19 Jul 2010

Do the Laws of Grammar Change in a Liquidity Trap Too?

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I was glancing over Brad DeLong’s post about World War I when I came across this:

It is never clear to me to what extent the fact that faithful translations from the German seem evasive of agency to nos Anglo-Saxons is an artifact of translation, a reflection of truth about German habits of thought, or an accurate view into authorial decisions. The use of the passive in the translation of Mommsen:

  • “the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe…”
  • “the Reich had to face a superior coalition…”
  • “the war turned out to be…”
  • “the catastrophic diplomatic situation that isolated Germany…”
  • “It was above all the bloody reckoning…”

cannot help but strike this one forcefully…

Is it just me, or are those not (all) examples of the passive voice–including DeLong’s (apparent) attempt at a humorous conclusion?

In particular, what’s passive about, “the Reich had to face a superior coalition”? How else could that have been written? (See what I did there?)

And the last “funny” line: “Cannot help but strike this one forcefully…” Yes that’s real convoluted, but it’s not in the passive voice, is it? If it had been written, “I cannot help but be struck by this forcefully…” then that would be in the passive, right?

Disclaimer: It is past 11 my time. I hope I am not totally wrong on this. If so, it will be regretted.

5 Responses to “Do the Laws of Grammar Change in a Liquidity Trap Too?”

  1. Anon73 says:

    I’m no linguist, but I agree with you. The wiki article on the passive voice in English says the canonical example is to start with a clause with a direct object and put it into the subject, e.g. “John threw the ball” is mapped to “The ball was thrown by John” with the direct object now appearing in the subject. In particular, the wikipedia article suggests passive constructions consist of an auxiliary verb (usually “to be”) along with the past participle of whatever verb is being altered. In fact all those snippets you listed are just subjects and don’t have a verb or a predicate! The misfortune that befell Europe…. did what exactly? It was above all the bloody reckoning…. that did what exactly?

    Compare: This has struck this one forcefully.
    This one was struck forcefully by this.

  2. Ash says:

    You’re right. Those are all past tense, not passive voice.

  3. JimS says:

    Passive voice and past tense exist for a reason. It is not wrong to use them. It is the situation in which they are used that matters. Passive voice minimizes effect. Most political speech is passive voice and there is reason for that. You are correct in your unstated assumption that direct voice is more engaging and more forceful and generally should be used.

    Currently, I am reading Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist.” I highly reccommend it, though religious folk may take exception to the evolution references. I take exceptioin with his writing styles; it is far too informal for my tastes and incorrect, at times. Still a great book and good read. Gist of the book is that free markets and trade make everything better.

  4. Lucas M. Engelhardt says:

    I think it depends what we mean by “the passive”. You’re right, these are certainly not passive voice. But, the phrases achieve a similar effect by shifting responsibility. I think that’s what DeLong is going for – which fits with his attempted humor.

  5. Aristos says:

    You’ll need to see a form of “be” followed by a past participle for the passive voice. This is not known by Brad DeLong.