RE: Hocus Pocus

Subject: RE: Hocus Pocus
From: Rick Kirkham <rkirkham -at- seagullscientific -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 15 Nov 2000 11:36:02 -0800

"Thomas Quine" <quinet -at- home -dot- com> wrote:

> Sorry to say I still have a lot of trouble with this one.
> Consider these alternatives:
> 1. Click the "New" button. The New Customer window appears, open to the
> Address tab.
> 2. Click the "New" button. The New Customer window will appear, open to
the
> Address tab.
> I'm inclined to add the word "will", . . . If you just say it appears,
that seems to me
> to sever the causality between the apparition and the act of clicking the
> "New" button.

Granted. But isn't that just a case of not including unnecessary
information? After all, readers in the intended audience will *infer* the
causal connection anyway. (No one will think "Gee. The tech writer got the
window after pressing New, but that's just a coincidence: I might not.")

> An earlier poster was correct in stating that "The New Customer window
> appears" is a passive construction, since one hallmark of the passive
voice
> is difficulty in identifying the subject.

I don't think your right about that. This is *not* passive construction:
"Subject" does *not* refer to "The thing which brought about the event
asserted in the sentence". So any mystery there might be in identifying the
latter does not imply that there's any mystery in identifying the subject.
"Subject" is a grammatical term and it refers to the grammatical subject of
the verb. There's no mystery at all as to the subject of "The New Customer
window appears." (That noun phrase has to be *some* grammatical part of the
sentence and since "appears" is intransitive, it can't be the object, so . .
. )
The hallmark of passive construction is not mystery as to the subject. The
hallmark is that the grammatical subject refers to something other than the
thing that's doing the action (or in the state of being) the verb expresses.
In the above sentence the grammatical subject *does* refer to the thing
that's doing the appearing.
A passive construction of the above idea would be: "The New Customer window
is caused to appear." The grammatical subject here does not refer to the
thing that's doing the "causing". ;-)

> Who or what made the New Customer
> window appear?

That is, indeed, mysterious in the sense that it is not made explicit in the
sentence. But that semantic fact isn't relevant to the strictly syntactical
issue of whether the sentence is active or passive.

> In the above sentence, on the face of it, the New Customer
> window appeared, wraithlike, by itself!

Agreed. But that's a side effect of "appears" being an intransitive verb. It
is not a sign that the sentence is in passive voice.

Sorry to be so pedantic, but this is a pet peeve of mine. Whoever thought up
the terms "active voice" and "passive voice" should be shot! These terms
seduce people into thinking that the distinction is a hazy semantic one and
that it might be a matter of opinion whether a sentence is active or
passive. But the distinction is actually objectively defined. I don't
*think* whether or not a given sentence is passive voice is *ever* a matter
of opinion anymore than whether 2+2 equals 4.
Can anyone out there think of a sentence in which it really is
indeterminable objectively whether the sentence is active or passive?


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