November 11, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: waitlist and morph & using the active or passive voice

Posted in active/passive voice, morph, waitlist at 12:09 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: waitlist and morph

A reader writes:

When did the phrase “waiting list” morph into “wait list” and why?


when was the phrase “change into” supplanted by “morph into” and why?

I can answer the ‘when’ part of these somewhat curmudgeonly questions (thanks to Google and other online references). The ‘why’ part is more difficult.

The situation is more dire than our reader writes. ‘Waiting list’ not only morphed into ‘wait list,’ the two words eventually merged to become one, ‘waitlist.’ According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (, the verb form of waitlist made this transition in 1960; I assume the noun form came to be at around this time as well, but I don’t know for sure.

I assume that ‘waiting list’ transformed into ‘wait list,’ and finally to ‘waitlist’ over time as a function of our need to continually abbreviate our words and conversations. Since the change to ‘waitlist’ predates ‘texting,’ I don’t think we can take that form of communication to task for this evolution. It’s much like the use of ‘invite’ as a synonym to ‘invitation’ which is quite commonly heard today-the only difference being that the use of ‘invite’ as a noun is restricted to informal communication (for the time being) while ‘waitlist’ is considered standard. It hasn’t replaced ‘waiting list’ and is most commonly found in reference to college applications. What else can I say about waitlist? I think it is a fine word (much good it would do me if I did not) and is a sign that our language is always evolving.

Morph is of more recent vintage and only dates back to 1987 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. According to Wikipedia, (I know, I know, not the most trustworthy reference, but we’re talking about ‘morph,’ here. Kids, don’t ever use Wikipedia as a reference for any of your formal work-we should never see it in a bibliography or reference list-remember, don’t try this at home.) ‘morph’ was popularized in the early 90s with the introduction of ‘The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,’ a children’s television show in which the characters morphed or transformed themselves into super heroes. I guess that is possible.

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the word originated: One is that it is a back formation of morpheme which is a term from the field of linguistics; the other, which I find more plausible, is that it evolved from the term, ‘metamorphose’ and was first used by cinematographers to refer to a special effect that changes something into something else altogether.


It means more than change or be changed, it brings a sense of transformation. A quiet and shy person would morph into the loud and boisterous life of the party; a small child morphs into a grown man, and ordinary guy, Jason, morphs into the super heroic Power Ranger, Red Ranger.


So going back to the reader’s question, I don’t think that ‘change’ was supplanted by ‘morph.’ It has a specific meaning all of its own.

Tip 2 : Use of the passive versus active voice

In using the active voice, someone or something does something:

Ralph poured the liquid into the beaker.

In using the passive voice, something is done to someone or something:

The liquid was poured into the beaker.

In writing, we encourage people to use the active voice most of the time. Why is that?

First is clarity. We often lose the subject performing the action when we use the passive voice. See the example above. In the passive voice, what happened to Ralph? Last we saw him, he was pouring liquid and then, he became an invisible presence, behind the scene, holding the beaker and pouring the liquid. So using the active voice brings clarity to our writing.

It also brings the writing to life. Writing done in the passive voice is often dull and uninteresting.

The experiment was performed to determine the most efficacious dose of the drug.

Yeah, it was performed, so what? This writing is flat and lifeless.

By making the writing active, we bring people to the story and make it more interesting. Here is the most obvious way of making the sentence active:

We performed the experiment to determine the most efficacious dose of the drug.

Well, there are people involved now, so it begins to be a story, but I think we can do better.

We tested the drug to determine the most efficacious dose.

Right away, we have saved words-almost always a good thing in writing, and we have given ownership of the action to the authors, and we have made the action more alive and immediate. (I would probably go on to replace ‘most efficacious’ as well.)

It used to be that journal editors instructed authors of scientific articles to use the passive voice to give the appearance of objectivity, to avoid the conceit of authors taking credit for something, and to let the facts speak for themselves.

The drug was found to be effective in reducing the side effects of the chemotherapy.

instead of

We discovered that the drug was effective in reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, that led to many deadly dull scientific articles.

Fortunately, that has changed, and almost all journals now encourage authors to use the active voice.

However, using the passive voice is not grammatically wrong, and there are times when using the passive voice makes sense. Not many times, but there are times.

It makes sense to use the passive voice when the actor performing the action is less important than the action being performed.

The survey respondents were asked to provide basic demographic data.

It is helpful to use the passive voice when the actor performing the action is unknown or irrelevant or obvious.

Vitamins are sometimes referred to as the ‘spark plugs’ of the human machine.

The passive voice makes sense when the recipient of the action is more important than the performer of the action.

The solution was heated to 105 degrees.

So there you have it. Writing in the active voice contributes to clear, concise writing and writing that is more interesting to read; however, there are some times when it makes sense to use the passive voice. Just be sure, that when you are using the passive voice, you are doing it purposefully and for a good reason.

1 Comment »

  1. tschnell0818 said,

    When should you use “an” versus “a”?

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