Oh yeah! It’s grammar time! Today I would like to talk about teaching the passive voice to students and most importantly the utility of focusing on the ‘WHY?’ instead of the ‘HOW?’ In learning the passive voice students will naturally ask their standard question: Do people really use this form? I believe it is very important to go over the various times when the passive voice is preferable to active voice so that students have a better understanding.
First let’s remind ourselves what the passive voice is. A passive sentence is one where the ‘agent’ or person or thing that is performing the action is NOT the subject of the sentence.
Active: Bob kissed Mary.
Bob is the subject of the sentence AND the person performing the action. (the agent)
Passive: Mary was kissed by Bob.
Mary is the subject of the sentence but she has not performed any actions. She is passive.
This particular passive voice sentence happened to have been in the past simple tense but, in fact, passive sentences can be in any tense that an active sentence can be.
Mary is going to be kissed by Bob.
Mary has been kissed by Bob.
Mary is kissed by Bob every day.
Mary needs to be kissed by Bob.
Mary was being kissed by Bob.
English is a language that tends to favour the old SVO – subject,verb, and then object form as in: Bob saw a film. So, naturally, a very good question from students would be: Why the heck does knowing the passive voice become necessary at all?
Here is the answer. The passive voice allows us to control what we choose to make the subject of the sentence and therefore where we focus our listeners’ attention.
1.Sometimes we do NOT know the agent or “do-er” of the action.
My car has just been stolen! – I do not know who did it. Imagine how ridiculous this sentence would be; “I don’t know who but somebody just stole my car!”
That statement was intentionally exaggerated. It can be possible when for example saying: “Someone just ate the last piece of pizza.” , if you want to focus on the culprit who committed the crime.
2. Sometimes the agent is so completely obvious it doesn’t need to be the subject and the action itself is more important.
“A lot of people forget that Portuguese is also spoken in Brazil.”
It would sound silly to say, “A lot of people forget that Brazilian people speak Portuguese.”
This is especially clear if the original conversation was about how beautiful Portuguese language is and where in the world it is spoken. I suppose if we were talking about Brazil then the second sentence would be more appropriate.
“The president was arrested in the early morning hours.” Who else arrests people if not the police? Do we really need to mention that the police arrested her/him?
“In the early morning hours the police arrested…..” by this point in the article do you even care who the police arrested if the most important information in a newspaper article should come first?
“I was born in 1975” is also a classic example of a passive sentence based on the obvious agent. How many students know that bear and bore are the first and second forms of BORN? Would they know how to make an active sentence with ‘bear’? Should they know?
3. Sometimes the agent is just simply not what we are talking about. Imagine this series of sentences:
“I love the film Titanic. It is such a great film. James Cameron filmed it in 1996 in Mexico. It is often regarded as quite kitschy and over-rated but when it was released cinema goers had no expectations and there had been no great ‘hyping’ of the film so they were just blown away.”
The only sentence which seems slightly off is the one where James Cameron is spontaneously brought in as the subject of the sentence when we are talking about Titanic and not the director of the film. “It was made in Mexico in 1996.” – This sentence could have been more appropriate.
This control over what we make the subject of the sentence is also a great way to direct the attention of the listener.
“We were given a free tour of the factory.” – Being given the tour is important.
“The CEO gave us a tour of the factory.” – The CEO doing it is what is important.
As an awareness raising activity, having students get to know the circumstance behind using the passive voice is a great way to improve their confidence AND motivating them to practice using passive voice forms.
As a person with a good understanding of English, wouldn’t you agree it is sometimes helpful to have an awareness of the justifications for using a particular grammar form? There are many times when it is self-evident i.e./ we need the past tense to talk about the past. But there are times when it is not so obvious why a particular grammar form is needed?
Culprit – the person responsible for a crime or wrongdoing
Crucial – very important, essential