Grammatical categories that relate to the use of verbs

The sentences; “Dr Alfred Mutua, the Maendeleo Chap Chap Governor of Machakos” and “Mutua was the first ever Government Spokesperson”, are a study in ambiguity.

Taken from an online publication, they also reflect a poor grasp of the active and passive voices and violate the acceptable sentence structure that takes on the subject, verb and object order.

One wonders, is Dr Alfred Mutua the governor of Maendeleo Chap Chap or Machakos? What would a first time visitor to Kenya, say, from Timbuktu understand ‘Maendeleo Chap Chap’ and ‘Machakos’ to mean unless the writer makes it easy for the reader to understand that one is a political party and the other an administrative area called a county?

Subject, verb and object

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The writer neglected to specify whether Mutua was the ‘first ever government spokesperson’ in the history of mankind, or in a specific jurisdiction like the geographical location that is known as Kenya.

Thus, “Machakos County Governor Alfred Mutua of Maendeleo Chap Chap party”; ‘Governor Alfred Mutua of Machakos County” and “Mutua was the first ever Government Spokesperson in Kenya” preclude any ambiguity and reflect the active voice.

In grammar, the subject is described as the person or thing that is responsible for doing something while the object is the thing that takes or receives the action.

Objects are either nouns, noun phrases or pronouns. For example, “Joseph was seen pushing a cart along Jogoo road”.

The subject here is Joseph and the object is the cart. Further, the objects are classified as transitive (having a direct object) or intransitive (indirect object).

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An earlier column addressed the matter of transitive and intransitive verbs, urging that whenever we use intransitive verbs which, as earlier stated are verbs without a direct object, care should be taken to ensure they are used in the active voice; direct and specific.

Whenever a verb needs a direct object to make it clearly understood, it is called a transitive verb.

It would help if we remember to associate ‘transitive’ with ‘transfer’.

In saying, ‘Please kick the ball”, the verb ‘kick’ is transferring the action of kicking to the ‘ball’.

Intransitive verbs on the other hand do not require a direct object. For example, “Jesus wept”, “He shouted”.

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The verbs wept and shouted do not need objects. Briefly, phrasal verbs like ‘give up’ are classifiable either as transitive or intransitive depending on the context.

For example, “Raila has decided to give up confrontational politics in the gold scam” and “Loyalists hope Ruto won’t give up pushing Raila”.

In the first sentence, ‘give up’ takes the place of ‘forgoing’ (intransitive) while in the second it takes the place of ‘surrender’ or ‘stop trying’ (transitive).

Moving on to active and passive voices- defined as grammatical categories that relate to the use of verbs- here are a few things worth of note.

The active voice is normally very direct, specific and uses fewer words to put a message across.

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For example, “The dog barked at us” (active voice) and “It was at us that the dog barked” (passive voice). Clearly, the second sentence is not only dull, it is non-specific.

However, as much as the active voice should take precedence over passive voice, there are times when it becomes necessary to use the passive voice.

Such instances include putting emphasis on who receives the action as in President Ronald Reagan of the US was shot by John Warnock Hinckley Jr”. 

Any time one is not sure of who carried out an action, use the passive voice. For example “My phone has been stolen”.

In making general statements like “Traffic rules demand that travellers in motor vehicles must fasten their safety belts”, we are employing the passive voice.

For those who work in the media, especially, there are times when being forthright could land one in trouble for defamation.

In such situations, journalist choose to be evasive while publishing news, perhaps to avoid being a target of libel suits post the news publication.

For example, “Members of Parliament are an avaricious lot, always thinking about themselves before voters; if at all”.

Where an action is not of great significance, we use the passive voice.

For instance; “Our parents’ house is getting a new coat of paint after a long time of neglect”.

Often, formal texts and scientific journals are written in passive voice. For instance “Water added into acid is a recipe for serious burns in a laboratory”.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard

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Alfred MutuaMaendeleo Chap ChapGovernment Spokesperson