Friday, May 23, 2014

Actively Passive, Grammatically Aggressive

The bell has tolled.

For a mere four words, that simple sentence presents an odd little linguistic dilemma – one that calls to mind the old admonition from writing professors about avoiding the passive voice. You know, the childish dodge of “the window got broken” rather than “I did it!”

Grammatically, the “passive voice” is invoked when the subject of a sentence is NOT the performer of the main verb’s action. For example,

The winner [subject] crossed [main verb] the finish line. ACTIVE
The finish line [subject] was crossed [main verb]. PASSIVE

Passive construction begs the question “by…?” (Naturally, in the childhood story, the answer becomes “the ball,” the performer though not the perpetrator of the damaging action.)

Similar to the destructive ball, our noisy bell requires assistance in the performance of its action.

Hence, the “odd little linguistic dilemma” with “The bell has tolled.” (And NO, it’s not “told,” though a tolling bell can be telling.)

Structurally, the sentence is written in the active voice. Passively, it would read: The bell has been tolled. (By…? See how that works!)

On a literal level, the sentence evokes the question “how” – how did that happen, what perpetrated the action?

Hey, isn’t that the same question?

Indeed…and therein lies the dilemma.

The words convey an identical meaning with or without that voice-changing auxiliary verb..kinda like the way ‘flammable” and “inflammable” offer the same cautionary advice.

Is there really a need for both?

In actual practice, the manipulation of voice can be a handy tool, and not solely for shady or self-serving motives.

A tolling bell may, for instance, symbolize the passage of time; it may raise even more questions, like “for whom”; it could conceivably lead to an “indirect object” or two.

For many years, the bell tolled many a student their release from my pedagogically diabolical clutches.

Once again, the bell has tolled.