Well-educated people don’t know what passive voice is

For a long time those kooks over at Language Log have railed against people who think that writing in the passive voice simply means writing in a way that obscures the agency of the writer. In fact, the only thing passive voice has to do with is whether the subject of a sentence comes before the object or after it. I’ve made this handy diagram to illustrate the difference between active and passive voice:


That’s it. That’s all passive voice is.

I wanted to add an example from one of the books I was reading this week. Joey  Sprague, in her book Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers, writes that using “active rather than passive voice” is a good way to “call attention to the researcher as a person.” Of course, she’s right. But the example she gives, “‘I believe’ rather than ‘it seems,'” is wrong. A sentence beginning with “I believe” would indeed be in the active voice, but a sentence beginning with “it seems” would also be in the active voice, as in the example

……..subject                                        object
………..It          seems         that john ate the cookies.

where the object is a subordinate noun clause. If this sentence was made passive, it would be

……..*That john ate the cookies was seemed

The fact that people can make it through 12 years of postsecondary education without learning this distinction seems to reflect poorly on linguistics education in the North American school system, or something.


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