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QW 022612 “Obfuscation of agency”

I read an interesting article on obfuscation (= making something, unclear, or unintelligible) of agency (the one who does an action) and the use of the passive voice on Language Log. What do you think of the following sentence?

"During his period of service as Foreign Minister there were many achievements.”

How could the sentence be different from “He achieved many things during his period of service as Foreign Minister.” ? Here’s how L-Log explains what is happening here.

The verb achieve is the one that you don't want him to get to be the subject of, so you nominalize it, forming the noun achievement, and pop the result into a bare existential clause, asserting that the achievements exist, but you don't (in that clause, anyway) give him any credit for them.

We all know that the sentence “During his period of service as Foreign Minister there were many achievements.” is not the passive voice. Here’s an additional explanation from L-Log.

English has all sorts of ways of talking about actions without mentioning who undertook them. Sometimes they are quite legitimately used, and sometimes culpable (= deserving blame) muddying of the waters is going on — it varies from case to case. But the passive voice is not the same as concealing who did what. Neither is necessary or sufficient for the other.

I’m quite sure that what we can learn from this article as English learners can be summarized as follows: When you want to obscure agency for some reason, there are more ways than to use the passive voice. One way of doing that is to nominalize of a verb to form the noun, and insert it into a bare existential clause (i.e. “there is” clause).

(40 minutes / 288 words)

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Writing Center Blog Post - Active vs Passive Voice
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Aya

Author:Aya
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