kitchen table math, the sequel: wrong again - the case of Microsoft Word and passive voice

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

wrong again - the case of Microsoft Word and passive voice

Elaborating on a comment I just wrote.... I have begun to feel that English teaching may be in worse shape than math.

(fyi: I frequently have students in my classes who tell me: "I love math, I hate English." Is that evidence that math is being taught better than English? I think it's possible.)

A fair amount of the content taught in English classes and covered in composition texts is misleading, confusing, or, in some cases, simply wrong. My favorite example may be the injunction against using the passive voice, which belongs to the simply wrong category.

Passive voice is essential to fulfilling the known-new contract. When you're writing with the known-new contract in mind, and you should pretty much always be writing with the known-new contract in mind,* passive voice isn't just 'OK,' it's required: passive voice is good writing when you need it. Passive voice is so useful that if it didn't exist, somebody would have to invent it.

In my classes, of course, (and this is something the composition texts don't seem to have grokked) I don't have to worry about over-use of passive voice. As far as I can tell, students today haven't done enough academic reading to have noticed that passive voice is a common feature of academic writing, so they don't try to produce imitations of academic writing that feature excessive use of p.v.

As a result, far from having to inveigh against over-use of passive voice, I more or less have to teach students what passive voice is in the context of writing. (Writing as opposed to talking & signage, where everyone knows what p.v. is and uses it all the time. e.g.: Schools will be closed tomorrow...)

But when I'm trying to teach written passive voice using a Word file projected onto a screen, Grammar Check keeps dinging me, so I have to explain to my students that, back in the day, when students did read academic books and did try to imitate academic prose via liberal use of passive voice, writing instructors used to tell their students not to use passive voice, and that's where Microsoft Word got the idea from. Microsoft Word thinks passive voice is bad because George Orwell and Strunk & White thought passive voice was bad (my students have never heard of George Orwell or Strunk & White), and college students used to use way too much passive voice, but .... passive voice is not bad, and Microsoft Word is wrong. They should think about the known-new contract and use passive voice as needed.

Speaking of Microsoft, this was the first semester I 'infused' technology into my teaching, by which I mean I figured out how to use the laptop-projector set-up so I could project sentences and paragraphs onto the screen up front. When the class talked about passive voice, Microsoft's objections actually got to be pretty funny. We'd be cruising along, writing our sentences and making them cohere, and DING! Word would put a green squiggle under a passive voice construction.

Then I'd say, "Microsoft Word doesn't want you to use passive voice."

* I say this with the proviso that all rules are made to be broken...


Anonymous said...

"I have begun to feel that English teaching is in worse shape than math."

This is possible.

I had to un-learn much of what I was taught about writing in school when I was (a) writing at work, and (b) writing professionally.

It is probably a bad thing when much/most of what you learn to do about something in school is not just irrelevant when you get out of school, but actively bad.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

I've been talking to Katharine Beals about this (off and on) --- and one thing I believe we desperately need is a linguistically informed grammar. (I desperately need that myself, and am trying to acquire it...)

And that's just for starters.

I also see tremendous potential in 'corpus studies' -- not sure what that's called: functional linguistics??

Discourse analysis?

Not sure.

I get the sense that that area of linguistics is underdeveloped, though, which makes it less useful for English teachers ...

Beyond this, I'm CERTAIN there's all kinds of 'lost knowledge' of how to teach writing and advanced reading .... and here again I'm trying to run these things down and absorb them BUT I HAVE NO TIME TO BE DOING ALL THIS.

Meanwhile, the things being taught in "Composition Studies" are actively wrong. The articles and belief systems being generated there are far worse than the much more benign advice in composition textbooks.

SteveH said...

"I love math, I hate English."

This is probably from someone who is doing OK in math because gaps in math can hurt you much more than gaps in English. I didn't like English because nobody taught me to write, and analysis was open to interpretation. I hate book clubs and I hate poetry. It's like this big club you have to join to learn the secret handshake. Actually, I do like some poetry - just not the explanation of why I have it completely wrong.

Catherine Johnson said...

This is probably from someone who is doing OK in math

Definitely -- but, remember, I teach at a non-selective college.

The students telling me "I like math" or even "I love math" aren't kids who've been at the top of their classes.

SteveH said...

At least in math they see some things that make sense.

Hainish said...

Catherine, this discussion is fascinating. English is at least as bad as, or worse, than math. This is thanks to reading and writing workshop and balanced literacy, which tolerate "invented" spellings and fetishize "voice." I'd like to see grammar taught again - in-depth and explicitly.

"Meanwhile, the things being taught in "Composition Studies" are actively wrong. The articles and belief systems being generated there are far worse than the much more benign advice in composition textbooks."

Can you say more about this?

I'm trained as a technical writer, and I've actually amassed a dozen or more comp 101 textbook over the years, in case I should ever find myself having to teach it. In a way, I've been trying to crack the code of English comp, because it never really made sense to me. Steve's use of the phrase "secret handshake" is eery, because that is how *I* refer to that type of writing.

The conclusion I've come to regarding math vs. writing is that you can have a self-taught mathematical genius, but the conventions of writing are culturally contingent and *can't* be generated from axiomatic first principles. No matter how intelligent you are, you have to learn the secret handshake.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my goodness - that is fascinating!

Of course, that HAS to be right -----

I've mentioned several times that I'm self-taught. I know virtually no formal grammar; I picked it all up through reading.

When I finally started to learn grammar consciously, I discovered that I had, via osmosis, basically picked up virtually all the rules correctly - up to and including the rule that a possessive precedes a gerund ("Do you mind my sitting here" vs. "Do you mind me sitting here")

ASIDE: for any prescriptivists passing by, I grasp the fact that language evolves, and the rules change. "Do you mind me sitting here" is probably correct at this point, in terms of conventional usage. But that's beside the point: the point is that I was able to pick up the rule 'possessive pronoun before gerunds' purely via reading.

Anyway, (sorry - this is a self-promoting comment) years ago my editor told me that I was the best self-editing writer she'd ever worked with.

I was shocked at the time; I had no idea that self-editing was a skill that was in any way separable for writing.

But it is.

When I write - and this is what professional writers can do, but novices can't, yet - I basically hear my own writing as if someone else wrote it.

Then I revise and edit to produce prose that works for the phantom 'Other Reader' I somehow become when reading my draft.

What I'm listening for is something almost entirely social: how my words sound to other people.

Are their any first principles?????

Very interesting question!

Of course, I wonder about known-new .... and there are some 'first principles' in the sense of limitations on working memory (and thus limitations on sentence comprehension since you have to remember the first part of the sentence all the way to the end of the sentence...)

That is a very interesting question & comment!

I say, Yes, there is a secret handshake.

Catherine Johnson said...

Can linguists figure out what the secret handshake is?

That I don't know.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here are the composition studies posts.

Crimson Wife said...

LOL on the MS Word p.v. gripe. My DH has taken up sci fi short story writing as a hobby recently and he complains no end about grammar check's hatred of the p.v. If he has written a sentence using p.v., it's because he has deliberately done so for emphasis or other narrative purpose. A handful of p.v. sentences in a 7500 word story is hardly overuse of it!

Hainish said...

Thanks, Catherine. I have followed your adventures in teaching.

I don't think linguists can figure it out - but I want to limit the scope to which this applies, since you can talk about secret handshakes at a number of levels. There's the pragmatic level (and I think that linguists actually call this "pragmatics"). For me, this includes choosing a topic/thesis for a writing assignment or assessment, and knowing how to present and defend the thesis, and knowing what a grader is looking for in a written essay. For instance, in most comp 101-type situations, almost any thesis can be chosen and defended because content isn't evaluated (I'm sure that's not 100% the case in your class, since it does have a content component).

Then there's the level that deals with the organization of an essay or term paper. Again, very culturally determined - you can't derive all the details of the 5-paragraph structure from first principles. But, knowing this secrete handshake is EXTREMELY useful (in SAT and other basic, writing-for-assessment situations).

Maybe that's a genre in its own right: Writing for assessment.

SteveH said...

".. and fetishize "voice." "

Great word for it. It surprised me when my son's first grade teacher talked about it. The kids were never even taught how to properly hold a pencil, and I was trying to get her to assign him chapter books and write simple book reports based on differentiated instruction ... oops, I mean differentiated homework.

"...but the conventions of writing are culturally contingent and *can't* be generated from axiomatic first principles."

Nobody talks about "English Brains".

Hainish said...

Actually, I talk about "English brains" (and not in a good way...I tend to think, hrm, that person uses the language-y part of his/her brain...the words are there, but they dint logically connect).

Catherine mentioned an article about English brains vs. math brains. We eagerly await its posting :-)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Back when I taught tech writing to engineering students, I liked Huckin and Olsen's "Technical writing and professional communication:
for nonnative speakers of English".

It has some of the best grammar explanations I've seen, including concise rules for article usage, which can be very difficult for a native speaker of an article-less language to pick up (Russian, Japanese, and Chinese students struggle with this).

I think that a lot of writing instruction is flawed, because the teachers want to teach "literature" rather than "writing" and so end up doing a terrible job of both.


Glen said...

There are no axiomatic "first principles" in English or any other natural language in the math or physics sense of "first principles." You can't deduce good writing from a set of immutable, fundamental laws for the same reason you can't deduce the interrelated species in a rainforest from the laws of physics: they are both products of millennia of evolution. Things are the way they are in a given time and place as a result of random variation and selection.

Since languages evolved like forests, good composition is like good gardening: you collect observations of what seems to work in what circumstances, extract the apparent regularities into "principles," and weigh the principles against each other when making a decision.

First principles don't contradict each other, but the principles of good writing do, because they aren't first principles. They're just conventions--rules of thumb.

"Passive would make this sentence sound weaker. But passive would make it cohere better to the previous sentence. So which would be better?"

Corpus linguistics is unlikely to give you what you want. If a biological survey finds that the woods contain ten times as much poison ivy as orchids, what is the implication for your garden?

Neither is the "linguistically informed grammar" you mentioned. Ironically, one of the best uses of corpus linguistics is the refutation of the myths promoted by so many academic linguists.

After learning to use standard grammar (never possible for some non-standard speakers), it's all about style and content. Those are conventions and preferences that vary with time and place, like rules of thumb for designing a good-looking garden.

Again, I'm not saying that there aren't any principles behind good writing, just that they are mostly artistic, not scientific.

ChemProf said...

gsp, thanks for the reference. I've tried to deal with articles for a few friends (back in grad school, I was one of the rare native speakers in my group, so spent a lot of time editing) and it is tough!

A Russian friend said he gave up when he realized that "I saw a dog. The dog barked." and "I saw the dog. A dog barked." implied different numbers of dogs. Now he just writes and then sprinkles in articles until he thinks it looks about right.

Michael Weiss said...

We'd be cruising along, writing our sentences and making them cohere,
and DING! Word would put a green squiggle under a passive voice construction.

You can change this behavior in Word's grammar preferences. Go the Preferences, click the "Spelling and Grammar" icon,
and then the "Settings" button. There should be a checkbox for "Passive sentences" that you can deselect.
Presto -- Word no longer dislikes passive voice.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think I'm gonna leave it as is ... (but thanks for the instructions - I looked for preferences earlier & didn't find it...)

Word is quite selective in terms of which p.v.'s it objects to...

Catherine Johnson said...

Corpus linguistics is unlikely to give you what you want. If a biological survey finds that the woods contain ten times as much poison ivy as orchids, what is the implication for your garden?

But, Glen!

Obviously that's not the way you'd use corpus linguistics to discover what good writers do!

There's already been at least some corpus linguistics-type work on professional writers, and it's extremely helpful in terms of teaching composition.

For instance, a lot of composition texts debunk the rule that the topic sentence should come at the start of the paragraph -- and this is an idea I was inclined to debunk myself. Textbooks tell students that although topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs are effective, lots of paragraphs put the topic sentence elsewhere, or have no topic sentence at all.

Turns out that when you actually look at what real writers are doing .... they're writing topic sentences at the beginning of their paragraphs.

Catherine Johnson said...

Linguistically informed grammar is radically better for teaching because it's SOOOOO much more logical.

Catherine Johnson said...

Another interesting corpus linguistics moment.

I audited an advanced class on grammar and composition last fall. The professor used a sentence combining textbook that gives you a list of short SV sentences from a passage by a professional writer & has you piece them together in the way that sounds best to you.

I would do the exercises in class, on the fly, and time and again I found that I put the sentences together the way the original writer had done---

AND: the biggest difference between my version and student versions is that I would have some quite long sentences followed by very short 2- or 3-word sentences.

It do that all the time: a bunch of long sentences followed by just one super-short sentence. I do that because it 'sounds good.'

Come to find out, when you look at the writing of professionals .... that's what they do.

I had picked this up by osmosis, but without a grammarian or literary specialist to TELL me that that's what I'm doing, I can't teach it.

Glen said...

Re: linguistically informed grammar, my concern is that you keep referring to finding "first principles," or "logic," or "the secret handshake," etc. While I prefer linguistically more informed to linguistically less informed grammar, good writing is more a matter of stylistic conventions than of linguistic "logic."

I'm told by English teachers that the prohibition against double negatives is required by logic, because the negative of a negative is a positive. I was always told by my Spanish teachers that the use of double negatives was required by logic, because otherwise you'd be contradicting yourself. Clearly "logic" is not the best way of understanding these patterns.

I read here that the prohibition on dangling participles is "logical." No, it's just a stylistic preference, a convention shared by careful writers in our era, and linguistically informed grammar would not explain the logic behind the rule but point out that there is no such rule in real English.

Does that mean you shouldn't follow the rule? Well, maybe it means you shouldn't slavishly insist it, especially justified by appeals to "logic," but in general you should follow it, not as a linguistic rule, but as a stylistic convention of careful writers in our time.

I'm not saying that linguistics is of no value to writers, just that the difference between good writing and ordinary English is not linguistic logic but style. I love linguistics, but for writing well, I think it probably isn't as useful as directly studying writing style.

And re: corpus linguistics, I do think that eventually we'll have the ability to make explicit some patterns that are only implicit in the minds of good writers, but for now, simply reading books on good writing by good writers is far more informative, in my opinion. You mention, for example, that when you look at the writing of professionals, they often use long sentences followed by a short one.

This technique, and its variations, is explicitly described in detail in many books on writing style. It's a combination of sentential variety and "getting the pop." I say this because I think that corpus linguistics will remain, for some years to come, a much poorer source of good ideas for improving our writing than the many books on writing style that are already available.

No one should doubt my interest in science. But good writing--that's an art.

Catherine Johnson said...

you keep referring to finding "first principles," or "logic," or "the secret handshake,"

That's not me!

I do agree there's a secret handshake (though I have to read the comments more closely to see if Hainish, Steve, and I are talking about the same thing...)

Glen said...

You're right that people keep talking about first principles and logic, not you specifically. I should say this a little differently. (I would have done so in the previous post, but writing in a postage stamp-sized box with a malfunctioning preview function doesn’t lead to great writing.)

I think most genuine “logic” found by linguistics, unlike the faux logic of double negatives, split infinitives, and dangling participles, is going to be of limited practical value to writers. And I think that good writers with an analytical bent are still a lot better than corpus linguists at sussing out and making explicit the patterns of effective writing.

Stanford has a large section of books in the main library on writing well. Most are decades old. I go there when I want to be alone. Over the years I’ve read most of them during procrastination breaks when I was supposedly studying the linguistics books nearby. I think I’ve benefited from both linguistics and stylistics, but if I had limited time and wanted explicit descriptions of the techniques of good writing, I wouldn’t spend much time in the linguistics stacks until I’d read most of the writing books. Best of all, in today’s universities you’ll probably have them all to yourself.