2011-02-07 : Grammatical Voices

Hooray grammar!

I'm just going to copy the first few comments from this thread over to this one. Let's leave that thread for talking about game design, use this one to talk about grammar.

You can find the source texts in that other thread. I quoted passages from The Shadow of Yesterday, Maschine Zeit, Spione, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game, and The Burning wheel.

Quoth I:

(Oh, and I promise not to mention this again, but I can't just keep quiet about it: the passive voice! It's intense! Whenever this much concentrated passive voice is read, a nosebleed is gotten.)

Quoth Jesse:

Hey Vincent, but forgive me, what do you mean by a passive voice?

Quoth I:

Well, okay, I guess. I forgive you. It's one of my favorite subjects to rant about and I don't want to get too off-track, so I'll try to restrain myself.

Active voice: "I kicked the ball." The subject of the sentence acts upon the object of the sentence.

Passive voice: "the ball was kicked by me." The subject is acted upon by the object; it receives action, it doesn't take action.

Abbreviated passive voice: "the ball was kicked." The subject is acted upon by an unspecified object. To sentences in abbreviated passive voice, I like to append (in portentious tones) "BY UNSEEN FORCES." The ball was kicked BY UNSEEN FORCES. This much concentrated passive voice was read BY UNSEEN FORCES, so a nosebleed was gotten BY UNSEEN FORCES.

While we're here, imperative voice: "kick the ball." You are the subject, implicit or explicit ("Jesse, kick the ball").

From Spione: "When the Tresspass is considered Disclosed by the person running the spy [passive voice], the Dossier is unfolded and laid upon the table with both sides up [abbreviated passive voice]."

Of the above, Burning Wheel's the best - it lapses into passive voice only when things get complicted, when "extra successes must be allocated" - and Buffy's by far the worst. It's terribly constructed. "After creating the character, some (use common sense [imperative voice]) Qualities and Drawbacks may be acquired or lost in the course of a game [abbreviated passive voice]. For example, a scarring wound could reduce a character's Attractiveness [active voice], or a change in fortune could increase or decrease the character's Resources or Social Level [active voice]. When such a change is brought about during play [abbreviated passive voice], no experience points (see p. 131) are needed to purchase them [abbreviated passive voice]." No experience points are needed BY UNSEEN FORCES to purchase them, give me strength.

Rebuilt into mostly imperative voice, with some active, which is what you oughta use when you write instructions: "After you've created your character, gameplay might lead you to add or remove some Qualities and Drawbacks. Use common sense. For example, you could reduce your character's Attractiveness to reflect a scarring wound, or you could increase or decrease your character's Resources or Social Level to reflect a change in fortunes. In these cases, you wouldn't have to pay experience points to purchase the changes."

If anybody wants more grammar talk, I'm happy - happy! - to oblige. I love grammar, it's the measuring, mixing and kneading of my craft. Say so and I'll make a front page post.

Quoth Piers:

Of course, the fact the text is written in the passive voice means that someone might read:

"After the players have created their characters, gameplay might lead the Gamemaster to add or remove some Qualities and Drawbacks. The GM should use common sense. For example, the GM could reduce a character's Attractiveness to reflect a scarring wound, or the GM could increase or decrease a character's Resources or Social Level to reflect a change in fortunes. In these cases, the GM wouldn't have make the player pay experience points to purchase the changes."

...which is of course part of the problem.

To which I now respond:

Yeah, your reading's more likely the right one than mine, Piers.

Unclarity is one prob with passive voice. Another is, passive voice exists to communicate to the reader that no one's responsible (as in the famous "mistakes were made"), to create a remove between the actor and the action. When you're writing game instructions, dissolving responsibility and creating a remove between the player and the gameplay is exactly what you DON'T want to do.

1. On 2011-02-07, edheil said:

Passive voice is also used to foreground, declare as the topic, or focus attention on, an element of the sentence that happens to be the patient rather than the agent of an action.

See what I did there?  The users of passive voice are not the topic, the foreground, the focus of my attention, despite being agents.  The passive voice itself is the topic, foreground, focus of my attention, despite being a patient.  That's why the passive voice is the correct way to form that sentence.

I'd argue that "passive voice is used to..." is a more precise and accurate formulation of the sentence in your original post.  The topic is passive voice, the statement about the topic is how people use it; the way to formulate that in English is to topicalize "passive voice" by making it the subject, forcing the verb into the passive voice, and the agent into a "by" prepositional phrase, and the identity of the people who use it is irrelevant enough that we don't need to bother with that.

That being said, habitual focus on patients rather than agents is arguably pathological and confusing, which is why it is the refuge of timid people writing feebly.  But there's no reason to let the timid and feeble own it!  It's a robust and necessary construction in its own right, just as a defensive stance is a vital fencing move, despite the fact that a frightened fencer might never leave it.


2. On 2011-02-07, edheil said:

Oh, sorry, can't resist—"imperative" is a mood, not a voice; its alternatives are the indicative and the vanishing subjunctive, not the active or passive voices.


3. On 2011-02-07, Matt Wilson said:

"During play, sex may be had by the characters. When this happens, the sex moves should be reviewed, and each player's particular move must be applied by the character in question, except in such case that the battlebabe is involved, wherein the effects of any sex move are therefore ignored by all players involved."


4. On 2011-02-07, Vincent said:

Ed (1): Nuts. To you I say nuts!

That is, it's obviously true that people also use passive voice to foreground, declare as the topic, or focus attention on, an element of the sentence that happens to be the patient rather than the agent of an action. I don't deny that. I just think that of all the babies in all the bathwaters in the world, it isn't one we'd miss.

Or whatever. Just don't try to frickin' tell me that Buffy The Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game's erratic, malformed construction is somehow any good at all.

Ed (2): Damn! I've underpedanted myself!

What's the difference between a mood and a voice?


5. On 2011-02-07, Steven G said:

And if you want to know a lot more about the passive voice, check out this recent posting from Language Log:


6. On 2011-02-07, edheil said:

I will not argue with you, ever, on how to write good game rules. :)

Mood and voice are orthogonal.  You can change mood and keep the voice the same, or change voice and keep the mood the same.  (And both are orthogonal to tense—you can keep mood and voice the same and change the tense, and vice versa)

Indicative, active:
He wrote the rules.

Indicative, passive:
The rules were written.

Subjunctive, active:
You insisted that he write the rules.

Subjunctive, passive:
You insisted that the rules be written.

Imperative, active:
Write the rules!

Imperative, passive:
Be written, O Rules.  (OK, passive imperatives are kind of rare because of clashing semantics.  If you use a passive imperative you are raising the question of how somebody could obey you by having something happen to *them*.  It's kind of a paradoxical construction, but grammatically legit.)

That's the way Indo-European languages tend to chop it up anyway—one axis of variation is whether the subject is the agent or patient of the verb, and another axis of variation is whether you're stating a fact (indicative), expressing a possibility or preference or indirect command (subjunctive), or giving a direct command (imperative).

I know there are languages which don't have the active/passive voice distinction the way we do (ergative languages, for example, chop agency/patiency and subject/oblique up in a very different way than we do), and moods vary even within Indo-European languages (we barely mark the subjunctive mood anymore, whereas ancient Greek had a fourth mood, called the "optative", which did some of the things we and the Romans use the subjunctive for).

So it's kind of a parochial distinction.  But there it is!

All the ways that most Indo-European languages vary are:

* mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive...)
* tense (present, past, future) and/or aspect (e.g. simple present, present progressive, present perfect)
* voice (active, passive, which may or may not be distinguished from a "reflexive" or "middle" voice, where the agent and patient are the same)
* number (singular, plural, sometimes dual)
* person (first, second, third)

Sometimes you also get things like politeness level, "you" vs "thou"—that kind of thing.

In heavily inflected languages, some or all of these may be reflected in the form of the verb, leading to pages-long charts of verb forms!  In not-very-inflected languages like English, most of these distinctions are made by adding on extra words.

Whew!  How's that?


7. On 2011-02-07, Piers said:

As an aside, note that both passive and patient are etymologically derived from the Latin deponent verb (i.e. passive in form, active in meaning) patior, pati, passus sum—to suffer; allow; undergo, endure; or permit.

I'll leave you to wait patiently—that is suffering—for Ed to explain voice and mood.


8. On 2011-02-07, Kit said:

There's a lot of wrong-ranting against the passive in English style (some would wrongly say "grammar") guides, but this is the most coherent objection to it I've come across. It actually is almost always relevant in the rules of a game who is doing a verb.

Thanks for being coherent! By which I mean, I would expect nothing less from you.


9. On 2011-02-07, Vincent said:

Thanks, Ed! That's excellent.


10. On 2011-02-07, Vincent said:

Oh, here's Steven's link, made linkular: Language Log: The passive in English. It's intense!


11. On 2011-02-07, Jeff Russell said:

Just to jump on the grammar pedant train and put my dusty classics degree to some use, there's another feature related to tense and voice, but somewhat distinct. I *think* it's called aspect, but damnit I can't remember right now.

Usually it's implicit in tense forms, because it relates to the completeness of an action. For example:

"I ran yesterday"
"I had run before I went to bed"
"I was running while I listened to my ipod"

(Awkward constructions are to emphasize the common element - forms of "run" in the past).

The first is what in English we call the past tense, but in Latin/Greek would be the perfect. It implies an over and done action.

The second is the pluperfect tense (damn, I can't remember if English calls it the same - I learned it more through classical languages). It is used for an action that was over and done with before some other actions that happened in the past.

The third is the imperfect, and expresses an action that was 'open ended' and concurrent with some other past actions. This is why you sometimes see it used to imply something might be picked up again later "I was eating when you called."

In English it pretty much only matters to tenses, but Latin and Greek did some crazy things with different mood constructions (based on the tense of your main verb, the subordinate verbs would have different tenses in the subjunctive or optative mood to indicate their level of completeness relative to the main verb. *Usually* this corresponded with normal tense usage, but occasionally you ended up with a perfect tense subjunctive verb that would have been present tense in an indicative mood).

Whew! Crazy, not super relevant stuff!

At any rate, when it comes to the passive voice, I think that somewhere along the line it took on an association of formality, and a lot of RPG writers in the past have prioritized maintaining a lofty tone over clarity of instruction.

In my heart of hearts, though, I feel like the passive voice gets more abuse than it deserves. Mostly because I know more interesting adjectives and adverbs than interesting verbs, so I slip into it when I want to use cool words.


12. On 2011-02-08, Brand Robins said:

When you are writing a construction that has its emphasis upon an agent taking action, you almost always want to use the active voice. (Ed's examples are excellent, and show that even this is not always the case, but it's an easy rule of thumb.)

So when you wish to write rules that say "you do this in order to achieve that" then the active voice is often what you're going to want to use. It puts the emphasis on all those things loved by the modern pundit—active, aggressive, masculine, subject oriented, to the point, etc, etc, etc.

However, let us not forget that Julia Kristeva once said that learning the passive is one of the basic steps in forming our humanity. It is the passive voice that enables us to put ourselves in the place of those who are done to, rather than those who are doing.

As Orwell himself (one of the early proponents of the active as the only possible correct way to write) "Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets?"

So the passive voice has a role. It's role is to strike out against exactly those things that really make the active voice the voice of the pundit. (Only one of which is that it sometimes does say things better. The others have to do with the colonialist and imperialist deification of the conquering subject.)

When a player's choice is removed by the game, when the active subject is not the point, but the loss and the humanity are, then the passive voice can be a useful thing. Otherwise you're removing your ability to nuance, everything becomes like Grendel—that which pushes and that which pushes back, with everything else being silence. The otherwise silent moment is given voice by the passive.

Of course, most games probably won't have a huge amount of space for this construction. After all one of the central tenants of the escapism of RPGs is based around being an active, effective agent. Trad games do this with characters, story games with players—but either way, there is such a huge emphasis on choice and control that moments when you really want players/characters given over are a hard sell.

P.S. Yea, having a degree in rhetoric has made me irked with the easy dismissal of the passive voice. The fact that many grammar idiots give examples of the passive voice that are not, in fact, in the voice because they can't tell the difference between weak writing and a voice indicates to me the whole issue has actually killed what the term "passive voice" means.

For example, Paul Payack going after Obama for using the passive in the sentence "There will be setbacks." Or the editors of the New York Times taking issue with "A bus exploded" as being in the passive voice because there was no human agent given primacy of choice.

However, I don't know that its fair to dump that on a blog about game design.


13. On 2011-02-08, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

>However, I don't know that its fair to dump that on a blog about game design.

Perhaps not, but I found it helpful. Thanks, Brand!


14. On 2011-02-08, Vincent said:

Holy crap, yeah, give a game designer a break. I'm not qualified to take THAT on. I'm just over here beating up on easy victims like "after creating the character, some (use common sense) Qualities and Drawbacks may be acquired or lost in the course of the game."


15. On 2011-02-08, way said:

Going in the other direction, when we created our hack, we've always formulated moves and other rules in first person. I'm not a native English speaker so I am not sure what the effect exactly is in English, but in Hungarian it was real good. It was totally clear that I can do this and I should do that and that most things should be expressed in the characters "position". Really helped jumping right into the characters.

Also has a very different taste while reading, the rules blend into my thinking instead of teaching or instructing me.

When I try to seize something by force while the other guy fights back, I roll+hard. Then I can choose 1 or 3 from the list below.
* I take hold of whatever I wanted
* I inflict terrible harm
* I frighten the poor guy to hell


16. On 2011-02-08, PeterBB said:

I'm actually taking a class on "expert writing" right now, and they gave me a way of thinking about it that I think is far more useful than worrying about active and passive.

The key is to make the noun in the subject position a meaningful character. Make it be something that the audience cares about, and that it is easy to imagine acting or being acted upon.

"after creating the character, some (use common sense) Qualities and Drawbacks may be acquired or lost in the course of the game." is terrible, but not because it's in passive.

It's terrible because "Qualities and Drawbacks" is a terrible character. No one cares what "Qualities and Drawbacks" are up to. Your revision is much better, because it puts the player in the subject position.

It's true that passive tends to be a little worse about this than active, but it's entirely possible to improve a sentence by moving from active to passive. For instance:

"Qualities and Drawbacks modify a character."


"A character is modified by his Qualities and Drawbacks."

I would argue the second is better, because "character" is a better subject than "Qualities and Drawbacks". This is despite the fact that the first is in active, and the second is in passive.


17. On 2011-02-08, Peter Darby said:

It is apparent that, in writing games text, mistakes were made, and lessons may be learnt.


18. On 2011-02-08, Brand Robins said:


You got me to laugh about grammar. That doesn't happen often.

Though it does remind me of another point to rant idiotically about.

"Mistakes were made" was not bad writing. It was brilliant writing.

The thing about it that is bad is the moral point achieved by the skilled use of words (writing). But it did it very well. The badness of it is in the intent, not the craft.

Where as the badness of "After creating the character, some (use common sense) Qualities and Drawbacks may be acquired or lost in the course of a game" is a badness of craft.

Unless, of course, we want to assume that the occluded subject and indirect action of the sentence was deliberately crafted to obfuscate who it was that was making the choice so that it was able to be read as "by you the player" by some and "by you the GM" by others. In which case the text is deliberately created so that a person reading it will fill in the blank of the subject with their assumed mode of authority and interaction. (Piers's example for those used to a GM centric mode, the exact opposite for those used to GMless online play.)

Which is... questionable as game design. It fits very much into the mold of "Design what doesn't matter" theory, setting up a situation where the group rather than the designer will decide how the rule gets arbitrated in play.

Normally I'm enough of a trad apologist to let that slide, but in this case I'm disinclined. Its less a rule and more in the nature of advice, and advice that isn't advising is useless.

Plus, I think it was written that way not on purpose, but because the writers so assumed it was "the GM" that was the implied agent that they simply didn't see that they didn't say it outright.


19. On 2011-02-09, Josh W said:

Vincent, it's interesting that as someone not as interested in focusing on assigning authority, you get irritated by people taking the agent out of sentences.

Picture this, instead of saying by ___, by ___ at the end of those passive voice sentences, you stick do it once for a whole class of actions. Tada, assigning authority!

The plus point of doing it this way is that you don't flag it up, so people are less likely to go into turf wars about it. The other advantage is that it allows a nuanced border, so instead of people guarding their character sheet like hawks (or equivalent possesive weirdness), it's expected that some times someone will borrow it for a sec to write down specific things, or check other things.

In fact, rigorously sticking to specific by-action actor-declaration nulifies the problem of abstract large-scale authority declarations; players can't have turf wars because the turf is explicitly marked as "belonging" to whoever it does, and changing it is a rules hack, full stop.

On the flip side, it's probably good to abstract out that stuff at one stage during design to check who you're giving what to.


20. On 2011-02-09, Josh W said:

stick do?

sounds a bit like a prehistoric version of going aggro

"I will stick take this cave"

(as you can guess, it was meant to "be stick something in to the text to do")


21. On 2011-02-09, Porter said:

Hey Vince,
You might enjoy this essay: "The Science of Scientific Writing." While its focuses on scientific writing (obviously), the style guidelines can be applied to almost all forms of writing, including game rules.

I teach this essay in my Writing in the Sciences class to pop the "my writing isn't bad, it's just that my topic is so complex" bubble.


22. On 2011-02-10, edheil said:

Wow.  Shit got deep and tangential.  Brand blew my mind by dropping Kristeva on us, and I don't even know what Josh W is talking about.

Peace and respect, all.  I thought *I* was taking things far afield with my little discussion of inflection.  I am humbled. :)


23. On 2011-02-11, Valamir said:

Me um think this grammar stuff hard.  Me gonna write like how me wants.  Rules for the writing are fascist.

Grammar Anarchists Unite!


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