Sunday, July 14, 2013

I used to be so passive

The passive voice is one that causes many problems for speakers of English as an Additional Language (EAL). This may be because it does not exist in their language, or because it is used differently. The passive voice, however, is frequently used in academic writing, especially in reports or in other situations where the action or outcome of an action are more important than the person who performed the action.

For example, it might be important to highlight people’s names in some cases, because you want the reader to focus on that information:

            Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium and polonium.

In other cases, however, you might not want to highlight the names, but you still want to include them:
            Radium and polonium were discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie.

Alternatively, you could omit the names completely and concentrate on an action and the outcome of that action:
            Radium and polonium were discovered in a shed.

(That’s true – you can read about it on the Nobel Prize website.)

Here are two more sentences:
            The shed was falling down, so we had it repaired.
            The shed leaked, so we got the roof replaced.

You might have noticed something unusual about these last two sentences. Most passive voice constructions use the verb “to be” followed by a past participle. However, it is possible to have a passive-type construction using “get” or “have”, as in the examples above (had it repaired and got the roof replaced). In these cases, “have” and “get” are followed by a past participle. They are called “causative verbs” and often mean that someone does something for you at your request.

            We asked someone to repair the shed.          – active
            The shed was repaired.                                – passive
            We had the shed repaired.                            – causative “have”

There is also another construction which many learners of English are not aware of. It comes midway between the active and the passive, and is sometimes called the “middle voice”. This occurs with verbs such as “break” and “open”:

            Tim broke the window.                                  – active
            The window was broken (by Tim).                  – passive
            The window broke.                                       – middle

            Kate opened the window.                              – active
            The window was opened (by Kate).                – passive
            The window opened.                                     – middle

With the active voice, we know who did the action. With the passive, we know that someone did an action, but we do not need to include their name if we don’t want to. With the middle voice, it seems as though the action happened spontaneously; there is no need to include a person at all.

There are several hundred of these “ergative verbs” which can be used in the middle voice in English, and using them in this way makes a writer’s English sound more like that of a native speaker.

You can find a list of ergative verbs at the English for Uni website, together with exercises and a new video story. This story is called “Stolen on the Ghan”, and is set on the train from Adelaide, in South Australia, to Darwin, in Australia’s north. In addition to grammar detective Ms Parrot, the video features the singer Bobby Dylan and the film star Dizzy Delite, both of whom suspect that their necklaces have been stolen.

It is Bobby Dylan who sings the video’s opening song, with a mixture of active, passive and middle voice:

I used to be so passive;
Every door was closed to me.
I used to be so passive;
No door was opened to me.
Then the door opened;
It opened ergatively. 
   [I made up that adverb to remind you that "open" is an ergative verb!]
So I pushed it open;
I opened it actively.
Now I’m no longer passive;
I open every door that I see.
No, I’m no longer passive –
The doors open wide for me!

I encourage you to explore the passive voice and the middle voice, and learn more about ergative verbs. You might find the doors opening wide for you too!


Jyh Sew said...

Thank you for this interesting post. I would like to share the functions of passive as reasons why language learners would want to understand and differentiate the grammar structure from the rest.

1. Passive is the convenient structure that one can use in making a police report when the culprit is not known.

1a. My car was stolen last night.

1b. My boyfriend was kidnapped in the red-light district.

2. Passive may be used as a power pragmatics by mother-in-law in certain culture to distant the subject from the task as a form authority.

2a. Rice was cooked (by the daughter-in-law) already.

Instead of

2b 'X cooked rice already' with full attention on the subject.

3. One would use passive for less joyous information in Chinese if not all languages.

3a. The examination was taken half-heartedly (by my son).

3b. The interview was conducted hastily (between us).


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your insight about the use of passive voice. I agree with Jyh Sew that whereas academic language encourages the use of active voice, the passive voice is very pragmatic and most speakers including politicians find it convenient to use it to avoid taking responsibility for certain actions. This could explain why house-help may say:

1. The plates broke.

But I also think a sentence such as this expresses lack of clear intent of breaking the plates or may be the plates were weak.

I like the concept of 'middle voice' It is new to me since I have always held the notion that it falls under passive voice. Is middle passive or simply middle voice? Very interesting.

The song comes in handy to make it very memorable especially by virtue of urging the learner of English as Additional Language [EAL] to explore more about what it discourages- being passive.

'I will no longer be passive.'

Thank you.


July 24, 2013 at 5:21 PM

Ilene said...