Re: Active vs. Passive

Subject: Re: Active vs. Passive
From: Stephen Bernhardt <sbernhar -at- NMSU -dot- EDU>
Date: Mon, 7 Feb 1994 09:43:53 -0700

There are several points of confusion in the following comments from Chad.
It is important that people first understand what passive is before having
an attitude about it.

On Fri, 4 Feb 1994, Chad Kaiwi Southern wrote:

> The booklet states, "All text must be written in
> third person."

This is not an issue of passive or active voice in the verb system, but of
person in the pronominal system. The two systems are independent.

> understood. In class, my understanding of passive sentence structure is
> the object (kickee) cannot do the action described in the sentence.
> ex. "The legs were attatched to the table using screws."

Whether a sentence is passive or active, as long as it is transitive,
someone or something will be doing the kicking. The difference is that in
an active sentence, the subject is the agent--the kicker--while in a
passive sentence, the kicker is somewhere else than grammatical subject
position, typically in a "by" phrase at the end of the sentence or
deleted. It is not a matter of can or can't do the kicking; it is a matter
of whether agent (semantic) is coincident with subject (grammar).

> Clearly the active sentence is not in third person. The sentence is
> understood and formal.

Either passive or active can be either understandable or formal. there is
nothing inherent in the forms that leads to either of these qualities.
There is at least some evidence that passives are harder to read and
understand. It takes people longer to read passive sentences and they are
more likely to misunderstand who is doing what to whom. We're talking
microseconds, but there still is some reason, all things being equal, to
prefer active over passive. The trick is to recognize when all things
are not equal and to use passive when it makes good sense.

> Stephen A. Bernhardt >
> Department of English, Box 3E >
> New Mexico State University >
> Las Cruces, NM 88003 >
> 505-646-2027 FAX 505-646-7725 >
> e-mail sbernhar -at- nmsu -dot- edu >

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