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I Am Beset by a Grammatical Dilemma

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?


  1. Mary wrote:

    1) you need a time machine: send them all back to Catholic grade schools in the 1950’s and have the nuns teach them how to diagram sentences on the blackboard and/or 2) have them study foreign languages where they will learn interesting phrases like the one in Spanish where you don’t say you dropped something, you say “it fell me”

    Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Jamie wrote:

    Probably B. I used to teach graduate level writing, and I did make an exception for cases where the passive voive drew attention to the receiver of the action (That poem was written by Madonna!)

    Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Jamie wrote:

    (They had to choose the best of four versions of a sentence for GMAT, GRE, etc. The best one occasionally used the passive voice, though I did tell them it was a red flag for the sentence being the wrong choice unless there was a worse version, since it’s not a grammatical error per se)

    Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Bill wrote:

    I’m very surprised your colleague thought that. I’m also surprised kids use the passive voice that much. Maybe they just use it in school where they think it sounds less ‘street’, more formal/academic, less personal,less vulnerable, less apt to get criticized. I’ll bet they don’t write emails that way. School is an unnatural setting for writing for most of us.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink
  5. Joanne wrote:

    This a battle that was constantly fought by me (Ha, ha) when I taught at MPU. Seriously, one place students tend to use passive voice excessively is in writing lab reports. They think it sounds more scientific to say “The reagent was added…” than to say “I added the reagent…” I constantly reminded them that simple straightforward active voice is the clearest.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  6. Anne Steel wrote:

    Did they learn how to diagram a sentence? You assume this was taught in high school. Hmmmm.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  7. Kathy wrote:

    Students do very little diagramming these days, Anne, and very little grammar of any sort. It helps, as Mary said, if they’ve studied a foreign language, but even then their knowledge is sketchy.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  8. Kathy wrote:

    Thanks for the corroboration, Joanne! It’s a big habit of theirs. “Simple, straightforward” is not in their vocabulary.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  9. Kathy wrote:

    Yes, Bill, exactly. They think stilted writing sounds good. They think it sounds impressive and academic, exactly the motivations Orwell is lamenting.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Kathy wrote:

    Language study certainly helps in the grammar department, Mary, but my MPU students have all studied a foreign language in high school. Very few kids nowadays have diagrammed a sentence. I always say that at this point most of their high school teachers didn’t study much grammar either.

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Barb Cockroft wrote:

    I encountered this same situation when I taught Ed Psych at a Catholic Univeristy of Distinction (which shall remain nameless). What horrifed me even more was that my 7th grade students from the public secotr, to whom I HAD taught diagramming, were better writers than my sophomores at said University. I do not think you should “forget it.” A student pursuing a Master’s Degree needs to write his/her thesis in active voice. When I obtained my Master’s over 20 years ago, I set up a lab for my colleagues who were not skilled in this basic concept–very sad, indeed. In my experience it seems as if our ELL students are more proficinet with the English language than our native speakers–because the ELL students were taught GRAMMAR and DIAGRAMMING!

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  12. Barb Cockroft wrote:

    sorry for the misspelling of “sector” in previous post…ARGH!

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  13. Kathy wrote:

    Yes, Barb, it’s an epidemic. I think students have a distorted idea of what sounds good. And your “sector” wasn’t misspelled! It was a typo!

    Friday, January 24, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Michael Whitely wrote:

    Hi Kathy,

    You could ask them to underline the entropic verbs.

    I typed in ‘entropy black hole’ and looked at this article:
    It says: ‘But entropy is really about the level of information you need to describe a system’. And then it gives a lovely example of itself: ‘On the other hand, a disordered system (marbles randomly scattered) take more information to describe, because there isn’t a simple pattern to them’. You have to spend time and energy to work out what it means.

    Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 9:25 pm | Permalink
  15. Lisa Marin wrote:

    I spent over 20 years reviewing thousands of resumes and employment applications from graduates of MPU, as well as from The People’s University, the Lesser Catholic College, and many other less local institutions. The passive voice reigned supreme in all but a few. The overall quality of the writing, spelling, grammar, and punctuation was abysmal. I think they just don’t care!

    Monday, January 27, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

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  1. Kathy Ewing › “Stories Matter. Many Stories Matter” on Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    […] semester, I am teaching my education seminar at what I call the MPU, the More Prestigious University. Though I usually enjoy my MPU students, I prefer my students at Cleveland State University, a […]

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