Understanding Passive Sentences
While assessing a middle school student for the presence/absence of a language disorder, I asked the student the following question, “Jan saw Pedro. Dwayne saw Frances. Who was seen?” The student did not respond correctly to this trial item and benefited from repetition and modeling. To answer the question correctly, you need to understand passive sentence construction.
Typically developing children begin to understand passive sentences between ages 5-6 years old and begin to produce passive sentences at between ages 7-8 years old. In English, the general declarative sentence structure for a statement is Subject + Verb + Object (SVO). Different languages use different word order. SVO is the second most common word order represented in languages of the world, with SOV having the greatest representation.
SVO word order, as in the sentence “The dog chased the cat”, has the agent (the dog) + the action (chased) and the object (the cat). The dog was performing the action and the cat was receiving the action. Objects can be animate, like the cat, or inanimate, as in “The boy ate the cookie.” Declarative sentences use an active voice where the initial focus is on the entity that brings about the change.
In a passive sentence, we rearrange the word order and may add elements, such as past tense (was/were) + past participle (chased) + the preposition “by”. The recipient is listed before the agent, e.g., “The cat was chased by the dog”. The instrument used to complete the action appears before the agent, e.g., “The cookie was eaten by the boy.” Passive sentences have Object + Verb + Subject (OVS) word order.
To answer the question, “Who was seen?” the student would need to convert both declarative sentences into passive sentences, e.g., “Pedro was seen by Jan. Francis was seen by Dwayne.” Passive voice is powerful because the emphasis is on the recipient and not the agent. We even use passives to highlight outcome and remove cause or blame, e.g., “The window was broken”, where no agent is included. Textbook authors often use passive voice to describe historical events in which the exact agents (individuals) may not be known, e.g., “A mighty fortress was built.”
We can help students understand passives by providing multiple opportunities to convert active to passive and vice versa by manipulating sentence elements. We can explicitly teach the movement of words using index cards, with each word on a card, in order to rearrange the sequence and insert additional words. We can use picture cards of entities and objects (Jan, Pedro, dog, cookie, etc.) to show the roles of “agent” and “recipient”. Understanding how to interpret and generate passive sentences allows an individual to change the focus of an action, its nuance, and its significance.
1. Owens, R. (2016). Language development : An introduction (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
2. Matthew S. Dryer. 2013. Order of Subject, Object and Verb. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/81, Accessed on 2016-09-26.)