Saturday, July 09, 2011
  Passival

Public radio show 'On the Media' had a short grammar feature at the end of the hour, featuring what they called the "largest change in grammar since Shakespeare." Being a hopeless grammar freak, I couldn't stop listening after that headline!

However, I doubt their assessment of its importance. They were discussing the switch from the 'passival' form, common around 1800, to the 'progressive passive'.

Example they gave: in the passival form, you might say The refreshments are preparing or The house is cleaning. In the newer progressive passive form, we'd be more likely to say The refreshments are being prepared or The house is being cleaned.

The passival form evolved from an earlier sort of prepositional gerund with 'on': The refreshments are on-preparing >>> The refreshments are a-preparing >>> The refreshments are preparing.

In fact the original isn't all that strange; we could say The refreshments are under preparation which has the same basic construction.

And the passival form isn't entirely gone, either. As I was walking around the house thinking about this, I poured a cup of coffee and noted an item plugged into the same outlet as the coffeemaker: The battery is charging. This seems to have a slightly different feel, perhaps only because it's a familiar phrase, but I can't see how it's logically different.

= = = = =

A separate quibble with their description of simple vs progressive tenses. They're using the old prescriptivist version, the version I learned in 7th grade grammar class. This description is good for past tense, but it was never correct for present tense.

In past tense, the short form does denote a 'pinpoint past', and the was ___ing form does denote continuity. I poured a cup of coffee means that the pouring happened once, it's all done, and nothing else happened during the pour ... or at least nothing I'm going to tell you about in the rest of the sentence. I was pouring a cup of coffee means that the duration of the pouring is the important fact, and that I'm going to tell you about something else that happened within that interval. (Later thought: A coffee-pour is such a short event that it's a dubious example for this distinction.)

Present tense doesn't work that way because there cannot be a 'pinpoint present'. The hand of time is always moving, and any attempt to say what's happening exactly now is impossible. We understood this instinctively even before we invented clocks! The is ___ing form is the closest we can get to a simple or pinpoint present. I'm pouring coffee means that the pour is happening in the same time interval when I'm talking about it. The short form is actually the more continuous type of present tense. I pour coffee doesn't mean I'm doing it exactly now; rather it tells you that coffee-pouring is my constant tendency or perhaps my job. It's what I do all the time.

Things get weird when the sentence specifies a time. The short form still denotes a constant tendency or job: I mow the lawn on Thursday. But the is ___ing form mysteriously slips into the future: I'm mowing the lawn on Thursday means exactly the same as I'll mow the lawn on Thursday.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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