A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
The Perversity of Past Participles
Zero derivation—that is, the ability of a word to perform different grammatical functions without a change in form—is a celebrated feature of English. We have, for example, a word like green (many other color words work the same way) that can be noun, adjective, or verb without a change in form, because in English it is usually syntax, not morphology (word form) that tells us what job a word is doing in a sentence. A sideshow of zero derivation is the fact that English has no barrier to using a principal verb form—the past participle—as an adjective. English in fact gets great mileage out of the regular infinitive + ed form; it is used in perfect tenses (if the verb is regular), passive constructions, simple past constructions, and as an adjective. What's not to love, you may think, about the simplicity of using a single form to do so many jobs? It surely relieves the memory by not requiring us to store multiple transformation or suffixation rules, so long as we plop our word down in the right place in a sentence.
I have no argument with this fantastic and flexible feature of English, only with the license it gives speakers and writers to use it in a weaselly way. Because of the range of functions that past participles participate in, it's a doddle in English to indicate that something has happened without cluing up the reader or listener about who was responsible for it. Past participle forms pack in a wallop of information: most of them are eventive—that is, they suggest or indicate that a thing has happened or that a thing was done, but they do not identify the doer—they give us a done deal, a fait accompli (to use a past participle from another language) with no indication of who did it.
Of course it's often convenient or sensible to omit the doer, especially in cases where there's no clear agent (mixed emotions), or where the cause is unremarkable or not pertinent (bottled water, informed consent, celebrated feature). No one objects to:
Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Indeed, English would seem crippled without this facility to efficiently identify states or characteristics resulting from a past process, act, or event. Elected officials and retired teachers alike would be frustrated writers if they were forbidden to use participles as adjectives. But when the language consumer has a legitimate interest in knowing how something came to be and by whose will or whim, it can be disappointing when a past participle, deposited as an adjective, leaves no trace. Perhaps it doesn't matter so much with burnt toast or spilled milk. Does arranged marriage take some of the heat off of the arrangers when things go terribly wrong, since they are not named? Doesn't botched surgery suggest that someone should stand up and take responsibility?
A critic of one of the most natural and productive features of English must walk a fine line to avoid being labeled "martinet" or "language cop," but I do think that some past participle ploys are a bit perverse and I hope that shining a spotlight on them might alert readers to situations where they are being gently hoodwinked. For example: I find it mildly objectionable that an online magazine uses a subheading "branded content" to characterize a story that is in fact an advertisement. Branded by whom? Branded like cattle are branded? The participle suggests that the story in question had been subjected to some kind of improving or specializing process, when in fact it's just trying to influence your thinking or buying behavior. A different online outlet labels such items as promoted stories. Promoted to what end? And by whom? This tendency has reached its most irritating point in the suggested posts that now clutter my newsfeed on Facebook. By whom are they suggested? Or is it being suggested that I give this post wider circulation, and thereby clutter the newsfeeds of my friends with it?
A usage that is currently rampant is the vague employment of the participle rigged. Type it into Google News's search window: what you get back are accusations of rigged elections, outcomes, balloting, democracy. Donald Trump says "It's time to change a rigged political system that works only for the insiders and to replace it with a government that serves the people." In all of these contexts it is rarely spelled out in detail who the riggers are; the participle simply plants the idea that rigging has already happened. It seems to be intended to worry us about great forces working inimically to our interests. The more we hear rigged used in this rather vague way, without supporting evidence, the more we are inclined to become cynical and untrusting, and perhaps angry, without being able to identify a clear cause.
We encounter some participial adjectives so frequently that they have become bleached and we no longer question what agency might be involved, even though it would sometimes improve our perspective to do so. What are featured articles and who is featuring them? Is preferred stock preferred by everyone, or only by the people who own it? Who actually organizes organized crime? A privileged position is one that carries obvious privileges, often to the detriment of those who don't enjoy them, but how often is the privileger identified? It is helpful to know about endangered species, but it would be even more helpful to know who or what endangers them. By what marks are marked contrasts to be known? Who vests vested interests? We blithely accept the limitations of limited (editions, warranties, resources, liability) without questioning whether such limits are willfully imposed or whether that should matter to us.
Is there a remedy for beleaguered readers and listeners who would like to know more about how things came to be the way they are? There is probably not, given the handy facility of English to mold itself to the user's intent, but it is wise to be alert to the use of participial adjectives when they fail to tell the whole story and to question who might benefit from this want of information. It is equally desirable for writers to pay attention to their use of participial adjectives and be aware of a tendency to shortchange their readers.