kitchen table math, the sequel: a teaching assistant at a "top university on the East Coast of the USA" grades a paper

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

a teaching assistant at a "top university on the East Coast of the USA" grades a paper

Huddleston and Pullum (scroll down)

When I say "no accountability," this is one of the things I'm talking about: a teaching assistant who does not know what the passive voice actually is given the power to grade student writing.


Linda Seebach said...

So what is C. going to do about it?

Jean said...

I'm not too surprised that a TA would be mistaken about what constitutes passive voice. It's sad, but not a shock. When I was in college there was all this talk about passive voice, but I hadn't the faintest idea what it actually was. I started to figure it out in my 30's, a few of my daughter's grammar lessons cleared it up completely, and now I have an easy test that my kids love.

If you can put the phrase 'by zombies' after the verb and have it make sense, it's passive. Innocent saw his people taken from zombies. Passive! Still a perfectly good sentence though.

Linda Seebach said...

Erm . . . not exactly. The sentence -- main verb, "saw" -- is active. The embedded clause, "his people taken from him" derives from a passive construction but is not a sentence as such (embedding is way more abstruce than passive voice).

Anonymous said...

My understanding of passive voice is that it's best used when speaking of a victim or when being deceptive or evading responsibility.

-- She was hit by a car, vs. the car hit her.

-- Or, "mistakes were made" vs. "I made a mistake" when you don't want to take responsibility.

-- "The cake was made" vs. "Katie made the cake," when you don't want to give Katie credit.

My usual question when seeing the latter two instances is to ask, "By what? An alien?" If there MUST be a definite person/thing responsible for an act, then I interpret "something was done" as deception.

However, the latter two constructions can be useful (I think) if you honestly don't know who to assign responsibility to. For example, suppose an "Independence Day" scenario where you're not sure if aliens/Al Queda blew up the White House. If we haven't confirmed whodunit, you would say, "an attack was carried out by persons/things unknown."

In the first example, unless foul play is suspected, I don't think it matters what kind of car hit the lady, or who drove it. If the lady is someone you know, or know of, then the most important detail is that she was hit.

The only other reason to use passive voice, as I understand it, is in a fatalistic these-things-just-happen situation.

For the "to be" verbs, yes, I can substitute a more interesting verb, but I don't think there's a substitute when using it for a state of existence.

-- "She was cold" I can change to "She felt cold."


-- "She was dead," or "She was alive."

I can say "She stood taller than he did," but her height may be relative when she's wearing stilettos. In her bare feet, "he was taller than she was." He's actually always taller, it's a permanent fact. I tend to approach this the way it would be in Spanish (English is my first language), where ser/estar mean "to be," but one is permanent or ongoing and the other one is temporary.

This topic has piqued my interest, I'm going to find out if there's anything I'm missing out on with passive voice or "to be."

As for the TA, I think the only solution is to find a website that properly lays out when you can/can't use passive or to be, and put it in the footnote to a paper. Make the TA justify his decision.


Linda Seebach said...

Jamie: Someone may use the passive voice to avoid assigning or accepting responsibility, but that usage represents only a tiny fraction of the sentences in which it occurs. (We had to count and categorize them in selection of ordinary text for a linguistics homework exercise.)

Its function in discourse is to place the topic in the subject position, so that the new information (the comment) can appear at the end, normally the position of greatest emphasis.

If the agent is omitted, in most examples it is because the agent is already known from the preceding context.

To complete the homework assigment, of course, we had to be able to identify the passive voice correctly. The presence of a form of "to be" is not what determines voice.

Hainish said...

Catherine: Off-topic, but do you recall someone's witty comment about FLAGSTEAM? Turns, out that person was not only witty but prescient:

Reassembling our disaggregated curriculum
By Kenneth Wesson

TerriW said...


It's not every day I get to be witty *and* prescient. Or either one, really.

On oilf.

Catherine Johnson said...

I just learned, this go-round, about passive voice in embedded clauses!

C. is taking John Sexton's Religion & the Constitution course - pretty amazing - and I went through one of the cases & found all the pv's. Needless to say, there were many. But after I figured out what a 'reduced pv' inside an embedded relative clause was, there were a whole lot more!

Catherine Johnson said...

Its function in discourse is to place the topic in the subject position, so that the new information (the comment) can appear at the end, normally the position of greatest emphasis.

ding! ding! ding!

Linda's got it.

PV is a cohesion device, and an extremely important cohesion device at that.

If PV didn't exist, writers would have to invent it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Use of pv to create cohesion is a HALLMARK of GOOD WRITING.


Catherine Johnson said...

As to C, he will do nothing, and that's probably best. It's not entirely clear he's being graded down on pv and be-verbs ---- of course, it's not clear how he's being graded at all, which opens up the Whole Big Frigging Issue of letter grades assigned to written work.

Can anyone grade written work reliably and consistently AND correctly?

My guess is no.

I'm coming to the conclusion that writing should never be letter-graded. (I hope Magister Green will weigh in here.)

I've posted something about crowd-sourcing grading, but I think you could also perhaps put students on a Keller plan, where they'd have to keep rewriting 'til they got the letter grade they wanted....AND I would change the grading in writing classes to an objective system to the largest degree possible.

Give students tightly structured writing & grammar exercises & tests; assign the letter grade on the basis of those tests....

Catherine Johnson said...

Jean - fabulous!
I'm going to go play with that.
I'll post the two tests I just wrote for my students....

Catherine Johnson said...

Hainish - no! I don't remember!
My brain is so fried (for future reference: day after Hurricane Sandy) - that I don't think I have the energy to read the article, but look what I found:

Contrary to popular belief, the evolution of memory was not governed by a need to recall the world of the past. Instead, memory evolved to assist us in predicting and navigating the future based on intelligent forecasts substantiated by our prior knowledge.

I believe the brain is a 'prediction machine.'

That's what makes it intelligent, the predictions, not the 'processing.'