Friday, March 08, 2013

War on passives

This year for the first time I am teaching international students and American students simultaneously. One difference is that internationals generally know what the passive is. The passive is a way of saying something (like I am involved in intramural sports or I have been struck by the incongruity of this situation) where the verb has a be in it more or less beside the past participle, and the victim of the action now lies in the subject position. It is very useful in sentences like 2000 were killed in an earthquake or employees were informed of the layoffs when the bad guy is horrible or doesn't want overt recognition; one could argue that simply emphasizing the victim, by putting him/her/them in the subject position, one is not necessarily hiding the perpetrator so much as de-emphasizing, but, passive takes the rap for being used by those sneaky perps to cover up their actions. The lamp is broken is one sentence I used to use in order to teach it; the child learns this as part of his/her increasing sophistication with the language, thus learning how not to admit to one's crimes.

So in the sixties, or thereabouts, social science writers in particular led the charge to iron out all it was observed that... constructions, in science reports, and just own up to who did it, as in we observed that.... Where this turned into a tidal wave of denigration of the passive, I'm not sure. Today in English classes throughout the land, graduate assistants are using "eliminate the passive" as code for "make your writing as powerful, assertive, and direct as possible." This is in general good advice. Saying "We observed..." is more assertive than saying "it was observed" and leaving it to the reader to figure out who did it. For writers to systematically weed out these constructions may be unrealistic though. One big problem is that by and large they don't know what they're doing.

I'll start with the internationals. The machines, namely grammar-check, have taken to telling them that it's wrong, and advising them to use active sentences. Thus we see a lot more "I involve in that." The more sophisticated machines can tell them that it's "Intramural sports involve me" but that also is awkward, and it removes the flow of an essay that focuses, for example, on what they have been doing this semester. There are many words, like involve, that need passive in order to be used properly or smoothly. But internationals don't know this from the advice the computer gives them. In the last few years I began noticing, as I taught passive, a quizzical look on internationals' faces, as if to say, is this real? Can you do this? (if not, why does my computer keep saying you can't?)...Are you serious?

Internationals, at least, can see the reasoning, and the history, of the war. Steeped in grammar, they can see why you'd use it, why you'd reject it, why it might be necessary sometimes, and why the computer can't tell when it's necessary and when it's not. They get disgusted by the whole mess, but grammar is like that anyway, and they've been studying TOEFL, for example, weeding out exceptions and irregularities; they've become expert on these things, and have picked up some speed in building the background knowledge necessary to process it.

Americans are another story. The GA's in freshman English classes themselves don't always know the passive, and mark sentences like This is appropriate and That is exorbitant as passive, when they're not. The war on passives is extended to all be verbs and comes to be somewhat like the war on terror: A huge outlay of time and effort for an unknown enemy. Freshmen writers are even more clueless; they often don't know when they've used it, what it looks like, how to make it active. Sometimes the teacher doesn't give them the guidance. Truly getting caught in a grammar dispute makes the grad assistants quite uncomfortable, so they tend to stick to higher ground, the content, or analysis of a work, and leave the grammar for the red pen to make a single mark on it, often indecipherable, or vaguely criticized.

Maybe the last thing I'd like to do, a dream I've had for some time, is to make a little book that explains this in simple words, and helps these poor students understand what the grad assistant is saying. You can't do much about grad assistants who abuse their power, or who don't know what they're talking about, or whatever; they could use a book like this too, of course. I could put lots of things in it, like why it's considered a dilemma when writers say, "The student brought their book;" it's surprising to me how many of them don't even see the problem. It's one thing to make an informed choice, to go against the grain, or do what's easiest and take the rap. What amazes me is the perpetuation of cluelessness, as if mentioning that passives are not as direct or assertive as actives, will actually change people's language. Maybe it would, for the one or two percent of us, but, we weren't really the primary audience.

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