Is it correct to speak of the ‘passive tense’?

Nigel Dudley, who writes a blog about “how people in power, whether politicians or business leaders, deceive us by subtle – and not so subtle – distortions of language” has been getting a lot of flack for a passage in a post about Michael Gove’s instructions to his civil servants. Dudley writes:

In particular I noted one instruction which was hardly mentioned in the media coverage. Half way through the memo, Gove tells his bureaucrats to “use the active voice and the present tense as much as possible.”

Gove is highlighting a practice that the public sector – including for example the police, local government and health authorities – and big business are fond of using, particularly when they want to deceive us.

Those of you who read my blog will see the countless examples of this. Organisations use the passive tense in their statements, particularly when they have been criticised and want to dodge responsibility.

What’s the problem?

Well, Dudley is speaking in his post of ‘the passive tense’. As his critics have pointed out, this is incorrect. The reason is that the passive is not a tense, but part of the grammatical system of voice, which allows speakers to talk about a situation in different ways, depending on how the various participants are shown to be involved. An example:

  • Mark cooked the dinner last night.
  • The dinner was cooked last night by Mark.

The first sentence is in the active voice, in which the subject Mark has the role of agent (sometimes called do-er) who ‘acts upon’ the object (the dinner), which in turn has the role of undergoer (sometimes called patient).

The second sentence uses the passive voice, in which the roles are reversed: now the subject is the patient and the agent is expressed in a by-phrase. Active and passive sentences present the same situation in a different way.

This is probably all quite familiar, but it is important to distinguish voice from tense.

The notion of tense belongs to a different system of grammar. It is used to refer to the way in which the grammar of a language ‘encodes’ or expresses how a particular situation is located in time. The latter is a real-world notion which you can think of as the minutes, hours, months and years going by. So, for example, to talk about a situation in the past, we can use a past tense, as in both example sentences above. To talk about the present we can use a present tense, as in She always jogs to work in the morning. Most grammarians would say that English does not have a future tense, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Incidentally, Dudley is right to point out that the passive can be used to influence or manipulate people, and this is a very interesting topic to discuss in the classroom.

If you’re looking for some further background information on the passive, check out our Englicious Professional Development resources on the active and passive here. There are also exercises on the active and passive for your students at all Key Stages. Just type ‘active’ or ‘passive’ into the search box on Englicious to find them.

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