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A bit of newspeak we wish would go away

To say simply that someone 'was disappeared' when he really was abducted, tortured, and killed is to accept the language of the police states that carry out such actions.

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The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs isn't usually the stuff of polite luncheon conversation. It's more the kind of thing that copy editors discuss when they're reasonably sure others aren't listening. And so when I heard a fellow guest at a recent social gathering remark about "disappear" being used transitively, my ears pricked up.

For those whose day job this stuff is not: A transitive verb has a direct object of its action; an intransitive verb does not. Thus, in the sentence "She sang the song," the verb, "sang," is transitive, because "she" acts on the song by singing it. But in "She sang beautifully," the verb is intransitive; she's simply singing.

Individual verbs often start out as one type and then evolve into the other meaning as well. For instance, "We launch our new product Monday" morphs into "The new product launches Monday," although the latter usage is not supported by the dictionary – yet.

But the significance of used transitively is an issue of a different order. It's not just a matter of a grammarian's quibble. It's more like Orwellian "newspeak." To say simply that someone "was disappeared" when he really was abducted, tortured, and killed is to accept the language of the police states that carry out such actions.

The military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 "disappeared" thousands of people – 13,000, according to an official toll, but more like 30,000 people, according to human rights groups. Chile, under Augusto Pinochet, was found to have "disappeared" more than 2,000 people. Colombia's "disappearances" have numbered in the thousands: 28,000, according to a recent report.

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