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Picture of BobHale
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Over at Language Log there is another clinical dissection by Pullum of someone mistaken claiming something about passive voice.

It's the usual stuff - someone claiming evils associated with the passive and using a text that contains no passives to support their point.

However the subject matter has given me a theory.
I wonder if, for some of the people who are so clueless about what passive voice means the problem might be a confusion, in their minds, of the linguistics term "passive voice" with the psychology term "passive-aggressive". Certainly in this case it looks to me as if the author of the criticism is reading a passive-aggressiveness (which, incidentally, I just don't see) into the original piece and describing that as "passive constructions".

It would account for this bizarre inability to identify the structure in question.

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I think that's a good point, Bob, because for the life of me I couldn't see what the passive voice had to do with the criticism that there was an insincere concern. Further, I sure didn't pick up a lack of concern in the passage. It was all very strange to me.

I've not heard the phrase "concern troll" before.
 
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Geoffrey Pullum thinks that it's extremely implausible. I'm not so sure. If people are dumb enough not to understand what passive voice is I think they are probably dumb enough to think it means passive-aggressive.
 
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Ask any henpecked husband about the passive-aggressive voice. Wink
 
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Liberman suggests renaming the passive voice the "hyptic voice" so people don't associate it with passiveness.
 
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It's an interesting link, goofy. I get criticized a lot for using the passive voice in my writing. The next time my editors do that, I am going to forward them that link. Particularly with research reports, the passive voice just works better.

As for renaming, I don't understand why people seem so confused about it. Maybe, however, the word "passive," being such a lukewarm word, makes the editors think the writing is lukewarm. That's plausible, I guess, though they should know what's passive and what isn't since most of them have English backgrounds.
 
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I had a discussion about passive avoidance today. The justification about avoiding the passive is that the passive obscures the agent (the person doing the action). But it's just as easy to obscure the agent in active sentences. For instance these active sentences all have no agent:
I'm afraid (who's scaring me?)
The book fell off the table (who pushed it?)
The beer pours easily (who's pouring it?)
The case took on racial overtones (whose fault was that?)

Simply saying "don't use the passive voice" doesn't help in writing clearly.
 
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quote:
The beer pours easily (who's pouring it?)

Richard English?


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:
I had a discussion about passive avoidance today. The justification about avoiding the passive is that the passive obscures the agent (the person doing the action). But it's just as easy to obscure the agent in active sentences. For instance these active sentences all have no agent:
I'm afraid (who's scaring me?)
The book fell off the table (who pushed it?)
The beer pours easily (who's pouring it?)
The case took on racial overtones (whose fault was that?)

Simply saying "don't use the passive voice" doesn't help in writing clearly.


And the big problem comes because there are so many people out there who would write in newspapers and magazines mistakenly claiming that your examples are passive voice. I have even seen sentences of the form "Someone gave the order." claimed as passive voice.

I wasn't suggesting that ALL misidentifications of the passive are confusions with the concept of passive-aggressiveness, just that some might be.
 
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But it's just as easy to obscure the agent in active sentences. For instance these active sentences all have no agent:
That's a great point, goofy. That is always an objection that I hear. I'll use your examples!
 
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Well I for one do not take the eschewing of the passive tense as a peeve. It's a matter of style. We speak English-- we are not so lucky as the French to be able to mince words in the passive (on sert le diner is a tad more robust than dinner is served). Passive is clunky in English. It takes up more space, & one's eyes soon glaze over when the visual image elucidated by the words lacks a subject.

Goofy's link infers that Winston Churchill is a great writer so his frequent use of passive must be OK. Sorry I differ. Compare the two paragraphs (1. is Churchill, 2. rewritten in active):

1. The north-eastern quarter of the continent of Africa is drained and watered by the Nile. Among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river lie the wide and fertile provinces of the Egyptian Soudan. Situated in the very centre of the land, these remote regions are on every side divided from the seas by five hundred miles of mountain, swamp, or desert.

2. The Nile drains and waters the north-eastern quarter of the continent of Africa. The wide and fertile provinces of the Egyptian Soudan lie among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river. Five hundred miles of mountain, swamp, or desert divide on every side these remote regions-- situated in the very centre of the land-- from the seas.

I really think the active version is more engaging to a reader, don't you?
 
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Bethree, I think it depends on what you are writing about. In this case, maybe. However, when writing about research, I think the passive voice is much more professional.
 
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Perfect. A Classic example.

"Among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river lie the wide and fertile provinces of the Egyptian Soudan." is already in the active voice. "Lie" - as opposed to "lay" - is intransitive. It cannot possibly ever be in the passive voice. Changing the word order has not changed anything about the verb. It was active before and it still is.

The first and third sentences have indeed been changed from passive to active voice but in doing so the emphasis has, in each case, been altered. The first sentence (in the original) is telling us something about the north-eastern quarter of Africa - in the second version it is telling us something about the Nile. And in the third sentence the first version tells us something about the remote regions (they are divided from the sea) while the second version tells us something about where the mountains -swamp etc are located (between the remote regions and the sea). The change of placement of the "situated in the centre of the land" is irrelevant to the passive and simply a red herring.

Maybe the second one is more engaging, maybe not but it doesn't say the same thing. Remember that one of the primary uses of passive voice is to lend emphasis to the object rather than the subject.
 
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On the other hand, you are 100% right when you say that it's a style choice. It only becomes a peeve when someone tells others not to use it.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
Well I for one do not take the eschewing of the passive tense as a peeve. It's a matter of style. We speak English-- we are not so lucky as the French to be able to mince words in the passive (on sert le diner is a tad more robust than dinner is served).


I'm not sure what you mean here. "On sert le diner" is not passive.
quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
Passive is clunky in English. It takes up more space, & one's eyes soon glaze over when the visual image elucidated by the words lacks a subject.


I'm not sure what you mean here either. All sentences, even passive sentences, have subjects. And it's just not true that the passive takes up more space.

We served the dinner. - active, 4 words
The dinner was served. - passive, 4 words

In fact you could argue that the passive version is better, because it shifts the focus to what's important (assuming the dinner is what you want to focus on) and eliminates unnecessary information.

quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
Goofy's link infers that Winston Churchill is a great writer so his frequent use of passive must be OK. Sorry I differ.


His frequent use of the passive is not wrong. Whether it's good or bad is a matter of opinion. But Churchill was a well-regarded writer who presumably knew what he was doing. He was using the grammatical structures available to him. All writing has some percentage of passive voice clauses. The passive is a completely normal grammatical structure. It's used for shifting the focus.

Yes, whether or not you decide to use a lot of passive clauses is a matter of style. But it's completely normal to use some passive clauses. My issue here is that so many usage writers tell us the passive is somehow wrong, because it makes it unclear who is doing what. The corollary of this is that the active voice always makes it clear who is doing what. But neither of these statements are true.

Bethree, your rewriting did not eliminate all the passive clauses - “situated in the very centre of the land” is passive.

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There is a theory that one of the functions of the passive voice is to allow for coordination. I got this example from wikipedia:

He worked hard. They awarded him a prize.

These sentences can't be coordinated, because they have different subjects. This is ungrammatical:

*He worked hard and they awarded a prize.

So the passive is used to coordinate them:

He worked hard and was awarded a prize.
 
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This is a very interesting discussion, Bob, goofy and Bethree. I think there is a place for the passive voice, and Bob and goofy have definitely provided the evidence for that. The part I hate about the "peevers" is that they completely negate it.
 
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your rewriting did not eliminate all the passive clauses - “situated in the very centre of the land” is passive.


"situated" is an interesting example because it more or less has to be in the passive because attempting to rewrite in the active voice runs into the problem of assigning an agent. Unless, in this example, you want to rewrite it as, "which God situated in the very centre of the land" I can't see how it's even possible to do it.
 
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All of which, interesting though it is, is getting off the point of why people have so much difficulty in correctly identifying the passive when they see it.
 
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Just a few observations. Grammatical voice is not the same as grammatical tense (which in turn is not the same as grammatical mood or grammatical aspect. Voice allows the logical subject of a sentence to shift from grammatical subject to grammatical object when necessary. That is: I read the diary. (I is the grammatical and logical subject of the sentence; the diary is the logical and grammatical object of the verb read.) Compare this with the two possible passive versions of the same sentence: The diary was read. And, the diary was read by me. The first passive version eliminates the logical subject, i.e., the agent doing the reading. The second one does not. The reason could be many. We might not know who the agent was. I don't know who read the diary, but the diary was read by somebody. Or as goofy suggested, the sentences may have been rearranged to allow for ease of coordination.

I have always maintained that the passive voice would not have been "invented" is it did not fulfill some purpose. About two-thirds of the languages in the world have the active and passive voices. The other third have something called the anti-passive voice, because they are ergative-absolutive languages (link) and are not quite the same as nominative-accusative languages which have the active and passive voices to move things around.

The construction in French (and some other languages) like 'On sert le diner' ("Dinner is served", literally, "One serves dinner") is impersonal ("Somebody serves dinner"), although it may be translated into English using the passive voice. There is another voice, which English does not have overtly grammatically but which most Romance languages do called the middle voice. This is related to reflexive and deponent verbs. Verbal systems like the rest of grammar in any language are quite complicated.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Originally posted by BobHale:
All of which, interesting though it is, is getting off the point of why people have so much difficulty in correctly identifying the passive when they see it.


OK, if that's what you want, how about this article. The author writes "Most sentences are much clearer when they're written in active voice, not passive" (oh the irony of using the passive in a sentence about the evils of the passive). She then proceeds to offer a number of examples of the passive voice "so I can stick to my one point and really drive that point home".

So far so good. Except... these are the examples:

quote:
The chicken had his head cut off.
The gun went off.
Bristly hair surrounded Linda's head.
The pretzel lodged in President Bush's throat.


Wait, what? None of these are passive!

The author is confusing passive with agentless. I could see how you could make this mistake if you don't know much about grammar.

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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:
[QUOTE]Originally posted by bethree5:
Bethree, your rewriting did not eliminate all the passive clauses - “situated in the very centre of the land” is passive.
Quite right, goofy, careless of me.

I maintain however that "on sert le diner" is an active way of saying something passive (kidding). It is great to get technical input from you guys... I'm going to have to answer BobH's question: 'because I have lots to learn!'

Still, I can't help but find WC's prose wordy, sleepy, outdated*-- it's like watching an old B&W feature reel on the Nile, & I can just hear the narrator (a solid baritone) intoning: "Among and about the headstreams and tributaries of this mighty river..." It's all about style. It reminds me of every boring social studies textbook I ever read.

*and yet I love Henry James' intricate, page-long sentences-- must be something about style going on there!
 
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I just don't see this "wordiness" argument. Your version contains just four fewer words than Churchill's version. (60 instead of 64)
 
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Wait, what? None of these are passive!



And this is what we see all the time. Have you ever found an example where someone who does understand the passive voice has pointed this out to the author (who doesn't) and received a reply? I couldn't see any comments attached to the linked article.
 
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I pulled a random bit of scientific prose from the internet and rewrote it in the Active voice (inventing names for the agents).

Does anyone really think that the second version is better scientific writing?

quote:
Ninety SD rats were randomly divided into 3 groups: a model group, an intervention group, and a control group. DMBA was directly implanted into the parenchyma of rat pancreas (the model group and the intervention group). Rats in the intervention group were treated with 1 mL trichostatin A (TSA) saline solution (1 mug/mL) via ip weekly. Rats within 3~5 months in the model group and the intervention group were executed and observed by macrograph and under microscope. Meanwhile, the rats in the control group were executed at 5th month. The EnVision(TM) immunohistochemistry to assay the expression levels of RAD51 and MAX was used in conventional paraffin-embedded sections from the above pancreatic specimens.


quote:
Mike, the chief lab assistant, randomly divided ninety SD rats into 3 groups: a model group, an intervention group, and a control group. I implanted DMBA directly into the parenchyma of rat pancreas (the model group and the intervention group). Each week one of the lab assistants treated the rats in the intervention group with 1 mL trichostatin A (TSA) saline solution (1 mug/mL) via ip. Sarah, the junior assistant executed rats within 3~5 months in the model group and the intervention group and I observed them by macrograph and under microscope. Sarah executed the rats in the control group at the 5th month. We used The EnVision(TM) immunohistochemistry to assay the expression levels of RAD51 and MAX in conventional paraffin-embedded sections from the above pancreatic specimens.
 
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Those examples aren't just active sentences they are, including the commentary, truly bizarre choices.

quote:
The chicken had his head cut off. (It was the chicken's fault, it would seem — perhaps he brought this on himself by straying into the path of the farmer's hatchet.)


OK - I'll give her that one. Someone must have cut off the chicken's head. Though, of course, if you have just found the headless chicken lying on the barn floor you can't just assume the farmer did it. Local kids, clever fox, insane chicken serial killer... who knows.


quote:

The gun went off. (As I'm sure you know, guns do this on their own all the time.)


But it's completely plausible that we just heard the gun. We have no idea who fired it, or if it was dropped and went off accidentally. In the absence of further information assigning an agent is impossible. We could rewrite it as "We heard the sound of the gun." but that's no better.

quote:

Bristly hair surrounded Linda's head. (Well, this isn't so much a matter of culpability as it is a fashion mess — although there is some mild implication that the hair is at fault for failing to control itself


To write this with an agent would be to assume the utterly implausible scenario where someone has walked in and surrounded Linda's head with bristly hair.

quote:
And one more, taken from an incident at the White House a few years ago: The pretzel lodged in President Bush's throat. (Clearly, it was the pretzel's fault for getting stuck where it was unwelcome.


Similarly to write this with an agent would be to assume the (perhaps not so unlikely) scenario that someone had deliberately inserted a pretzel in his throat in the hope of choking him, or perhaps that the president, for unknown reasons, had chosen to lodge it there himself.

Weirdest examples I've ever seen.

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As I said earlier, in scientific writing it is very difficult to write professionally in the active voice - particularly when you must stay in the third person (another requirement). Bob, your examples are wonderful, and they show that the passive voice does not increase the wordiness of writing. The writing is also way too folksy for a scientific journal; they'd never get published.
 
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The quotes were pulled straight from the article goofy linked.
 
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Bob your rewrite was hilarious. And I have to admit that Kalleh is right, we see a lot of passive in scientific writing for good reason. You all may even be right that passive is not 'wordier'; the wordiness in the WC passage has nothing to do with passive.

I was never taught that passive should be avoided at all costs, as peevers are claiming. And I see now, my negativity toward it is unrelated to non-fiction writing, where the facts and the clarity of their presentation is paramount. I'll withdraw further comment (i.e. shut my trap) until I've done some analysis of the news & commentary I read every day

My training as a writer is almost entirely in story-telling and poetry. One must engage the reader and keep him on board every minute. Passive inserts a level of remove between speaker and listener. That can be used to great effect where appropriate, but unless you're very very good it's easier to simply avoid it.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by BobHale:
Have you ever found an example where someone who does understand the passive voice has pointed this out to the author (who doesn't) and received a reply?


I was in a class once where the instructor used a sentence that wasn't passive as an example of the passive voice and how bad it was. When I pointed out it wasn't passive he just used another example like it was no big deal.

It weakens their argument in two ways: if they don't know what the passive is then why are they talking about it? And, if the example sentence that is supposedly so bad isn't actually passive, then why is the passive voice the problem?
 
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quote:
Originally posted by bethree5:
That can be used to great effect where appropriate, but unless you're very very good it's easier to simply avoid it.


I think it's impossible to completely avoid it.
 
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Caught Rachel Maddow making this same goof last night. She was citing Wilstein's lawyer's letter claiming "evidence exists... tying Christie to [blabla]"-- specifically referred to the sentence as being in "passive tense". It was as though she thought that since the evidence wasn't specified, the sentence somehow became 'passive', even though 'evidence exists' is active.
 
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And, of course, exists is another verb that's always intransitive and can therefore never be passive.
 
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It weakens their argument in two ways: if they don't know what the passive is then why are they talking about it? And, if the example sentence that is supposedly so bad isn't actually passive, then why is the passive voice the problem?
Besides these two ways, their lack of knowledge reduces others' trust in their conclusions.

Bob, can you please remind me why an intransitive verb can never be passive?
 
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OK

A simple sentence will do for an example

here's a nice straight forward SVO (subject verb object) active voice sentence.

The boy kicked the ball.

The verb is transitive. It has a direct object -"the ball".

To make this passive we move the object to the front and change the form of the verb... and we can lose the subject altogether if we wish.

The ball was kicked.

Now here's a sentence with an intransitive verb.

The Empire state building exists.

It has no object. We can't make it passive because there's nothing to put at the start of the sentence.

? is existed.

Only verbs with an object can be made passive and by definition intransitive verbs don't have an object. The same applies to verbs that can be either..
I sing a song. -> A song is sung.
I sing. -> sorry, no object here, so no passive equivalent.
 
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Hindi and other south Asian languages can make intransitive verbs passive. It is used to express incapacity or unwillingness.

मुझसे नहीं बैठा गया।
mujhase nahīṃ baiṭhā gayā
literally "was not sat by me"
"I couldn't sit down"

उससे वहाँ नहीं जाया गया।
usase vahāṃ nahīṃ jāyā gayā
literally "there was not gone by him"
"He couldn't (bring himself to) go there."

इतनी गरमी में किसी से नहीं सोया जाता।
itanī garamī meṃ kisī se nahīṃ soyā jātā
literally "in so much heat is not slept by anyone"
"Nobody can sleep in so much heat."
 
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Ah, yes, Bob. Thanks for that. And I imagine that is where a fair amount of the passive confusion comes into play.

Goofy, how timely! I will definitely read it.
 
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Were you aware of it? "Here’s another must complete the score … He forces me to hurry … he must die." is passive!
 
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quote:
Originally posted by goofy:
Were you aware of it? "Here’s another must complete the score … He forces me to hurry … he must die." is passive!


Oh, the irony. A criticism the uninformed level at the passive voice is that it lacks force.

So take two extremely forceful active voice sentences - both containing a clear agent, by the way, and claim they are passive. One even has the word "force" in it!

With this logic a child who has broken a window can be claimed to use the passive voice when he points at his sister and says "She did it!"
 
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https://www.theguardian.com/me...the-english-language

quote:
Orwell would have despised the passive constructions that are the HR department’s default setting. Want some flexibility in your contract? HR says company policy is unable to support that.

That's not passive.
quote:

Forgotten to accede to some arbitrary and impractical office rule? HR says we are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X.

Is that passive? Does "mind" mean "remind"?
quote:

Try to question whether an ill-judged commitment could be reversed? HR apologises meekly that the decision has been made.

That is passive. So the active version someone has made the decision is clearly so much better.
quote:

Not giving subjects to any of these responses is a deliberate ploy. Subjects give ownership. They imbue accountability. Not giving sentences subjects means that HR is passing the buck, but to no one in particular. And with no subject, no one can be blamed, or protested against.

All those sentences have subjects.
 
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quote:
Is that passive? Does "mind" mean "remind"?
I consider this passive. I suppose "minded" means "reminded" here, but I've not seen it used like that before.
 
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