P is for Passive

18 07 2010

Obama: male or female?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker adduces evidence from President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil-well blow-out to suggest that his speaking style is more female than male. Apparently Obama’s speech “featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.” The use of the passive voice is, supposedly, a characteristic of female speech – the sort of gender myth that drives Deborah Cameron crazy (see my previous post G is for Gender).

In refuting Parker’s cod-linguistics, the Atlantic Wire quotes University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who “finds that Obama’s speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush’s Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive”.

In any case, he adds, “there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are ‘feminine’… The ‘passive is girly’ prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive.”

Newspaper columnists are not alone in misrepresenting the significance of the passive. Student grammars are also at fault. A trainee of mine recently brought to my attention the following explanation of the use of the passive in a reputable grammar reference text:

Active and passive sentences often have similar meanings, but a different focus.

Active sentences focus on the agent (the person or thing doing the action). Millions of people read the magazine. (The focus is on the people.)

Passive sentences focus on the object (the person or thing receiving the action).

The magazine is read by millions of people. (The focus is on the magazine.)

Assuming that by ‘focus’ is meant ‘the important information’, this is so wrong as to be the exact opposite of the case, and is a good example of what happens when you try to fabricate rules out of de-contextualised examples. So, let’s create a plausible context:

The National Geographic is an American institution. The magazine is read by millions of people.

In the second sentence, the magazine refers back to a previously mentioned topic (The National Geographic). In other words, it is “given information” (the definite article indicates as much, even in the absence of the context). The new information is everything that follows (is read by millions of people), and conforms to the convention in English (and in many other languages) that new information is placed towards the end of the sentence – what is called “the end-weight principle”.  The rule given in the grammar book – that “active sentences focus on the agent” and “passive sentences focus on the object” – wrongly implies that the so-called focus of a sentence is its subject. The focus (if by focus we mean ‘the important information’) is in fact everything that is not the subject, i.e. everything that follows the main verb. Thus, the passive is one of several devices available to move new information to the end of the sentence, even when that new information is the agent of the verb. Compare the following two ‘mini-texts’:

  1. Ludwig von Beethoven was a German composer. He composed the Pastoral Symphony.
  2. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. It was composed by Ludwig von Beethoven.

    Beethoven: active or passive?

In the second sentence of Text 2, a passive structure is enlisted simply to push the new information to the end of the sentence in order to ‘focus’ on it. (The end-weighted matter, incidentally, also receives the most stress when spoken – a further indication of its ‘focal’ value). Compare Text 2 above with the less convincing – albeit grammatically well-formed – alternative:

2a. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. Ludwig von Beethoven composed it.

Curiously, the same point came up in a teaching practice class this week. In her reflections on a lesson, a teacher recounted the following:

On the board I wrote:

In the 1880’s, the telephone was invented.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

I asked students, “What is the focus of each sentence?” They did fine on the first two, but answered, “by Alexander Graham Bell,” for the third.   At this point, I said well actually the focus is on the telephone.   The meaning of the structure is to place emphasis on the noun (subject) that fronts the sentence.  The students not knowing this, couldn’t make sense of the concept check question.

In fact, as I pointed out to the teacher, the students were right!


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