Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Funky Winkerbean Explains the Passive Voice

Posted by Neal on June 11, 2006

Les Moore of Funky Winkerbean. This is one English teacher whose students are going to know less about English when they finish his class than when they started:


Let’s see: “Active voice sentences are those in which your subject, verb, and direct object follow directly along behind each other.” OK, first of all, how can two things be behind each other? All right, if two people stand back to back, I guess they would be behind each other, but how does this apply to words? Let’s call the beginning of the sentence the front; then in a sentence such as She eats the chips, She is in front, eats follows behind She, and the chips follows behind eats. Which two words are behind each other? Second, what if the sentence doesn’t have a direct object, as in They laughed?

Next: “Passive voice sentences turn the order around, placing the object first and the subject last.” Pity poor lovestruck Darin if he tries to follow this rule…

“So the passive of She eats the chips would be The chips eats she? What did you say, Mr. Moore? Eats needs to agree with the chips? But I thought you said verbs always had to agree with their subjects, and she is the subject, right? Uh, whatever. OK, so it would be The chips eat she, right? Why not? The chips are eaten by her? Hey, you never said I had to do stuff to the verb! And if she isn’t the subject, is it the direct object after all, just like in an active voice sentence? Does it still count as a direct object if you put in a by?”

And what will Mr. Moore’s students make of sentences like, The chips were eaten, with no subject (or direct object, whatever) at all? Oh, well, at least the cartoonist didn’t have him calling it the passive tense.


6 Responses to “Funky Winkerbean Explains the Passive Voice”

  1. Glen said

    Also, I think the author might have intended the (unfunny) punchline, “I was just having a senior moment,” to be an example of the passive voice, which it is not.

  2. Neal said

    I don’t think so. I think it’s just a punning use of the two relevant meanings of senior: person old enough to be developing Alzheimer’s disease / fourth-year high school student. Or is there something I’m missing?

  3. Philip Whitman said

    To me the simplest distinction between the active and the passive voice is simply that in the active voice you (or somebody else or some force) does something to some other person or thing, and in the passive voice the other person ot thing has somethng done to it. I shot him, as oppposed to he was shot by me.


  4. Neal said

    Dad: Yeah; as lexical semanticists put it, in the active voice, the verb’s AGENT role is mapped to the subject position, while the PATIENT role is mapped to the object position. In passive sentences, PATIENT is mapped to subject, and AGENT to an oblique position (if it’s expressed at all). But then it gets complicated when we start talking about verbs like undergo, or intransitives like die. Even so, if you try explaining active and passive just in terms of subject and direct object, you’re liable to trip like this English teacher did.

  5. the ridger said

    And let’s never forget the generally untaught “middle voice”, as in “she doesn’t frighten easily”. 🙂

  6. Neal said

    Damn right! It almost makes me wish I were back in high school, so I could innocently ask that question.
    Well, OK, as I think about it more, it doesn’t make me wish I were back in high school at all, not even close. But still, you know?

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