Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list
This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.
Listen to the audio version of this article on Patreon.com
We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.
Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.
So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles. Continue reading
Posted in editing, language and linguistics
Tagged agent, beneficiary, editing, experiencer, goal, grammar, instrument, linguistics, location, NINK, passive voice, patient, recipient, source, stimulus, thematic roles, theme, theta roles, writing
“To better serve you, we have added the following charges to your account…”
To better serve who? Oh: To better serve you up to our shareholders as a revenue stream. Gotcha.
There’s a word for that. Continue reading
It’s all a matter of how you see it. In what context you see it. From what distance. And how much it contrasts with what’s around it.
This is the word of my life: focal. More than almost any other word.
No, wait. These are the words of my life: focal and focal.
Focal, in English (and French and Spanish and Portuguese), means ‘of or relating to focus’. It comes from Latin focalis.
Focal, in Irish, means ‘word’. Is é focal an focal i gcóir focail. (‘Word is the word for a word.’) It looks like it could come from Latin vocalis (source of English vocal), but it doesn’t – although it is distantly related. It comes from a Proto-Celtic word that traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root for ‘voice’, wṓkʷs. Along with the Latin vox set, that root also led to the Irish word fuaim, ‘sound, noise’, and to many words in many other Indo-European languages, such as German erwähnen ‘mention’ and Dutch gewagen ‘report’. Continue reading
Dublin. Dubh linn.
Dubh, say it to rhyme with “groove,” means ‘dark’ or ‘black’.
Linn, almost rhymes with “sing” but is really like a slice out of “well in your soul,” means ‘pool’.
Linn, said no differently, also means ‘a span of time’. Also means ‘with us’. And so can mean ‘belonging to us’. Continue reading
A cork is an important thing. You don’t taste the cork itself – you don’t want to taste it! – but it keeps what’s in the bottle fresh. You have to get past the stopper and taste what you can pour out.
The word cork, once you open up the etymology, comes from Latin cortex, meaning ‘bark’, a tree’s interface with the outer world, because corks are made from the bark of the cork oak. Cortex is also the word for the skin of your brain, its involuted outer layer, the part that is so important in consciousness and memory, your awareness of your interfaces with the outer world.
Cork, the city in Ireland, is not named after cork bark. Its Irish name is Corcaigh – pronounced like “corky” in most of Ireland but a bit closer to “corkage” in Cork’s own region. It means ‘swamp’ or ‘marsh’ – well, it’s the dative form, so it means ‘to the swamp’. Which sounds like an instruction to go find a wet place. Continue reading
Sometimes memory and experience sanctify small details, even the dark and spiky ones. A little thing can make a big difference, and a gap may be a high point.
After we left Dingle in the late afternoon, we headed to Killarney for our overnight stay. A friend of mine had assured me that if I had time to kill or just wanted to take it slow, Killarney would be the place. Continue reading