January 2, 2007

Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive,* it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voilà! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing


I wrote back to try to explain myself in more detail and to note that the staff member wasn’t analyzing the verb phrase as a whole. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. Well, I did my best to explain why Mr. Garner’s take on the subject was wrong. I just hope that someday the section gets fixed.

Editing, Grammar, Rants 7 Replies to “Editing Chicago”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “Editing Chicago

    Author’s gravatar

    I don’t see how “being acted on” is intransitive. It looks passive to me.

    something is acting on the subject
    the subject is being acted on

    Author’s gravatar

    Basically, it would be a true passive if you left out the on:

    something is acting* the subject*
    the subject is being acted*

    Since act can’t take a direct object like that, and since the subject is actually the object of a preposition, it’s not a true passive.

    Author’s gravatar

    I would’ve simply called it a passive too, but when I wrote to Geoffrey Pullum about it, he called it a pseudo-passive because of the “on.” It’s not a distinction I’ve heard elsewhere. Perhaps it’s peculiar to Pullum and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I’ll see if I can find the original e-mail from him.

    Author’s gravatar

    Isn’t “act on” a phrasal verb? How is different than:
    I made up the story
    The story was made up by me

    you added up the numbers
    were the numbers added up right?

    Author’s gravatar

    Well, I wasn’t able the find the e-mail. Yes, I’d call it a phrasal verb, too. Unfortunately, syntax was never my strong point, so I really don’t know the value in the distinction. Google turned up some promising hits for “pseudo-passive preposition,” but I haven’t had time to look through them yet.

    Author’s gravatar

    CEGL doesn’t like “phrasal verb”. If you do think of “act on” as a verb, then you’ve got a transitive “act on it” and a passive “it is acted on”. If you don’t, you have an intransitive + prepositional complement “acted on it” and a pseudo-passive “it is acted on”.

    They’re essentially the same thing, and of course “acted” is the past-participle form regardless, so the Garner guy is talking through his hat there. Would he argue “the advice is not being followed” isn’t passive?

    Author’s gravatar

    Do you mean the CGEL? I don’t own a copy, so I don’t know what it says about phrasal verbs, but I do think it’s pretty clear that Bryan Garner doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Given how much he’s allegedly studied language and usage, he really should know better.

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