What an interesting discussion.

What an interesting discussion. I particularly enjoyed this nugget from the comments: “New York is neither new nor York, and the space in the middle is really a false indicator; “New York” is one word, not two. Contrast this with the lack of spaces in languages like Chinese, and you start to think that spaces are just a sort of hack”

Originally shared by Yonatan Zunger

Question for language and linguistics nerds out there:

For various reasons, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about ways to describe the meaning conveyed by sentences. One interesting case is about active-passive pairs, like

(A) Zombies ate John.

(B) John was eaten by zombies.

The “procedural” part of the two sentences is obviously the same (munch munch, mmm, brains), and there seems to be a difference in topic focus: (A) emphasizes the state change on the zombies (before they were hungry, now they’re full), while (B) seems to instead emphasize the state change on John (before he was John, now he’s lunch).

Can anyone think of any other difference, in implication, tone, or anything else, between the two sentences? If I were trying to describe what was conveyed, would it be enough to say that the two sentences are identical except for the topic focus?

(Footnote: “By zombies” is a great rule of thumb for checking if a sentence is actually in the passive voice in English. If you can stick “by zombies” after the verb and the sentence makes sense, then you’ve got a passive, there. This is important because (a) lots of people believe that the passive voice is somehow “bad,” which it isn’t, and (b) lots of the people who believe this, including the authors of Strunk & White (who appear to have invented this idea) are actually really bad at identifying passive clauses and get it wrong most of the time.)