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Using active, passive voices in grammar and verb application

By Alexander Chagema | November 19th 2018

It was relatively quiet on the public service vehicle headed for Kakamega from Nairobi when someone’s mobile phone shrilled. After the customary 'hallo', there followed a hearty laugh, then; “You should have told me earlier so that I arrange myself”.

More laughter, listening in and the final word: “Wish you the best on behalf of the team and myself”. When someone seated next to you decides to speak on the phone as though he is addressing an individual hard of hearing, your attention either gets drawn, or you get irritated.

Do we 'arrange' ourselves in readiness for something, or do we 'prepare'? It is a simple question deserving a straight answer, but a bit tricky given the complexity of the English language.

To dismiss the sentence as a direct translation from Kiswahili (ungeniambia mapema nijipange) is the easiest thing to do. But then, would that be a fair judgment? "Arrange" is defined as positioning, placing certain things in a particular order, putting something on display or to assemble. Also, 'arrange’ means to ‘organise’.

‘Prepare’, on the other hand means to ‘plan’, fix something or arrange things, among other meanings. To ‘prepare’ also means to ‘organise’ just as to ‘organise’ means to ‘arrange’ or make plans for an upcoming event.

Looked at in that light, the operative words ‘organise’, ‘arrange’ and ‘prepare’ are functionally correct in expressing the action. However, those more versed in the English language are more likely to frown upon the sentence: “You should have told me earlier so that I arrange myself” for the simple reason that it is in bad form.

French word

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For the most part, we use the verb ‘arrange’ in the first person to denote a physical action in which you participate but the recipient of the action is not you.

Mostly, the ation is directed at inanimate objects. Chairs in a hall cannot arrange themselves, neither can books carelessly placed on a bookshelf somewhere; someone has to do it.

Thus, the chairs and books receive the action when the verb ‘arrange’ is used. The etymology (origin) of the word ‘arrange’ is in France. ‘Arengier’, the original French word, means to ‘put in a row’. On the other hand, ‘prepare’ and ‘organise’ involve both physical and mental actions that make them more appropriate to the sentence; “You should have told me earlier so that I prepare (organise) myself”.

Any message being put across should be understood outrightly. If one must resort to finding synonyms to make heads or tails of a statement, vital communication could be lost. Where words (for example Round, Wet, Fast et cetera) serve both as noun, verb and adjective, care should be taken when using them to avoid misunderstandings.

The second quoted statement above is basically about tautology. By stating, “on behalf of’, you have already identified yourself as part (a member of) a group or team. Thus, it is being repetitive to say “on behalf of the team and myself”. This statement also brings to the fore the subject of active and passive voices in grammar.

Active voice

Active and Passive voices are defined as grammatical categories that relate to the use of verbs. The distinction between the active voice and the passive voice is that while in the active category the subject does the action, in the passive category the subject receives the action. For example; ‘The Court granted Obash bail’ and ‘Obash was granted bail by the court’.

In a previous column, we discussed about transitive and intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs, which are verbs without a direct object (something receiving the action of the verb), must invariably be used in the active voice, meaning, direct and concise.

However, as much as the active voice should be the choice any day, there are instances when it becomes necessary to use the passive voice. These include putting emphasis on who receives the action as in “Moses was paroled after ten years behind bars”.

Passive voice is also used when we are not sure of who carried out an action. For example “My phone has been stolen”.

When we make general statements like “The Michuki rules demand that passengers fasten their safety belts”, we are using the passive voice. There are times when we chose to be evasive while making statements, perhaps to avoid responsibility at a later date.

This is common in government communication and in media houses where being circumspect is a virtue. For example “Mistakes were made in the importation of sugar that threatens to stifle local industry, yet no amends have been made”.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard. [email protected]

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