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Style in advanced composition: Active students and passive voice

by C. Frischkorn
Teaching English in the Two-Year College ()

Abstract

Students should consider the effectiveness of both the active and the passive voice in a range of rhetorical contexts. Because students must read and write in many rhetorical contexts beyond the classroom, they benefit from learning both active and passive voices as stylistic options. As decision makers, students must sort out their rhetorical contexts to determine whether a sentence needs the active voice or the passive voice. By learning to choose the appropriate construction for the intended audience, students can gain greater control over their writing, and writing teachers can more honestly present themselves as one of many audiences with their particular stylistic preferences. Finding realistic sample sentences for learning the passive voice is critical if the knowledge is to be applied in practical contexts. One source for these contexts is the daily newspaper. Many newspapers can be searched electronically for key phrases and constructions. Teachers can present students with a cross section of contexts to illustrate ways that active and passive constructions are used daily Reading the passive voice with understanding is the starting point for effectively employing it in writing. Business students who study influences on the stock market, for example, may find uses of the passive voice in financial stories. Of course, fund managers may use the passive voice if they want to hide information from market analysts. For example, the passive voice allows a Japanese fund manager to hide the identity of investors when he admits in London's Financial Times that "markets were mysterious things `driven by unseen forces"' ("Passive Voice"). We might ask, "Who were the unseen forces who were driving the market?" If the identity of these unseen forces behind the stock purchases is the Japanese government, then the active voice would certainly reveal the actor of the verb, and so an active voice sentence revision is something quite different. No longer is the market being driven by unseen forces when the statement is worded this way in the active voice: "The Japanese government has purchased stock in order to drive the market." The sports page frequently illustrates the stylistic choice to use the passive voice. Frank Stewart writes a column on playing bridge, and he discusses the difference between writing up a hand in the active voice and doing so in the passive. In writing up a hand, he comments that writers prefer the "forceful and concise" active voice because writing in the passive eliminates the card players themselves. As Stewart explains, "When I write in the passive that a hand can't be made, I mean nobody could make it. But when a player says a hand couldn't be made, it's likely he couldn't make it" (14B). Regardless of the context, the passive voice can hideor move-the agent of the verb, and some crafty writers may intend to do this hiding. The general category of sporting events can be an effective context for students to practice manipulating the active and passive voice in order to achieve different emphases. A football score, for instance, can be reported in a number of ways, depending on which team a reporter wants to emphasize. If he is a Buffalo reporter and the home team has won, he may write, "The Bills defeated the Dolphins." But even if his home team has lost, the passive voice allows him to mention his team first: "The Bills were defeated by the Dolphins." With both active and passive constructions, wins and losses can be described, and the home team normally appears first in the sentence. For practice, students can be assigned a variety of rhetorical contexts with teams to place first in the sentence. Thus, deliberately using the passive can help students understand the flexibility of emphasis that is possible. In turn, they can become more aware of how various realistic contexts may call for the active voice-or the passive. Another example of opting for the passive voice in the sporting world relates to the idea of taking credit for an achievement. In a September 1998 sports story on a sailing competition, reporter Leslie Duncan of the Glasgow Herald deliberately calls attention to his own use of the passive voice in his description of Pete Goss as an English hero. (Goss was the English sailor who saved the life of his French opponent in the Southern Ocean during a sailing race around the world). Notice Duncan's link between his own passive voice sentence and Goss's modesty in his remark: "The perfect Britishor rather English-hero was revealed in Midweek. The passive voice of 'revealed' is appropriate, since Pete Goss is the most modest of men. His bravery, and sheer niceness, emerged only under persistent grilling by Libby Purves" (24). A passage of this nature lends itself well to projects that help students learn the nuances of the passive and active voices. In this passage for example, the instructor may ask the students to pretend that a modest hero is a braggart instead. Students can learn to practice choosing between the active and passive constructions when they are assigned a range of rhetorical contexts that call for each. But the passive voice is not used only by modest people who don't want to brag. It can also be used to pass the buck, and Montreal Gazette editorialist William Johnson quickly catches what can be called the "weasel factor" of the passive voice as used by the Canadian Minister of National Defence. Johnson rages, "Listen to our minister of national defence: `Mistakes were made,' said Art Eggleton." Johnson rejects Eggleton's evasive statement; he immediately connects Eggleton's passive voice admission and connects it to one used by Ronald Reagan as well. As Johnson notes, "Mistakes were made? That was the mantra used in 1986 by Ronald Reagan to trivialize the Irangate scandal. It covered such 'mistakes' as violating the law of the land, lying to Congress, selling prohibited weapons to Iran, using the money to finance the Contras in Nicaragua after Congress had ordered an end to the operation" (B3). Johnson employs the language of the "passive voice" in his critique of Eggleton: "`Mistakes were made,' repeated Art Eggleton. Note the passive voice. No one actually made the mistakes; they came into being by spontaneous generation. They made themselves." Johnson continues, "Mistakes were made: a neat formula for a coverup. It seems to concede-not wrongdoing, but innocent errors of judgment. It shields real people from having to take responsibility for their real actions and to account for their real misdeeds." Eggleton's use of the passive is deceptive, and so was Reagan's. This is all the more reason for students to develop the critical apparatus-such as Johnson shows in his editorial to spot passive sentences and demand information on the agent of the verb. As Joseph Williams has explained in his textbook on style, "Choose the passive when you don't know who did it, your readers don't care who did it, or you don't want them to know who did it" (83). Eggleton certainly does not want to finger individuals in the Canadian government as being responsible for mistakes, and so he says "mistakes were made." Being able to identify evasive passive sentences is nothing less than being an educated voter. Even self-help issues can be explored in terms of the passive voice. Hartford Courant columnist Gina Barreca confesses how she internally uses the passive voice as a rationalization for delaying the completion of her daily personal tasks. As she looks at the tasks on her "to do" list, she notices that she slips from the active to the passive voice as a kind of subtle procrastination. She writes, " . . even as I slip into the passive voice (`This needs to get done' vs. 'I need to do this') I fear the day is lost." For Barreca, the passive voice looms over her as a neurotic metaphor of personal inefficiency. Consequently, she concludes that talking to oneself in the active voice instead is one way to get things done. As she puts it, ". . getting out of the passive voice is the only way to get anywhere you'll ever need to be" (14). Karen Scriven has noted, "Our writing students need to know the truth about the passive: the passive has an important stylistic function in maintaining discourse topics in both oral and written communication" (93). Indeed it is here to stay, but Scriven observes, the construction can be scapegoated for other writing problems: "Blaming the passive voice for a lack of clarity and directness when those flaws are caused by a variety of structural problems encourages our students to believe in the `quick fix"' (93). And "quick fix" is certainly what grammar checkers offer students who have computers; and a decade later, Scriven's point holds true now more than ever. Jane Walpole argues that the passive is "often the dearest and briefest way to convey information," despite what teachers and handbooks say In any case, Walpole explains that students tend not to know what the passive voice is in the first place. Now, however, most students have access to grammar checkers on computers that will label active and passive constructions. In a 1998 column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, writing consultant Stephen Wilbers humorously captures the limitations of such "style-insensitive" grammarchecking software. He illustrates a number of ways to use the passive voice effectively, and he concludes with an ironically comical message from his computer: "I have detected five uses of the passive voice in this column. Consider using the active voice instead" (2D). Computers can be as rigid in "damning the passive" as many teachers and handbooks. What we must remember, though, is that in teaching students to read and write critically we must also encourage them to see what stylistic choices such as the passive voice really do to shape meaning, whether they are reading a newspaper, writing a lab report, or drafting an essay Writing is too complex an activity to settle always

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