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I was reading "A fault in our stars" by John Green and he did something rather interesting. The scene is one in which the mother wants her child to attend support group. All the child wants to do is watch America's Next Top Model. The mother wants her to participate in activities to which she responds that television is an activity to which the mother exclaims that television is a "passivity".

Is the mother's definition of the action of watching television linguistically correct? I tried to search for examples of where "passivity" was used this way, but I came up with nothing. Can anyone else find an example of this use?

Either way I think this is a very interesting use of the word and one that describes actions that are not inherently active.

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    So long as we understand the meanings of activity and passivity, this is merely a literary issue. Your use of "the action of watching television" contrasts with the mother's opinion. Activities can be physical and/ or mental. The mother oversimplifies activity restricting it to the physical. The smart kid thinks otherwise. (I am not advocating TV watching for kids!)
    – Kris
    Jun 16, 2014 at 14:20
  • That is a really interesting take. Certainly other mental activities are active in nature. Chess and Go for example are extremely taxing mentally and sometimes require extensive effort to accomplish. While watching television on the other hand you are for the most part a consumer of entertainment and not an active participant. Their was probably some bias on the mother's part as she was trying to make an argument on why the daughter was to stop what she was doing.
    – Stopher87
    Jun 16, 2014 at 14:32
  • Television watching can be mentally and emotionally highly taxing, or else, it would not sustain interest. One can get "tired" to the point of exhaustion after certain programs.
    – Kris
    Jun 16, 2014 at 14:37
  • While we are at it: "Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines two types of passive activity: trade or business activities not materially participated in, and rental activities even if the taxpayer materially participated in them (unless the taxpayer is a real estate professional)." investopedia.com/terms/p/passiveactivity.asp
    – Kris
    Jun 16, 2014 at 14:40
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about an unexceptional functional shift - specific instances of which have been used many times before. "Television is a passivity". Jun 16, 2014 at 14:59

2 Answers 2

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Grace says, "Let me watch America's Next Top Model. It's an activity," and Mrs. Lancaster says "Television is a passivity." She is parallelling Grace's comment in a direct retort, simply replacing activ(e) with passiv(e). The fact that "passivity" happens to be an actual word doesn't seem to have any bearing on the matter. By my interpretation, Mrs. Lancaster made it up on the spot.

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This amounts to using the noun as countable, in which case the possibility arises of its having a plural form (“my child participates in three activities and two passivities”). OED does not recognize any such countable usage but the Google Books Ngram utility shows non-zero frequencies for the plural form. Top regular Google hits for the plural form seem to be merely robo-generated plurals; e.g. a Scrabble Word Finder entry asserts its validity but both definitions are pretty clearly for mass senses of the singular.

I agree that this is a moderately ingenious (and in context perfectly intelligible) stretching of this word’s envelope.

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