‘In the beginning …’

I have been looking back over some of the discussion posts for my masters degree. Here is one of them, which I posted for my first subject ‘The English Language’. I have revised it slightly, particularly taking out some academic references. Those with religious over-sensibilities and/or without a sense of humour are cautioned against continuing.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
“In the beginning the Universe was created.” (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ch 1, para 1)

My focus here is on the language each writer uses to talk about the origin and purpose of the universe, especially Adams – the Bible writer has already been extensively analysed. To a writer (and readers) of sacred history, God is ‘given’ (“common knowledge … culturally shared”) – so can be named and active in the first sentence. To a writer (and readers) of science-fiction comedy, the existence of the universe is ‘given’, and any account of its creation is open to speculation. If Adams had to use the active voice of English grammar here, he would have to say something like “In the beginning, someone or something created the Universe”. But the interest is in the action of creation, and the agent is, for the moment, unstated.

“This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” (para 2)

One of the uses of the passive voice is to keep the same subject between clauses or sentences. The first clause is active, and the second is passive, keeping “this” (the creation of the universe) as the subject of both clauses. Otherwise, Adams would have had to have said something like “This has made a lot of people very angry, and those people, or others, widely regard it as a bad move”. But we are not talking about “those people”; we are talking about “this”.

The use of an agentless passive inevitably invites the question “By who?” (or maybe “By whom?”).

“Many races believe that it was created by some sort of God” (para 3).

This is the classic formation of the passive, with the agent introduced by “by”.

“the Jatravartid people Viltvodle VI believe that the entire Universe was in fact sneezed out of the nose of a being called the Great Green Arkleseizure” (para 3).

Here is a prepositional phrase which is not an agent or instrument, but an adverbial phrase of location.

Adams has used four passives in three sentences/ paragraphs. Among the purely grammatical uses, there is also a feeling of detachment, or ironic humour, in his use of the passive, in keeping with a dry English sense of humour.

In the first 10 paragraphs of “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, the passive is used by Adams 10 times (see what I did there?). The other occurrences, possible active rewordings, and a few comments are:
“the Great Green Arkleseizure Theory is not widely accepted” (para 4) > “people do not widely accept the … Theory”.
“so … other explanations are constantly being sought” > “people are constantly seeking other explanations”. (But who are these “people”?)
“another, even bigger computer had to be built” (para 7) > “the race of hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings [mentioned in para 6] had to build another … computer”. (Adams can’t use “they” to refer in short to the beings, because too much else has been said in between.)
“this computer, which was called the Earth …” (para 8). (“By whom?”)
“… was so large that it was frequently mistaken for a planet … by the strange ape-like beings who roamed its surface” (para 8) > “… was so large that the strange ape-like beings who roamed its surface frequently mistook it for a planet”. (This violates the principles of end-weight and ‘given-before-new’ – “It” (the computer) has already been mentioned; the “strange ape-like beings” haven’t.)
“the Earth was unexpectedly demolished by the Vogons” (para 10) > “the Vogons unexpectedly demolished the Earth”. (While the Vogons are ‘given’ to readers of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they haven’t been mentioned yet in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and are therefore ‘new’ here.)

While some prescriptive grammarians campaign(ed) against the use of the passive, there are valid linguistic reasons why they are used, and useful. Adams demonstrates some of them here.

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4 thoughts on “‘In the beginning …’

  1. Are the Vogons really “new” in that sentence? Most people, at least all those I know who have read the Adams trilogy, read them in order, as intended by the author. They are less a group of individual books than one book divided into several volumes. Hence, the Vogons are already an established part of the narrative.
    Either way, David, I love your mastery of language and always enjoy reading your work.

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    • I discovered your comment in the spam-box!
      Sometimes it’s a case of ‘newer-ish’ and ‘older-ish’. I mentioned that the Vogons are ‘given’ to readers of HHGG, but ‘the Earth’ is clearly established and ‘old’ here, whereas the Vogons are at best ‘older-ish’.

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  2. Nice set of passives. I find criticisms of the passive (on the few occasions it’s accurately identified) to be mostly lazy and automatic. It’s often a sign of someone who hasn’t looked closely at what’s going on rhetorically or linguistically.

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  3. Explicit grammar instruction was being phased out when I went through primary school. I can’t remember learning about passive verbs, and I was certainly never told or even advised to ‘Avoid the passive’. As far as I am concerned, it is a genuine feature of English (and many other languages), and can be used, used well, used badly and overused, just like any other feature.
    I certainly regard active verbs as the ‘default’ and would certainly advise anyone to choose active whenever they are in doubt or there is a genuine choice. It is certainly possible to construct a whole passage using active verbs. While it is certainly possible to construct a whole passage using passive verbs, the effect would pall after a while, even if some people weren’t quite able to their finger on exactly why.
    As an ESL teacher, I have found that students have great difficulty with this: firstly with the whole concept, then with the various forms of [be] and irregular passive participles.
    (By coincidence, today’s grammar point was passive verbs. Malfunctioning airconditioning on a steamy summer day didn’t help.)

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