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Passage Out of Passivity

English has a long history of changing a verb that starts out life as exclusively transitive into a concomitant intransitive (stative) variant without any alteration in form (i. e., no suffixation), just a change in category. In recent times this development has affected verbs like launch, ship, and even complete. Instead of sentences like “The package was shipped yesterday” we now habitually get “The package shipped yesterday.” Similarly, rather than “A rocket was launched at the Kennedy Space Center,” we now hear and read “A rocket launched this morning at the Kennedy Space Center.” (Incidentally, then, the subsequent creation of a deverbal substantive launch (instead of launching)––a postwar neologism––is but a predictable and understandable progression.

One could explain this drift away from the construction with the past passive participle as a concession to compactness of expression, but there is a more potent explanation close to hand. Despite remaining the topic notionally, the subject in a passivization always experiences a hierarchical devaluation in meaning vis-à-vis its unpassivized counterpart, i.e. with an active (transitive) verb. So the status of the subject in “the rocket launched . . .” is necessarily of higher value semantically than in “the rocket was launched . . .” Shifting the passivized subject out of this secondary status by changing the verb from transitive to intransitive thus upgrades its meaning as the focus of the sentence.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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