I’m not a liar but I recently found myself saying something that isn’t strictly true. At least, that’s how my inner pedant sees it…
Talking about my recent car accident I found myself saying I’d hurt my leg. As soon as I’d said it I thought: well, actually no, it wasn’t me… I didn’t grab a big stick and bash my leg… My inner pedant says: you didn’t hurt your leg, your leg was hurt but not by you.
But this is the way we talk, and we all know what we really mean – it’s just people like me, who tend to take words very literally, who find it odd. Just as I find it odd when I read news items saying stuff like “he had his car broken into” – to my very literal mind, it sounds like the person in question deliberately arranged for someone to break into his car…
I started wondering how much of this is because in my mother tongue we have different ways of saying these things – ways that seem a lot clearer to me. The way I’d say “I hurt my leg” in Hebrew is, to my mind, the right way round – we have a verb that means “got hurt/injured” and that’s what I’d use. But it isn’t that there isn’t an English equivalent – it wouldn’t be incorrect to say in English “my leg was hurt” or “I got injured”. It’s just that – at least in British everyday usage – it’s more normal to say “I hurt my leg”.
And when it comes to stuff like “he had his car broken into”, it’s even more complicated. In Hebrew we have a way of saying it that makes the people who broke into the car the subjects of the sentence, even though they’re not mentioned – the verb is there on its own, and the subject is implied. You can’t do that in English – the closest I can get to it in English is: someone broke into his car. The thing is that in Hebrew we can say it without having to add “someone”. And saying “someone broke into his car” is placing more emphasis on that someone, and also poses the problem of: was it just one person or more than one? When you don’t actually know who broke into the car, this doesn’t really work very well.
One alternative I can think of is saying: his car was broken into. But that places the emphasis on the car itself, which means less encouragement for the readers to feel empathy for the person who is the victim of this crime. The thing with that trick we have in Hebrew, which is very hard to describe because the whole sentence structure is so different from anything you have in English – the thing with that trick is that though the criminal is the implied subject of the sentence, the emphasis is still on the victim.
So, since you have no way of doing that in English, I can see why newspapers use that phrasing that seems so odd to me: he had his car broken into. It places the focus in the right place – on the person you should be feeling sorry for.
(For those who are super curious, the Hebrew phrase I’m thinking of is: partsu lo la’rechev. The first word is the verb “break into” in third person plural, past tense. The second word is “to him” – it says who this happened to. The third word is “to the car”. It’s a form we use for all kinds of things that are done to someone by someone else, with the someone else unspecified. I never realised how useful it is until I started trying to translate “he had his car broken into”!)
(Just for giggles, I just tried feeding a sentence of this kind into Google Translate. Poor software, I really shouldn’t torture it so… It had no idea what to do with it…)