Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Language stuff - agent de-emphasis

Normally when we think about describing an event, we think in terms of who or what is actually doing it - that is, the agent.
David broke the plate.
We may, for various reasons, not wish to draw attention to the agent. English language allows us several options for doing this. The most obvious one is to use a "short passive":
The plate was broken. 
The passive voice is used, and the person who actually does the breaking is not specified. It is possible to include the agent when using the passive voice:
The plate was broken by David.
but there may be reasons for de-emphasising the agent by omitting it - for example, when the parents come downstairs to discover the reason for a loud noise, a child might choose to draw attention to the fact that the vase has been broken, rather than admitting that it was him rather than the dog that did it.

Another option for agent de-emphasis is the use of nominalisation. This is converting a verb into a noun. I have to come up with a more complicated sentence now, as nominalisation of "to break" will leave it without a process (verb).
David broke the plate. We glued it back together.
We can de-emphasise David by nominalising the verb:
After the breakage of the plate, we glued it back together.
Yes, I know, it's a little artificial, but hopefully you get the idea.

There's a third option, and this is to use what is known as an ergative verb. This is quite subtle. An ergative verb is one that can be transitive or intransitive - that is, it can either be used with a subject and object, or just with a subject - but the object when it is used transitively becomes the subject when it is used intransitively. Blerk. The easiest way of explaining this is to give an example.
The government closed the mines.
Here, "the government" is the subject of the verb, and "the mines" is the object - or to use different grammatical categories, "the government" is the actor and "the mines" is the goal. It's possible to write this using a short passive, as explained above:
The mines were closed (omitting "by the government").
The agent/actor/subject can be omitted, which means we don't need to mention who actually closed the mines. Or we can use a nominalisation, and talk about the closure of the mines - again, the agent disappears. But we have a third option, because "close" here is an ergative verb - that is, the object of the sentence above (the mines) actually becomes the subject if we use the verb intransitively. If we want to use this verb intransitively, then the sentence becomes:
The mines closed.
(rather than "The government closed.") Once again, the agent/actor has disappeared.

There are various reasons why agent de-emphasis might be considered desirable. Those of us who have been using computers for more than ten years probably remember earlier versions of Word for Windows nagging us about using the passive voice. In my case, it was because I was often writing about science - and an aspect of science writing is use of the passive voice - to de-emphasise the person actually doing the work. Using nominalised verbs allows the writer/speaker to increase the lexical density - that is, to convey more information in less space. This is valuable in media where word count and space is at a premium - like journalism.

More significantly, as the example above suggests, there may be political reasons for de-emphasising the agent. And I'd like to return to this in a future post ....

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