Maryland Blogger Alliance

Alliance FAQs

Latest MBA Posts

June 07, 2006

The medio-passive in Iraq

I often tell my kids that what makes English such a wonderful language is the medio-passive. An ordinary passive is something like this: "The ball was kicked down the street by the boy." The medio-passive removes the agent completely, like this: "The water spilled." I'm not a grammarian, but I think "The ball was kicked" also counts as medio-passive, because there's no agent.

Medio-passive is a perfect grammatical construction for young kids. Father: "Why is all that milk on the floor?" Kid: "It spilled." Notice -- the kid didn't spill it; it spilled. No one did it. It just happened.

It's also a perfect grammatical construction for ideologues who are unwilling to assess blame to people they view as blameless or give credit to people they despise. James Taranto has an excellent example of this today in Best of the Web Today, although, regrettably, he doesn't cite the medio-passive:

Don't Know Much About History

Here's some good news from Iraq, reported by Scientific American:

In the 1990s the Garden of Eden was destroyed. The fertile wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were diked and drained, turning most of 15,000 square kilometers of marsh to desert. By the year 2000, less than 10 percent of that swampland--nearly twice as big as Florida's Everglades--remained. But reflooding of some areas since 2003 has produced what some scientists are calling the "miracle of the Mesopotamian marshes"--a return of plants, aquatic life and even rare birds to their ancestral home.
We read through the piece but we couldn't figure out who diked and drained the fertile wetlands, or what might have happened in 2003 that made their restoration possible. Scientific American ought to look into this; we have a hunch we're missing out on some fascinating history.

Taranto is mocking the way the article says that "fertile wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were diked and drained," without saying who diked and drained them. If it had mentioned Saddam Hussein, it might have shown that he was morally culpable. So better not to mention that. Use the medio-passive.

Similarly, the article speaks of "reflooding" in 2003 that occurred without an agent. An Act of God? No, but you can't give credit to the President whose war brought this about.

The dam broke. The water spilled. The wetlands flooded. Crops grew. People fluorished.

All with no agent. Because of the medio-passive.