Arrant Pedantry


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.” Voila! 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


So not only does the anonymous staff member confuse syntax and semantics, but they aren’t even bothering to analyze the verb phrase as a whole. I wrote back to explain myself in more detail. 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. The sad thing is that there are a lot of editors in the world like this anonymous staffer, completely lacking the analytic tools and grammatical knowledge necessary to identify such problems and make such arguments. A good editor should know that Bryan Garner’s take on the subject is misleading and incorrect. It’s become apparent to me that many of the self-appointed guardians of the language don’t even know what it is they’re guarding.


*I’d like to thank Geoffrey Pullum for pointing out this distinction. The construction in the end of the quoted section is not a true passive because the verb is technically intransitive; it only seems to be transitive because of the stranded preposition. Notice that the “active” form (which is not actually active according to some definitions), “the subject is acting,” is intransitive and contains no preposition, stranded or otherwise.

The genesis of this post goes traces back several months. I was reading Language Log, notably some posts by Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice, and felt inspired to write to him. He pointed out that he had already written about the issue, but he said that he was so surprised by the staffer’s response that he would write about it on Language Log and appoint me an honorary deputy. Sadly, he never got around to writing that post, but I was recently reading Far from the Madding Gerund and was reminded of the whole thing, so I decided to write about it myself.

7 Responses to Editing Chicago

  1. goofy says:

    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

  2. Brinestone says:

    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.

  3. Jonathon says:

    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.

  4. goofy says:

    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?

  5. Jonathon says:

    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.

  6. The Ridger says:

    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?

  7. Jonathon says:

    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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