Thursday, November 20, 2008

passive aggressive

Fourteen years ago, we taught students to use passive voice in scientific reports, because that's what scientists did. Mice were placed in a maze and were observed, etc. While making a report, the scientist removed himself/herself from the picture with the passive voice.

But the tide turned against the passive, and the prevailing opinion especially among social scientists was that it wasn't cool to deny one's responsibility, so the better writers just made those sentences active.

Now grammar-check, at least the prevailing grammar-check on the new Word 2008, has gone ahead and considered passive wrong, giving writers a green line under passive constructions and suggesting they iron them out and make them active like good writers do.

There are several problems with this. First, passive constructions aren't wrong; they're just bad style, and even then, they're not always bad style. Second, grammar-check is passing up boatloads of other bad grammar that is wrong, so it seems a little misguided to pick on something that's easy enough for a computer to find, but which really doesn't need to be changed all that badly.

Which brings up my last point. Grammar-check is being used by ESL students at all levels, all the way down to the point where they are first learning passive, but also, at the point where they are trying to produce all manner of interesting variants of good English. How are they supposed to know wrong from bad style? Obviously they don't. These days, when you present passive voice, or even discuss it with them, they look at you with a slightly quizzical look, as if to say, I know someone who calls this wrong. We have a case of conflicting authorities.



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