RE: Active voice / passive voice studies

Subject: RE: Active voice / passive voice studies
From: "Michael West" <mbwest -at- bigpond -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 13:00:06 +1000

Nancy asked:
> I'm interested in finding studies that ... address
> differences in the way readers comprehend active
> and passive-voice sentences.

If you enter the string--

active passive syntax cognitive

--into Google, you'll find plenty of reading to
keep you busy, and a lot of bibliographical
avenues for further investigation.

I did. I read until my eyes went blurry trying
to read a PDF and I thought the phrase "hardcore
transitives" was "hardcore transvestites" and
thought I was being led down the garden path.

Among other things, you'll learn about Broca's
area of the brain.

And you'll learn about what cognitive researchers
call the "canonical form" of sentences -- which appears
to be nearly universal among languages, and which places
the actor or agent in the "subject" position of the
sentence, and places the thing acted upon at or near
the end of the sentence. In other words -- active voice.

Passive-voice sentences are harder for some people to
decode and more error-prone.

"From the beginning of experimental work in syntax
(e.g. Bever 1970), we have seen that under competence-
compromising and/or performance-limiting conditions,
people interpret passive sentences to mean exactly their
opposites, as though only the relative order of the two
nouns were being processed

"The simplicity of canonical word order is embodied
in transformational and relational grammars: active-voice
canonical word-order sentences are those from which
passives and others are derived. "

Why is this so? I'll tell you why. We don't know. But the theories
are interesting.

It seems that what *is* known (did you catch the passive
construction there?) is that:

The passive voice moves the thing acted upon by the verb
into the subject slot, thus relegating the actor either to
a weak position (object of a preposition) or to no
position (left out of the sentence entirely).

Sometimes we have a reason for doing this, and not necessarily
an honorable one, as for example when we want to hide guilt
or blame.

When we use this non-canonical word order, we should be
aware of it, and we should ask ourselves whether we are
doing it for a good reason, and whether it might not be
a better idea not to do it.

That's what the handbooks *should* say, but don't.

And now as a reward for those of you who are still
reading -- here's your laugh for the day. Enter
the following string, EXACTLY as I have typed it,
into the Google search engine:


Heh, heh.

Mike West
Melbourne, Australia


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