pronouns, which are more relevant than newly introduced nouns, it’s natural to mark things that are further down the scale when they become (unusually) agents, and mark things that are further up the scale when they become (unusually) patients.

    So “I-NOM hit the man-ABS” is the “normal” discourse situation and needs no marks, whereas “The man-ERG hit me-ACC” is the “most abnormal” situation and needs two marks. “You-NOM hit me-ACC” and “The man-ERG hit the woman-ABS” are intermediate and require one mark each.

    None of this is more convincing to me than the explanation “Pronouns are conservative and remain accusative even after nouns have become ergative (possibly dragging 3rd person pronouns with them)”, but it’s food for thought.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    So “I-NOM hit the man-ABS” is the “normal” discourse situation and needs no marks, whereas “The man-ERG hit me-ACC” is the “most abnormal” situation and needs two marks.

    That’s the logic behind direct/inverse systems, except the marks all go on the verb there.

    usually hiding behind the auctorial we

    In English that seems to be limited to linguists. Other scientists used to resort to third-person constructs like “the present author” (or in German “the writer of these lines”), but nowadays “I” is fairly common – to the extent that single-authored papers still exist.

    French still uses “we”, but with singular adjectives/participles.

  54. In English that seems to be limited to linguists.

    I actually had Richard Feynman’s style in mind (where as a single author or a co-author). OK, he may not be quite typical, but glancing at some recent papers in Nature I find that the authors’ we is normal there (of course they mean the we to be plural): Here we show… Here we report… We hypothesize… We conclude… We compiled published data on adult sex ratios in wild populations… We then took advantage of the field rotation during the observation… etc.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    of course they mean the we to be plural

    Ah, you just meant as opposed to the passive… yes, two or more authors saying “we” all the time is very widespread, e.g. all of my papers (I’ve never published alone so far).

    I find that inclusive we (a single author and the reader) can come across as a bit silly in presuming too much agreement from the reader.

  56. There is also the we-of-all-humanity. Harold Laski, the British political scientist, was apparently notorious for writing and saying “We know little of …”, meaning that little of it was known by anyone.

    David: Indeed, the paper in question does talk about direct/inverse as a voice system like active/passive, ergative/antipassive, and Austronesian alignment (which in my opinion is not voice at all but something unique).

  57. Israeli Hebrew cookbooks used to use the feminine singular imperative, aimed as they were at housewives. Nowadays they use the plural masculine (generic) present tense, roughly similar to English “You chop the onion… you preheat the oven…”

  58. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Austronesian alignment (which in my opinion is not voice at all but something unique)

    I audited a course on Austronesian where I first encountered this odd use of “voice”, and I agree that the word is not an accurate description. “Focus” is probably better, unless there is a “unique” reason not to accept it.

  59. The trouble is that it’s not really focus either; in particular, the trigger is always definite, which makes it more of a topic than a focus. But it’s not really a topic in the sense of Chinese or Japanese either. No, IMAO the best thing is to call it the trigger and leave it that, an Austronesian-specific concept.

  60. Alignment is the normal term for the category that includes active/passive, ergative/absolutive, direct/inverse, and Austronesian-type systems.

    But it does have an interesting (though I think ultimately false) idea about how split-ergative systems work, namely that the point of voice systems is not to lower valence, that being merely a side effect, but to get the discourse-relevant persons or things into the most-favored places.

    John, why do you say that’s ultimately false? I’d say that’s pretty clearly the usual function of e.g. passivization in English (and the idea is certainly not original to this unnamed paper). English generally likes to line up topic with subject, and the canonical passive construction is one of a number of devices that allow this (others can be seen in e.g. He had his car stolen or 1914 saw the outbreak of World War One.)

  61. That was badly worded on my part. I don’t say the claim is false in general (though maybe too narrow), I say it is not a parsimonious way to explain split ergativity.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    A Latin recipe using the third-person imperative! Boldface mine, brackets in the original:

    The alleged basic meaning of color as ‘dark color’ might perhaps still be seen in the denominative verb colōrāre, which basically means ‘to give something a darker color’ as in Cato’s De agri cultura in a description of how to make a certain kind of pastry: item unguito coloratoque caldum ne nimium (Cato Agr. 80) “spread it [sc. the cake] in the same way (with honey) and let it become brown, but at a moderate heat.” Though, of course, an interpretation as ‘to give something a different color’ is possible here as well.

    From this paper on the PIE root *kʲwel- “dark, black”, which argues that color may not be from *kʲel- “hide” after all.

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