Sense amid the clamor of nonsense
People believe all kinds of nonsense about politics—that George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks, that Barack Obama is not a native-born American citizen. Moronic legislators in what H.L. Mencken used to call the cow states are forever trying to smuggle Genesis into the biology curriculum of the public schools. Crackpot theories—that immunization causes autism, for example—take root in the public consciousness and remain long after they have been discredited.
Nonsense also infests my little realm of writing about the English language, as you have seen in numerous previous posts. People obstinately adhere to what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—you know, split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences—that no reputable authority has advocated for decades. Popular books on writing and websites offer stunningly unsound advice, including statements about the language that are demonstrably incorrect. Much of the writing on language in newspapers and magazines is simply laughable, with the exception of a few intelligent stalwarts such as Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe.
So today I want to steer you toward something reliable.
First off, Geoffrey K. Pullum has taken on the task of explaining passive clauses. “The passive in English” at Language Log runs to 2,500 words, but don’t be daunted. Professor Pullum has taken the trouble to minimize the number of technical terms and to explain them clearly. His essay will do two things for you:
1. It will explain thoroughly how the passive operates in English, including a number of cases that people do not generally recognize as passive.
2. It will also show you how linguists approach the language, and just why the traditional terminology of grammar that you learned in the classroom long ago is not adequate to the purpose.
Take time for it.
Afterward, you can turn to a short article by Anthony Gardner on the practice of turning nouns into verbs. Even though you can find abundant commentary scorning the practice, verbing nouns, along with nouning verbs, has been commonplace in English since the peasantry dropped all those inflections from Anglo-Saxon long, long ago. Impact, for one, has been a verb in English for centuries, despite what your personal preferences might be.
And there lies a point often obscured in wrangling over language. These changes in usage crop up continually. Some of them stick, and some of them fade. But they are not grammatically incorrect. You may, with justice, find them aesthetically repugnant—vogueish, affected, awkward, wrong-headed, pretentious, obscurantist. (If there is any justice in the universe, the hours I have spent listening to management-speak in meetings should materially shorten my time in Purgatory.) But your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language.
That bears repeating: Your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language. Keep stylistic issues separate from grammatical issues.