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A Refresher on the Passive Voice
by Tanju Deveci

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Jacobs (2007) warns that the problem for learners increases when we look at constructions like the following:

Kermit got confused by his explanation.

In the above example, the 'by phrase' looks very much like an agent phrase in a passive.

Causative can also be easily confused with P.V. For example,

I will have my car serviced.

Though 'have' in this example serves to form causative, students can easily confuse it with P.V. A possible use of a 'by phrase' at the end of the sentence is likely to further complicate the structure.

Another difficulty can be caused by newspaper headlines and public signs which tend to reduce the Passive Voice as in the examples below:

A Cat Trapped in the Chimney for 12 Days

Smoking Forbidden

Aitken (1992) lists some other potential learner mistakes as follows:
a) Problems arising from the formation of past participles may be transferred to the passive: It was buyed.

b) Where the past participle has an unstressed 'ed' ending, students may hear and reproduce a base form of the verb in place of the past participle, especially before by.

c) Learners may hear, understand, and produce being for been.

d) Learners may understand the third person contracted form 'he's' or unstressed 'he was' as 'he has'.

e) The present participle of the verb may be substituted for the whole passive construction: I am being biting for I am being bitten.

f) Both the order and form of auxiliaries are often confused.

Teaching the Passive Voice

Despite the problems mentioned above, P.V. seems to be a popular structure among teachers partly because teaching it is very likely to give them a feeling of satisfaction since students generally feel that they have learned 'more' grammar. However, the question is more about how to go about teaching it. Different techniques, methods and approaches can be adopted in teaching P.V. Some of these are:

a) The Grammar Translation Method:

In this method, which focuses heavily on grammar teaching through translation activities, accuracy is given the priority and lessons are more reading and writing skills oriented with little attention given to speaking and listening skills (Griffiths and Parr, 2001).

Regarding the Passive Voice, learner mistakes on meaning and form can be avoided by constantly referring to students' native tongue to ensure the meaning. In this way, possible L1 and L2 disagreements can be prevented. Passives done with the verbs 'get' and 'have' could be explained clearer.. However, in a class where there are speakers of different languages this method would not simply work.

In the case of newspaper headlines and signs with reduction in the Passive Voice, students may be asked to make translations from their mother tongues into English or vice versa.

b) The Audio-lingual Approach:

This approach is based on the idea that languages are primarily learned through habit formation and therefore puts a heavy emphasis on memorization of phrases. For this to happen effectively, the teacher is to teach structures one at a time using drills (Zafar, 2008).

In this method, students' pronunciation mistakes on past participle, understanding of 'been' not as 'being', and contractions in the Passive Voice can be avoided strictly. However, students who do not really see the written form may never be clear if they have mastered the meaning and function.

For intermediate students, simple passive sentences can be initially presented to the students orally, and they can be asked to repeat them several times. After they master the sentence, substitution drills can be done. Then the teacher can put some of these sentences in a dialogue and have the students memorize it to a role-play when they are ready.

c) The Deductive Method:

Gollin (1998) explains that in this method the teacher starts with a concept rule. Then he provides examples as proof of the concept rule. Then he shows examples and non-examples, which do not show essential characteristics of the concept rule. After this, the students are asked to categorize the examples or non-examples by explaining why they do or do not fit the concept rule. As seen, this method would put emphasis on possible student mistakes about the Passive Voice.

For a review activity the following can be done with upper-intermediate students:

Teacher reminds students of the Passive Voice rule and gives various passive sentences in various tenses. Then he asks them the concept rule again. This time he gives them another non-example sentence such as one in present perfect continuous tense. Then, he gives out several examples and non-examples which contain tenses, intransitive or stative verbs, some prepositional verbs, specific transitive verbs such as 'have' or reflexive verbs. They are asked to categorize them by justifying their choices.

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