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John Cowan

From the "Grammar and the Guardian" post:

I simply cannot see why this sentence is described as passive. It has a subject (Theoretical physicists), an active verb (understand) and a direct object (the universe). It also has two correctly placed adverbs: now in mid-position and better in end-position.

I think the trouble is that it is a patient-subject sentence, and people who are taught grammar semantically ("A noun names a person, place, or thing") can't see the difference between a subject that is a semantic patient (understanding is something you experience, not something you do, as a rule) and a sentence that is syntactically passive, which also generally has a patient subject.

I would not therefore describe understand as an active verb, though it is in the active voice and is syntactically transitive.

Peter Harvey

I have never heard of grammar being taught that way in Britain. Anyway, a few seconds with Google came up with this headline from the Guardian:

Elephants understand pointing, scientists show

The grammatical structure of
** Elephants | understand | pointing
is exactly the same as
* Physicists | understand | the universe

John Cowan

Well, sure. But the objection comes from the reader's editor (who I take to be the person called in AmE the ombudsman), not from the sub-editors actually writing the headlines.

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