Did You Read This? Or Did This Read You?


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Too often in the news or on social media platforms we read about biased stories without realizing the bias. “This happened to him.”, “She did that.”, “Subject blank object.”, “Object blank subject.”

The way a sentence is written or spoken has a very strong effect on how the sentence is interpreted and later recalled. A set of words in a specific order can alter the meaning or point behind a sentence compared to a sentence with the same set of words but in a different order. Sentences can be formed in different verb “voices.” Two very important and common voices are active and passive voice. A sentence with active voice is when a subject is preforming an action. A sentence with passive voice is one where the subject is being acted upon by an object. In other words, the subject receives an action.

For example:

Active: The boy kicked the ball. He ate the apple. She slept on the bed.

Passive: The ball was kicked by the boy. The apple was eaten by him. The bed was slept on by her.

An important part of understanding and using language is to know the relationship between syntax and semantics. In other words, the arrangement of a set of words and the meaning of a word or sentence. The different meanings of a sentence could be interpreted through either the meanings dictated by syntactic formation or the syntactic formations created from a certain meaning. So how does a specific word order in a sentence affect what is formed in the memory? How much of a difference does it have on people? How does this affect recall?

To begin, it is assumed that when we interpret a sentence, we take in the overall point and main idea. No matter the subject or the object, it is believed that it should be interpreted the same and small syntactic differences are unimportant. However, that is far from true. “In free recall, people tend to cluster active sentences according to the category of the sentence subject and passive sentences according to the category of the sentence object.” (Andre 1973). This explains how passive voice gives the object of the sentence the main role rather than the subject. In the article, Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence, it is stated how participants can more accurately answer questions about a sentence when the question is asked in the same active or passive voice as the sentence in question. People also tend to misrecall and incorrectly switch the active sentences for passives (or the subjects) when the question asks about the object or vice-versa.

In the article, Syntax, Semantics, and Sexual Violence, verb voices were experimented on in a more serious form. Participants were given both active and passive voice examples on crime — violence, battery, abuse, and assault (particularly sexual crime) — and their recall of the writings were recorded. Overall, the participants had a negative attitude towards the victims when it was written in a passive voice.  The article even states, “Change in verb voice does more than change the topic; it changes the actual content. It is as if attenuating modifiers were inserted: ‘A woman was sort of assaulted.’**; ‘She somewhat violated him.’**” This piece of the article shows the value of what a verb voice can do to a sentence. One sentence could be written the exact same way but with a slight change from active to passive, it is almost as drastic as physically adding words to reduce the significance of a sentence. 

When looked at from a broad viewpoint, active and passive voices come off as insignificant. However, it does actually have a pretty big effect on our unconscious mind and what points we remember. These voices could be used in many ways, whether that is to bias a thought process, attenuate situations, or even to leave a certain impression behind passive and active voices do a lot of the comprehension for us. The things we run into on media outlets could have a very big effect on our thought process and try to minimize an issue. Whether it is something political trying to sounds less appalling or a crime to sound less severe.

Could this be used to benefit us? Certainly. Just by understanding how passive and active voices work and breaking sentences down a bit more than just the big picture message, we can learn to see the writing from different viewpoints. Is this the answer to why summarizing can help us remember and later recall things? Quite possibly! Learning, reading, or hearing about something in one voice helps us understand things in a singular way. When it is asked about through a different voice context, our brains may not know which way to go. However, when we have the ability to be able to change a sentence from active or passive, or change a subject to an object, or vice-versa, we will be able to recall it in any context.

I find the aspect of passive and active voices very interesting because not only is it helpful with comprehension and recall, but it is seen in day-to-day things such as different types of articles, social media posts, or even what we hear on the news. Crimes are lessened by the wording. Victims are seen as the issue. Important people aren’t held accountable due to biased sentence structures in the news. And even people change their minds without realization because of the things they hear or read. This is a pretty amazing yet discreet way to control people’s opinions. The way something as small as syntactic formations work is quite remarkable. 

**Quotes edited for sensitivity



Andre, T. (1973). Clustering in the free recall of sentences. Psychological Reports, 32, 971-974.


2 thoughts on “Did You Read This? Or Did This Read You?

  1. ctodd

    I appreciate this post, mainly because it brings light to a very important difference between the use of word choice especially when discussing things as important and sensitive as assault. When we utilize active voice in these specific situations we allow for the focus to be on the person committing the crime and not the one it is being committed against. Word choice matters in the real world, and we often forget that our words have the power to give power to people/situations or to take it away and that is incredibly important to remember.

  2. ctodd

    I appreciate you touching on how frustrating this could be to deal with-to live with. We rely on facial recognition to not only recognize those we know, but to also identify those who are familiar or who we see in passing and think “yeah that’s that person from class”. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I couldn’t recognize friends or family. I can imagine that beyond it being frustrating it is probably overwhelming.

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