1. Joshua Taj Bozeman
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    Joshua Taj Bozeman New Member

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    Can someone help me with these "passive verbs"?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Joshua Taj Bozeman, Mar 15, 2012.

    I'm taking a 300 level writing class, and the professor is a major stickler when it comes to passive voice...so much that my paper is filled with red marks. I know I'm a good writer, so I can't even imagine what most of these kids are getting back, as I have peer critiqued their own writings. In terms of passive voice, as long as you don't use it for every sentence, I see no use in correcting it. Surely, some terrible writing exists, and passive voice is to blame, but I don't see it with a lot of my sentences that he has marked.

    [[I SHOULD NOTE- on the back of my paper, he says "you rely heavily on the "to be" form," which I assume he is attacking a passive voice, but the confusion still exists for the items below.]]

    I'm going to list some of the examples, because I cannot figure out how on earth to change them without making the sentences sound ridiculous and forced.

    "Even if one were to make the audacious claim that slavery is, in any manner, acceptable, there's no way to excuse such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    he marked, in red, "were to make," "slavery is," and "there's no way"

    1) Were to make- how do you change that without simply "makes" which changes the meaning of what I'm saying?
    2) Slavery is- I have no idea how to fix that at all. Without using the word "accepting" and changing the order, which sounds insanely odd.?
    3) there's no way- outside of saying "no excuse exists" which also changes the meaning and the emphasis- I'm trying to indict the deplorable treatment, but by changing it, I lose that.

    I will give two more examples. This professor has me paranoid. He gave my paper a B+ and most of the marks are simply "to be" verbs, so I'm so paranoid now, I'm just going through and taking out every is, are, was, must be, etc and changing them to action verbs, no matter how silly it makes my sentences sound.

    "There is no justice in a societal contract that denies from men what they so desperately desire from society itself."

    He marked off for "there is no." Again, I can't see how to change that without making it sound stilted and forced.

    Finally-

    "The idea that something is right because it exists and has existed for time immemorial is plainly offensive."
    He marked off for "something is right" and "is plainly offensive."

    I should note that this was an essay on Rousseau and the idea that "might makes right" or that something is right because it has existed for so long, people just accept it as being moral.

    Outside of changing the last one to "plainly offends" which sounds off (again), I have no idea what to do. And as for "something is right"- I have no idea how I could change that.

    Hopefully if anyone made it through all of this (sorry), you can, perhaps, advise me on how on earth these could be changed. I'm paranoid about every verb I use now, because I certainly don't want to get a B in this class. Any help would be greatly appreciated!
     
  2. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm with your (obviously very thorough teacher) all the way here.

    I cannot figure out how on earth to change them without making the sentences sound ridiculous and forced.

    Okay, let me give you a few ideas, then. And I can say that passive voice is absolutely NOT the problem here.

    "Even if one were to make the audacious claim that slavery is, in any manner, acceptable, there's no way to excuse such deplorable treatment of another human being."
    Were to make etc = wordy
    Slavery is = was (is this essay about slavery now, or in the past? İf it’s in the past, use past tense) Or, you are using 3rd conditional = past tense
    There’s no way = way too informal English for an essay.
    So:
    “Even if one claimed that slavery were in any way acceptable, it is impossible to excuse such treatment of another human being.”

    "There is no justice in a societal contract that denies from men what they so desperately desire from society itself."

    Very long-winded and stilted phrasing. Just say something like: “A societal contract that in fact denies men what they desire from society is unjust."

    "The idea that something is right because it exists and has existed for time immemorial is plainly offensive."
    Something is right = too vague
    Is plainly offensive = ‘plainly’ offensive to you, maybe. Not a good phrase for an essay. Far too personal and you need to back up your ideas with solid evidence, quotes from sources etc. You can’t just say ‘something’ (which thing, exactly?) is plainly (it may only be plain to you) offensive (why is it offensive?)

    I would miss this phrase out, and substitute for a sentence which provides better evidence of why ... is morally wrong, or offensive.

    I should note that this was an essay on Rousseau and the idea that "might makes right" or that something is right because it has existed for so long, people just accept it as being moral.

    Your above sentence makes no sense to me. Are you talking about Rousseau’s ideas (I don’t think so) or yours? And where does the expression “might makes right “ come from?

    BTW, I am a university teacher! Your writing is good, but you need to be clearer, more direct, and always, always, always back up your statements, which should demonstrate a good use of the sources your teacher has directed you to, not knitted from woolly theories formed by yourself. I would still edit your sentences to make them MUCH simpler.
     
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  3. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Active voice is stronger and clearer than passive voice. Your writing will thus be stronger and clearer if you convert your passive sentences to active sentences. (And, in your case, you will get A's instead of B's.) So you have plenty of use in correcting it. You want to have NO passive voice sentences in your writing unless you have a really good reason for using it. Merely being unable to convert it isn't a good excuse. Rather, it's an indicator that you need some help converting it.

    You can (almost) always convert a sentence to active voice. It's a little hard at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's not so bad. Hopefully madhoca's reply helped illuminate the process.
     
  4. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^ However, in the examples the OP gave, passive voice was not used anyway. The OP's problem is roundaboutism and obfuscation, not passive voice. Also, I must point out that passive structure can often be the more concise and desirable way to write in an academic paper, NOT active.
     
  5. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do not bother yourself too much with what is and is not a passive construction. I echo madhoca's advice: think in terms of writing clearly; think in terms of constructing efficient, elegant and meaningful sentences. Keep in my mind that most folk do not know what passives are. This ignorance extends to teachers and professors. Here's a delightful example of ignorance discussed by the folks at Language Log:

    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/grammar/passives.html#passivepostlist


    Leaving technicalities and stylistic niceties aside, the most important thing is that you communicate meaningful things. This is my understanding of your above sentence:

    Even if one were to make an excuse for slavery, there's no excuse for slavery.
     
  6. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^ That must be the problem, art. Either the OP has assumed using passive is the mistake because of the 'be' verb, or the teacher has said 'passive voice' as a kind of (incorrect) blanket term to mean there are too many sentences relying on the verb 'to be'. Trouble could be avoided by making shorter/simpler sentences and choosing one verb instead of a wordy phrase, e.g. claim, not 'claim to make', and staying away from emotive adjectives and determiners like 'audacious', 'desperately' and 'plainly'.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i can only ditto all of madhoca's observations/conclusions/advice...
     
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Passive voice has its uses, and personally I find text written solely in active voice a little obnoxious after a while, like a symphony would if played on all instruments at once, all the time, never leaving room for the solos and decrescendos that are what truly give the crescendos their power. Or, with a closer simile; it's like ending every sentence with an exclamation mark!
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Ow! Passive voice and clumsy construction! Good thing you're not submitting this to the OP's teacher ...

    ;)
     
  10. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry?
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, me too. I shouldn't have posted that. I was having a bit of an argument with my roommate and was feeling too, um, frisky. I apologize.
     
  12. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    No probs.
     
  13. Joshua Taj Bozeman
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    Joshua Taj Bozeman New Member

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    Thanks for the input. See, it's confusing, as the professor told us to make our sentences complex and avoid short, choppy sentences. He mentioned to never use the "to be" form...well, almost never.

    In terms of the essay- it was supposed to be formal, but not too formal, and he said to include your own voice and opinions in it. I quoted Rousseau and Douglass throughout, but I didn't include any of those passages. On Friday, I'm going to ask him to clarify for me- if I just merely overused the "to be" form, or whether it was a case of too much passive voice. I think the original reply said the problem wasn't a passive voice- did you mean the voice was not, in fact, passive, or that that it was, but it wasn't my main problem?

    To clarify on my sentence: "Even if one were to make the audacious claim that slavery is, in any manner, acceptable, there's no way to excuse such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    This was in relation to a story where a cruel slave master beat her two slaves. My argument was, even if you held the view that slavery was fine, you still couldn't excuse the mistreatment. In other words, even if you claimed slavery was somehow acceptable, you couldn't possibly go further and praise the woman's treatment of her slaves. I try to make my sentences complex and clear...based on the text we read in class, I think this was clear to the teacher as I cited the instance prior to this sentence. I just didn't want to go crazy and post my entire 3 page paper :)

    In terms of using "were" in that sentence, I wanted to sort of trap. Confront someone who might praise slavery. Even if you were to argue it's okay, I would then immediately counter with guilt on the second evil- beating the helpless slaves. So, I worded it that way to put emphasis on the fact that someone who supports slavery and possibly takes no issue with the beatings was doubly evil. If that makes sense?

    Clarifying this sentence: "The idea that something is right because it exists and has existed for time immemorial is plainly offensive."
    Rousseau's essay contained a large chunk where he talked about "right from fact," i.e. something is considered "moral" only because it has existed for so long (it's right simply because it "is" something that exists and has for some time.)

    So, I basically restated the idea of "right from fact" and added my own argument -- that it's plainly offensive. Slavery isn't right just because it existed for thousands of years, thus we tolerate its continual existence. It's wrong either way, and the logic to support it as "right" is silly, thus offensive to logic.

    Finally, on this:

    "There is no justice in a societal contract that denies from men what they so desperately desire from society itself."

    [[[Very long-winded and stilted phrasing. Just say something like: “A societal contract that in fact denies men what they desire from society is unjust."]]]

    In writing about politics, which I have done for years on various blogs, I have a tendency to try to sound political. Even more than that, I try to sound as if the sentence could have come from the time in question. I agree it's stilted and long-winded, but my goal was to match Rousseau's verbiage (fairly long-winded). Not that I'm arguing your point, I'm just explaining why I did that- mostly to match a sort of political treatise style of writing. Maybe that's a bad idea?

    Thanks again for the comments. I just signed up here, and I figured there'd be a chance no one would reply. I'm glad for any advice. I'm definitely going to get clarification from my professor on what he meant by too many "to be" verbs- whether the problem was passivity or not.
     
  14. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Apologies. The context renders the sentence rather less unacceptable.

    Ah, the old trap for advocates of slavery:

    A: Slavery is a good and sweet thing.
    B: Really? Slaves are beaten by their masters from time to time, you know.
    A: They are? Well that changes everything. It hadn't occurred to me that a system of subjugation that reduces a human being to a mere object would lead to such excesses! What a rotten business it is! ;)

    I see the point, but I do wonder whether it's worth making.
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The "To be" form doesn't necessarily mean it's passive. In fact, as others have pointed out, the issues in your writing are not generally with passives.I've done a blog on passives - http://www.writingforums.org/blog.php?u=15378 - but I'm not sure it's going to help because that's not your problem.
    None of those are passive. I think the problem is that you are mixing formal, academic register, which most of the sentence seems to fit, with the informal "there's". What sort of writing is this supposed to be? If it's creative writing then it's over-formal. If it's academic writing then there's a problem with value loaded terms such as "audacious" and "deplorable".
    Again, not a passive, but it's a claim that would either need justifying or hedging in an academic context. Who says there's no justice in such a contract? On Plato's concept of justice there would be. You need to be careful when making absolute claims.
    I'm increasingly thinking that your problem is with absolute statements. The idea isn't "plainly offensive" to those who hold the idea.

    Your best bet -- only bet, really -- is to ask your prof what the specific issues are. Just underlining bits he doesn't like is not useful feedback and if that's all he's doing then he's not doing his job.
     
  16. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    No hint of a passive, and if your prof thinks that the "were" makes it passive then he has no business teaching at that level -- the "were" is because it's subjunctive, a form that is slowly dying out but that has nothing to do with whether it's passive.
    That's a lot better, but you'll still get marked down for it in an academic essay. Presumably the slave-master felt that he could justify the treatment (and won't have considered it mistreatment). Value judgements need to be flagged as value judgements.
    It's a fallacy of composition, which I would expect the prof to call you on. Just because slavery can be bad, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's always bad.
    That isn't an argument, it's an assertion. To get marks on an essay you need arguments.

    That seems to be your basic problem. It's not that the grammar or style is bad, it's that you're using it to hide sloppy arguments (or the complete absence of arguments). The fact that you think "it's plainly offensive" is an argument suggests that you need a course on critical thinking more than one on writing.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Did he _say_ that these were passive voice, or is he just marking them as wrong without a specific reason? Because I don't see any passive voice here. I do see over-complex sentences, but you say that your teacher told you to make them complex. (Why? I know, I know, ask him, not you.)

    First sentence:

    "Even if one were to make the audacious claim that slavery is, in any manner, acceptable, there's no way to excuse such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    To tweak the grammar, I would change the "there's" to be in sync with the "were":

    "Even if one were to make the audacious claim that slavery is, in any manner, acceptable, there would be no way to excuse such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    I would also be inclined to change the "is" to "was", but I don't know if you're talking about past or present slavery. To tweak the whole sentence, I would remove "audacious"--to me, that word has an almost cheerful vibe, as in an audacious costume or an audacious joke. I also think that any adjective here is unnecessary. "in any manner" and "no way to" are also unneeded, IMO. I'd change it to:

    "Even if one were to defend the existence of slavery, there would be no defense for such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    I replaced "slavery is... acceptable" with "defend the existence of slavery". Maybe that's what he's after? "There would be" also killed an instance of "is", but it's still a "to be" construction. OK, let's try to kill that:

    "Even if one were to defend the existence of slavery, one could not defend such deplorable treatment of another human being."

    Eh. We lost "to be" but I think I liked the preceding rewrite better. The repetition of "one" and "defend" is too much internal echo (my term for it - what is the proper term?) in this sentence. Really, "defend" and "defense" is too much in the preceding sentence, but I like a little echoing.

    Next sentence:

    "There is no justice in a societal contract that denies from men what they so desperately desire from society itself."

    "denies from" doesn't seem right. Grammar tweak:

    "There is no justice in a societal contract that denies men what they so desperately desire from society itself."

    Sentence tweak, attacking "to be" constructions:

    "A social contract that deprives men of the very benefits for which society was created cannot survive."

    Eh. Maybe. But you see the idea of losing the "to be".

    Next sentence:

    "The idea that something is right because it exists and has existed for time immemorial is plainly offensive."

    I have no grammar tweaks here. No passive voice, no errors. But if we attack the "to be":

    "The past existence of an idea does not justify its preservation into the future."

    I'm dubious, but it's another example.

    I think that your teacher is not talking about passive voice - or if he is, he doesn't understand what passive voice is. I'd say that he's seeing a phrase pattern ("x is/was/would be y") in your prose that he thinks is being repeated too often.

    ChickenFreak
     
  18. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    I guess I'm coming from my experience in psychology, where passive voice is basically sin. When writing an academic essay in said field, you need to know who said and did what basically all the time. For example, you can't have: "A study was conducted that showed ADHD medicine is ineffective." The reader will say, "Wait a minute. WHO did that study?"
     
  19. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Pointing to precedent cases and traditions doesn't make something right by default. If we were to follow such a logic, stoning of unruly children should be required by law."

    Well, just an example of how you could integrate examples, and point at absurd consequences in order to demonstrate a fallacy, instead of simply saying it's bad.
     
  20. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    "A study was conducted by the Brainyhead Foundation, which showed that ADHD medicine is ineffective." You can have an object in a passive sentence too.
     
  21. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^ took the words out of my mouth, horus!
     
  22. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good point. Passive voice was, for much of the last century, the go-to construction for the presentation of scientific data...A convention that perpetuated the illusion of objectivity rather happily. Psychology was quick to recognise the absurdity of the approach.
     
  23. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    True, but APA style still strongly recommends active voice because the subject performing the action needs to be clearly identified in experimental reports. In your example, the sentence indeed identifies the subject, but it's not as clear nor as concise. Here is what you see in APA format:

    "A study (Brainy Foundation, 2004) showed that ADHD medicine is ineffective."

    Clear and concise.
     

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