Thursday, February 21, 2013

Student struggles with the passive

I've been tutoring a Latin student lately. His mother informs me that he's got trouble with the passive. It's not a problem of understanding—he gets the passive in English. It's not a problem of recognition—he recognized passive verbs in Latin. The problem is mapping the Latin passive onto the English structure, and I think I've got the problem nailed down.

Here's a passive sentence in Latin:
Fenestra frangitur.
Here is one way to say that in English:
A window is broken.
Except that's not what any actual English speaker, let alone a 14 year-old English speaker, would say. More like:
A window's broken.
Which is exactly one phonological segment off of:
A window's breakin'.
And I think that's the key. Students hear the progressive (is verb-ing) and some, but enough to screw thing up, passives (is verb-en) as the same thing. So to eliminate the ambiguity they hear, the students kill the tense:
A window was broken.
I could be wrong, but this seems to be the student mistake with present tense passives. Anyone have any insights?