Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tefl Tales: The Passive Voice

After a number of years in the classroom, you develop a trick bag full of effective, polished performances. You've distilled the awkward flounderings of your early attempts into a series of lean presentations free of all hesitations and rough edges. Naturally, you enjoy some more than others.

I've always liked when the passive voice class (a verb "to be" such as "is" or "was" is combined with a past participle such as "eaten" or "killed") rolls around. It means that you are with a group of learners who should be close to the pre-intermediate stage. They can converse naturally to some degree and you can finally begin to engage in interesting conversations that aren't marked by wild gesturing and pidgin English.

We spend a class cycling through the grammar and sentence construction and go through a series of activities to strengthen the students' understanding. At some point I silence the class, sit down, steeple my fingers like a pretentious arse and ask for reminders of when we use the passive voice. A few voices inevitably shout out the types of situations that we have already discussed.

Then I ask ominously if anyone can guess another context that lends itself to this newly learned grammar point.

"It's a good way to shift blame. And who in society dislikes admitting mistakes or accepting responsibility for what they have done?"

After some prodding and the mention of a few of the most recent scoundrels, I usually elicit the answer I've been looking for; "Government!"

No politician will ever say "We made mistakes," or "We killed someone yesterday," when they can more easily offer up "Mistakes were made and people were killed."

It's a subtle and practiced way that governments use to avoid stating the obvious in such a self-incriminating way. Journalists and editors will rarely shift the wording to the active voice when reporting or writing headlines. A good argument that the media is probably less biased than most people like to think (in this case no doubt, many would say they are complicit..they lose either way.)

And not only in English is this practice common. In the December 2007 edition of Harper's magazine, an article entitled "The Atrocity Files" details the uncovering and archiving of official documents related to Guatamala's three-and-a-half decades long civil war:

"Other methods of concealment were more subtle. Anyone perusing the police documents quickly perceives a habit of writing that sounds strange to the ear--the persistent use of the passive voice to describe everything. Police do not kidnap suspects; a suspect 'is kidnapped' (se secuestro). Security forces do not assassinate: the victim 'is shot and killed' (se disparo y se murio). A police report from November 1983 reveals that this grammatical tic was a matter not of dialect but of deliberate choice when one agent, describing his surveillance outside the home of a suspect, slips uncharacteristically into the first person. 'Approaching the house, I was able to observe a young woman,' he writes, 'who, when she noticed my presence, jumped up and looked at me suspiciously, so I decided to retreat.' This section of the report is cordoned off in red in and a note is written in the margin; 'Never personify--the third person must always be used.' "
I try not to finish classes on such a heavy note however. We usually end up having some fun together after I have directed the students to make some excuses in the passive voice.

"The homework was not completed. The car was damaged. My father's money was taken," etc.


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