Tag Archives: American English

Between a marsh and a damp place

Active humidity.

The summer of greyness continues with another dull, hazy day and the imminent threat of rain at any moment. It’s probably raining right now, but just lightly enough to be invisible against such a leaden canvas. The cicadas don’t seem to mind as they all enjoy a singalong in the trees, and when it really starts raining at night, the frogs have their own rasping chorus.

The News of the World is about to pass out and the country of South Sudan is passing in. I can understand why the NoW hacks might be a bit peeved that they’re being punished for events for which they’re not responsible. Would they, though, have shown more scruples than the real culprits did? Paint me sceptical.

Will the newspaper landscape be better or worse off with the departure of the News of the World? I didn’t know that it’d been around for 168 salacious years in the first place and I’m sure something will replace it whether it’s the Sun on Sunday (or whatever it’s meant to be called) or something else. Or has the Internet overtaken such a need?

Let’s leave the News of the Screws behind and turn our attention to some car news. The next gen Porsche 911 will be out shortly. Over on the Top Speed site was a story about one of the new models catching fire during some testing. The part which interested me was

The vehicle testing was a special prototype developed for the Chinese market, but will be finding its way back to the Porsche center in Weissach for further examination. (My italics; if you can see them.)

Is this another instance of American passivophobia (fear of the passive voice)? I would’ve said “The vehicle being tested…” myself. The phrase is not really grammatical in my English because the verb test requires a dO. It could be that this is an instance of the middle voice in American English, which seems to be more widespread in that variety than it is in British English.

Here’s the question, though. Is the middle widespread in American English because it’s an instance of independent language change? Is it widespread because the passive is a bit of English grammar which generations of non-English speaking immigrants to the States preferred to skip? (To what extent might the Romance languages, Spanish in particular, which aren’t exactly keen on the passive, be responsible?) Is it widespread because of those ridiculous injunctions against using the passive from people like Strunk and White are reinforcing an inherent tendency in the language?

What about that business about a special prototype being developed for the Chinese market? That probably means that when the driver crashes into someone, the car says, “My dad’s a corrupt official”. That, or the engine will be specced to produce higher levels of pollution, or it’s been limited to a 0-100kph time of 18 seconds to match the sluggish nature of road users here.

The middle verb

So there may be a few inherent ones.

Yesterday I said that I couldn’t think of any verbs that I myself might use in the middle voice. From what I’ve found (see this thread on englishforums.com), there are some verbs which I would use in the middle voice. Obviously, these form a subset of all of them, with speakers of American English using others in this way, even although I wouldn’t myself.

The question about this latter group is whether the middle use of raise or delete is inherent or derived. That is, whether the middle of these verbs is formed by zero derivation, or whether this particular function is lexically listed. I think I’d say that my grammar limits me to middle verbs which have this function as part of their specification. I can’t simply take any old transitive verb and make it middle using zero derivation.

03.08.14. Is the spread of the middle in American English due to one or more of the following?

  1. It’s a consequence of the Americans’ fear of the passive voice.
  2. It’s a consequence of the pernicious effects of Microsoft Word English on linguistically ignorant users. (And there would seem to be some sort of link with the first reason.)
  3. It’s been influenced by Spanish. (I assume that like other Romance languages, the passive is less frequent than reflexive forms essentially performing the same function.)
  4. It’s a consequence of English being acquired by a large body of non-native speakers (i.e., immigrants). (I suspect the historical evidence is against me.)
  5. It’s a consequence of the independent development of the language, being an innovation rather than the spread of an archaism. (I know everyone thinks American English is less formal than English, and somehow more cutting edge. I disagree. I think that it’s a linguistic museum. Certainly, it’s not the pinnacle of the development of the English language as [American] books about the history of the English language typically imply. Yes, I know I’m being peevish, but I’m fed up with seeing American all over the Internet, and ever having the feeling that Britain trots along behind like some mentally retarded poodle.)

Lie back and think of England

It’s not that sort of passive.

I’ve been reading this entry on Language Log about the source of injunctions against using the passive voice.

Although George Orwell railed against it, the school of the 11th Commandment (“Use ye not the passive for it lacks force. And the Lord saith unto you: For him who useth the passive, there is a Circle of Hell.”) seems to be in the States. I’m sure that the opposition to the passive in style manuals may have something to do with the avoidance of the passive in American English, but I also have another theory.

I think that the passive may also be losing ground in the face of the middle voice. It’s not something we use much in British English, but it’s noticeable in American writing. For example, I’d write

[e] is raised to [i] when [i] or [j] occurs in the following syllable.

An American would probably phrase that as

[e] raises to [i] when [i] or [j] occurs in the following syllable.

Of course, in my English raise is a transitive verb and requires a direct object (e.g. Old MacDonald raises chickens). I would find it unnatural to say “[e] rises to [i] etc.” because I still want the implication of an agent even if one isn’t being overtly stated.

The middle to me looks a lot like a Romance reflexive, but with the reflexive pronoun missing. The American sentence is kind of implying “[e] raises itself to [i] etc.” Of course, I might be so desperate for some sort of object that I’m seeing some sort of ellipsis which isn’t there.

Nonetheless, for me, the middle in American English is noticeable. The question is what the source of this form is. It may not be wholly absent from British English and I’ve found it hard to avoid writing in the American style at times, but I can’t think of any commonly used instance of the middle in British English. I think it pops up in journalese, but that’s dimwitted hacks for you. But to get back to my original question, I have no answer. It may just be another instance of the random way in which dialects of a language diverge from each other.

However, I also wonder whether the middle is a feature of creoles (a pidgin which has gained a body of native speakers). Creoles have impoverished grammatical systems, and how they handle more sophisticated modes of expression such as the passive, where the object is raised [sic!] to the subject position, gives some interesting insights into how the human mind does language. My thinking is that with such a large immigrant population most of whom spoke no English, is it possible that certain features of American English are creole-like because non-native speakers were attempting to acquire the language, perhaps much of the time without formal instruction in the language? The middle arises as a substitute for the passive because the grammar is simpler. With the passive, the object of the verb has to be moved to the subject position; with the middle, you appear to be left with an empty object position. (I don’t know what the transformational approach to this is; perhaps there’s also object raising here, thus

e is raised [e] to [i] etc. → [e]1 is raised e1 to [i] etc.
e raises [e] to [i] etc. → [e]1 raises e1 to [i] etc.

where e marks an empty position. More research needed.)

Commandments against the passive have their effect on the language, but they’re kind of working in tandem with a grammatical alternative that’s already there. Since the former get more publicity, the latter tends to get overlooked.