While we think of languages as rather quicksilver affairs, subject to rapid change, grammar in fact, changes slowly. We might add new words with gay abandon; but we do not, for example, add pronouns quite so freely (a problem currently being faced by gender-fluid communities).
I was put in mind of all this standing in front of an ATM. Your card, said the ATM, is processing – and in the time it took for my ‘card’ to ‘process’, I found myself wondering about the retreat from progressive passives. It would on the face of it be more ‘correct’ to say that my card (or anyway my request for cash) was being processed, but the progressive passive is one of the most recent changes in grammar to enter the language, dating from roughly the end of the eighteenth century. An eighteenth-century ATM would have told me that my card was a-processing – not so far, in fact, from what my 21st century ATM said.
Perhaps two hundred years is too short a span for a new unit of grammar to stick, and we are regressing. And it may be that our universal culture is to blame. We watch too many westerns. In Westworld, they do not say, we’re wasting time, still less, time is being wasted. They prefer time’s wasting, not so far, in the end, from time’s a-wasting (which would perhaps be a bit Yosemite Sam for the writers of Westworld).
But the elided passive is an efficient, pragmatic form. Context and convention, not morphology or syntax, supply the meaning. The convention with an ATM, of course, is to pay it no attention, and think of something else while you wait for your cash. My card might have been processing, but I certainly wasn’t. And in the end, the machine does not have to communicate anything other than a sign that I should be patient for a moment; spinning hour-glasses and daisy-wheels and scrolling dots do just as well for a computer-literate generation. Perhaps grammar is, on the fringes of our experience, a growing irrelevance. I’ll be sure to tell my students.