In the winter semester (they call it “spring,” but, um, no), I teach a writing seminar at an institution I’ll call the More Prestigious University, or MPU. It’s a choosy place, which selects students carefully based on grades and high SAT scores. A few years ago, before I started teaching there, I chatted with an MPU professor at a holiday party. He was complaining about a colleague who encouraged students to use the passive voice in their writing, of which he disapproved. He advised his students against the passive voice and was chagrined that they didn’t heed his advice. When I suggested that maybe his students didn’t understand the term, he sniffed, “Of course students at MPU know what passive voice is.”
Before I continue my story, let’s take a timeout to review passive voice, because I don’t expect every adult who’s been out of school for twenty years immediately to recall every grammatical construction. Here’s active voice: I teach a class at MPU. Here’s passive voice: A class at MPU is taught by me.
In active voice, the subject (I) is performing the action of the verb. In the second, the subject (class) is not performing the action, but is passively sitting around waiting to be taught. I hope you’ll notice a couple of things about those sentences. The first one is direct and clear, and the second is wordy and awkward. Moreover, passive voice lends itself to mealy-mouthed equivocation. You’ll frequently hear craven politicians say Mistakes were made (passive voice) instead of I made mistakes (active voice). Though passive voice isn’t incorrect and fits certain situations, it can become a bad habit.
Back to the story. Now that I’m teaching at MPU myself, I find that MPU students are inclined to this sort of thing: Students are expected to spend countless hours on homework and extracurricular activities, and for this reason their own interests are put aside in the hope that a higher grade will be attained and a more impressive resume will be created. Every verb in this unpleasant sentence is in passive voice: are expected, are put aside, will be attained, and will be created.
To address this issue, I always assign George Orwell’s powerful essay “Politics and the English Language,” which rails against verbosity, unnecessary euphemisms, equivocation, and passive voice. I spend a little time reviewing passive voice, cautioning my students to avoid it. They seem to catch on in class, but usually, to my frustration, continue to rely on it, padding their essay with unnecessary words.
This semester, I tried a new tack. After our discussion of George Orwell and a thorough (I thought) lesson on active and passive, I asked them to underline the passive voice verbs in their own first essay before they turned it in. As you’re probably guessing, they were unable to do this. They underlined bunches of active voice verbs while overlooking bunches of passive voice verbs. They don’t know the difference. That MPU prof at the holiday party was making a big assumption.
This brings up bunches of fascinating questions. I expect my students to explain, when we discuss this next week, that it’s much harder to find your own passive voice verbs (or comma splices or sentence fragments) than to identify them in a class exercise. How to move students from comprehending a concept in class to applying it? How often do we “cover” something in class, with no actual learning going on?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other questions. Should I spend more valuable time in class trying to teach them the grammar they should have learned in high school? Or, should I just mark the offending verbs in their papers, hoping that they’ll catch on? Should I lower their grades every time they slip a passive voice verb in their essays? Or, should I stop worrying about it because it’s A. a lost cause, or B. not really important?