Monday, March 09, 2009

The Work of the Symbolic (3)

On Friday, I said that the following sentence is in the passive voice:

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is embodied in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Jonathan pointed out that "is embodied" only looks like the passive voice. The "to be + plus participle" construction is really used as an adjective. I immediately concurred, but this morning I am once again unsure.

The University of North Carolina Writing Center offers this "sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice":

form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

Jonathan offers a counterexample—a case where the formula would mis-fire, as it were.

He is dressed in black.

To see what this might mean, consider the following example. The UNC Writing Center gives us this sentence as an example of the passive voice:

The working class was marginalized.

But we can, of course, talk about a marginalized group of people just as we can talk about a dressed man. If that is what the sentence means, argues Jonathan, then it is not passive voice. Alternatively, we can talk about a group that is going through the process of marginalization, i.e., a group that is being pushed to the margins.

Consider this one:

Symbolism in institutional processes is produced in shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

That's clearly passive voice. But notice that we had to remove "the work" (which could not be "produced").

Now consider this one:

The work of the symbolic in institutional processes is marginalized by shared sociolinguistic meanings and practices.

Here we had to replace "in" with "by". The original sentence was telling us where the work happens; this one is telling us that something is happening to the work.

More on Wednesday.


Jonathan said...

All the examples on the NC web site are passive voice, but I would say that "sure-fire" is overly optimistic, since this method fails to distinguish between adjectival and verbal uses of the participle. They probably didn't want to open that can of worms.

"My shirt was soaked in sweat."

Note how this does not have an active equivalent, since nobody soaked my shirt in sweat. We can replace it with another construction like, 'My shirt was dripping with sweat" or "My shirt was damp with sweat."

Or say: "I am married." That is no more passive voice than "I am unmarried."

Thomas Basbøll said...

Would you also agree that there is a sense in which

"The working class was marginalized"

is not in the passive passive voice, but involves this adjectival use of the past participle?

Jonathan said...

Here's the thing: there is a context in which it could be passive and a context in which is could be adjectival. Compare:

"The working class was deliberately marginalized by feminist theorists in the 1970s."

(clearly passive)

"The working class was marginalized."

(grammatically ambiguous, though the meaning is not different enough to create any confusion.)

"The working class was destitute, marginalized, and lacking in education."

(the participle acts as an adjective in a string of adjectives).

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, that's my view of that sentence also. Nice examples. Consider this:

(1) "The working class was marginalized and lacking in education."


(2) "The working class was marginalized and soon found itself lacking in education."

We can read (2) as being in the passive voice. But it can also, I think, be read the other way.