Sunday, March 25, 2012

Silly passives that have been seen (by me)

Every now and then I like to put the exercises aside and have a little rant. These are pretty harmless as most people come to this blog for specific posts and completely miss them, but at least it gets it off my chest.
I came across this stuff while looking for material for a post I want to do fairly soon on why the Passive can sometimes be useful.

Silly passives 1. Strunk's memorable visit to Boston

There's a grammar book, or rather usage book, which is very popular in North America, called "The Elements of Style" (1) and which I've written about elsewhere (2). Its author, William Strunk, discourages the use of the Passive, athough rather weakening his argument by using a passive construction to do so right in the middle of his main thrust. Anyway, he opens the section on avoiding the Passive by comparing these two sentences:
  • My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.
  • I will always remember my first trip to Boston.
He goes on to say that the second (active) sentence sounds much better than the first (passive) sentence
And of course he's right, but not because it's in the Passive, but because we're highly unlikely ever to say a sentence like his first example. As linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum puts it (3):
... that's because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows "by").
For me to report that I paid my bill by saying "The bill was paid by me," with no stress on "me," would sound inane. (I'm the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.)
In other words, the subject is where the emphasis is, and the speaker is likely to emphasise their role rather than that of the their first visit to Boston, or that of the bill.
Strunk's example is in fact a straw man argument. He's railing against something that even the most committed fan of the passive wouldn't do. This is because:
  • We don't often turn first person active sentences into passive
  • We don't often follow a passive with by and a pronoun, especially not with by me.

Silly passives 2. And then there's Stephen King

Novelist Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, also preaches against the passive, and uses this example to show how the Passive is bad, bad, bad.
"My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun."
Does anything strike you as odd about that sentence? Again it's a completely unrealistic example of the Passive, in fact doubly so. Here we have two Passive constructions "will always be recalled by me", and "how my romance with Shayna was begun", connected with the truly contrived (and horrible) "as how".
Nobody in their right mind would dream of using either of those constructions. First we have the by me bit, and then romances, after all, usually simply begin, intransitively; they are not begun by anybody. And as we all know, you don't turn intransitive verbs into the Passive.
Yet we are seriously expected to accept this as an argument against using the Passive. And, amazingly, people do. This very sentence is bandied around the Internet as a great example of how wicked the Passive is, and nobody stops to say, "Hey wait a minute, that's a really stupid example. Nobody would actually say that."


While out for my post-posting walk I started thinking a bit more about that use of the verb begin. Begin is an ergative verb, which means that not only can it can be used both transitively and intransitively, but the object of the transitive version can become the subject of the intransitive version. This makes use of the passive unnecessary, even if we want to stress the object of the active verb.
  • Harrods began their spring sales yesterday. (transitive)
  • If we want to put the emphasis on the sales, we can simply use the intransitive:
  • Spring sales began at Harrods yesterday.
  • Which is rather more natural than using a passive:
  • The spring sales were begun at Harrods yesterday.
Yet another reason why King's sentence is such a silly example.

Silly passives 3. Danny the rock skipper

The writer of the website (4) where I found that, who apparently regards the passive as a "writing sin", added his own example - "The rock was skipped across the pond by Danny.", comparing it with "Danny skipped a rock across the pond". Again no argument, because his Passive example is completely unrealistic. Danny is obviously more important than the rock in this sentence, so we would be very unlikely to change it into a passive.
But we might well say "Danny was badly hurt by a rock which his friend had skipped across the pond.", which for at least three reasons sounds better to me than "A rock which his friend had skipped across the lake badly hurt Danny." (it keeps the emphasis on Danny, avoids introducing new information into the subject, and avoids a long subject before the verb.)

Digression - rocks or pebbles?

At first I was a bit puzzled at this activity being called rock skipping (14), as it involves bouncing small stones, or pebbles, across the water. But it turns out to simply be a British / American thing. In British English, rocks are big and certainly wouldn't bounce, but apparently this is the standard term for this activity in American English, and I see from Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary that in North American English, rock does indeed mean small stone, and they give as an example - Protesters pelted the soldiers with rocks. A British person reading this in the news would have rather a bloodier image than perhaps an American would.

Silly passives 4. But this is what really puzzles me

I can perhaps understand why anti-passive campaigners use silly, invented examples to denigrate the passive but what puzzles me is why so many websites that are teaching the passive use precisely this same first person construction to explain the passive to students
Here's a website for students (5):
  • I gave him five rupees. (Active voice)
  • Five rupees were given to him by me. (Passive Voice)
  • He was given five rupees by me. (Passive Voice)
And here's another (6):
  • I am helping Shannon.
  • Shannon is being helped by me.
  • I was cleaning the bathroom.
  • The bathroom was being cleaned by me.
And yet another (7):
  • I make a cake
  • A cake is made (by me)
  • I have been making a cake
  • A cake has been being made (by me)
This last one compounds the problem by giving an example in Present perfect continuous, when Perfect continuous tenses, together with Future continuous, are almost never used in the Passive, because of the awkwardness of "been being" and "be being"
And this is from a linguistics blog (8), where the writer is extolling the virtues of the passive.
  • I take the books -> the books are taken (by me)
  • I will have bought the books -> the books will have been bought (by me)
Why do they use such unnatural examples to teach the Passive? Is this really the way to introduce foreign learners to the Passive? By teaching them sentences that no native speaker in their right mind would use? I can't remember ever having seen a TEFL course book or one of the better grammar books doing this. So why do these websites? It's a total mystery to me, and totally unnecessary, as you can see by visiting any of the websites in the 'How it should be done' section below.

Funny passives 1. Raymond Queneau - Exercises in Style

One of the few examples I can find of the by me construction used in literature comes from a book called Exercises in Style by the French writer Raymond Queneau (9) (10). Quenau writes:
  • The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare.
But if we look at the passage just before this, we find:
Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the young gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentleman, it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon.
Quenau was playing with the language. In Exercises in Style he looks at one small story 99 times, each one in a different style. This comes from a section of the book called "Passives". The humour and interest of this section comes from the fact that every verb is in the Passive, and he uses the Passive in ways that it is not normally used. It truly was an 'Exercise in Style', but let's hope Stephen King et al don't get hold of it!

Funny passives 2. A gem from Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys (12) wrote probably the most famous diary in the English language. I found this wonderful extract from Pepys Diary (13) for 20 October 1666. Not only does Pepys use the by me construction, but he puts what looks very like a relative clause before the noun "picture". How styles have changed!
And then to see in what pomp his table was laid for himself to go to dinner; and here, among other pictures, saw the so much desired by me picture of my Lady Castlemaine, which is a most blessed picture; and that that I must have a copy ...

How it should be done - teaching with natural examples.

Just to show you that it's not in the slightest bit necessary to teach the Passive using unrealistic examples like the ones I've quoted above, here are some websites that use normal natural-sounding sentences in contexts where we might actually use the Passive.

Assorted links


Sherit said...

Great rant! I love to read a rant that has been thought through and well-prepared (by someone.) Thanks for the examples - I've been teaching for awhile and never really thought extensively about what I was using to teach passive.

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