Friday, February 28, 2014

The Book is not Read by Mary

“The book is read by Mary” was an example sentence in a lesson on the passive voice that I observed last week. Although we are used to seeing similar examples in coursebooks, this one struck me as so unnatural that I searched for it on Google to see if any writer on the Internet had ever used it. The search produced only eight results, mainly from ESL worksheets. By way of comparison, the sentence "The light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison" produces fifty-seven thousand results. So why do coursebooks continue to use such improbable examples?

 The essential problem is that these examples are based on attempts to introduce passive structures using simple lexis to describe common processes that are familiar to young children. But the passive is not normally used in this type of discourse, and in fact is rarely used at all by children with English as their first language. According to Horgan (1978), it is not until the age of thirteen that English children correctly produce complete passive sentences including the agent using “by”.

In contrast, ways in which the passive voice is typically used by competent writers are illustrated by  the following extracts from What is Madness? by Darian Leader.

“Delusions are almost always preceded by a period in which the person feels that there is some kind of meaning in the world, although it remains imprecise and elusive.” (71)

“Delusions tend to fall into two groups: the transitory attempts to find meaning, which don’t endure for too long, and the more methodical systems, built up over time, which are often more solid.” (72)

Alternating between passive and active voice enables the writer to begin both sentences with the word “Delusions”, giving prominence to the most important word by making it the theme of each sentence.  The ability to choose between active and passive also contributes to the thematic progression between sentences, enhancing the cohesiveness of the writing. The reasons for the selection of active and passive respectively are complex, and interwoven with the context in which the sentence occurs.

In the first example, the agent “period” is post-modified by a long relative clause in a way which would not be possible if “period” were at the beginning as the subject of an active sentence. Active voice is used for  the second verb (“the person feels” rather than “it is felt”) because the desired focus is on the person experiencing the feeling. The other two verbs in this sentence, “there is” and “it remains” are intransitive, so there is no question of making them passive.

In the second sentence, although the main verb is active (“Delusions tend”), passive is used in the reduced relative clause “[which are] built up over time”. Again the combination of active and passive contributes to the clarity and concision of expression.

The passive voice characteristically occurs in certain types of writing, so our lessons should draw on these as a source of authentic examples. For example, a quiz game could be devised in which students would match the three sections of split sentences like:

The light bulb was invented
by Thomas Edison
in 1879.

The telephone was invented
by Alexander Graham Bell
in 1875.

Transformation activities should be avoided, as these are generally not possible when the active and passive voices are each used appropriately in a natural context, as the extracts from What is Madness? show.

Use of the passive in spoken English is very limited, and almost non-existent in the L1 speech of children, so there is no reason to try to teach it to children learning English as a second language. On the other hand, there are a few phrases of high utility which contain the passive voice. Adult learners in particular are likely to want to say things like “I was born in the UK but I got married after I moved to Greece”. Such phrases can be introduced as chunks in communicative activities and taught without analysis at an early stage of learning.


Horgan, D. (1978). The development of the full passive. Journal of Child Language, 5, 65- 80.

Peter Beech -

No comments:

Post a Comment