Past tense substitution in present perfect and past perfect

My mom mentioned recently that her opinion of Rachel Maddow had recently dropped a bit because she heard her substitute of “ran” for “run” in the past perfect, in a sentence like “if Mitt had not ran for President,…”.

Naturally, my response was to run to COCA and exhaust my daily allowance of free searches in order to answer two questions:

  1. Is substitution of past tenses for past participles (according to the broadcast standard/General American English) more common in the past perfect (“I had seen/saw”) than in the present perfect (“I have seen/saw”)?
  2. Is the same substitution more common with irregular verbs whose past participles are the same as their present tense/base forms?

The first came to mind because while Rachel Maddow is more educated than either me or my mom, and has lived in two different versions of academic English (neither of which has “ran” as a standard past participle for “run”), she apparently produced a non-standard form, and I am curious why. One hypothesis is that the past-ness of the past perfect is more salient than that of the present perfect, and more likely to trigger a past tense.

The second occurred because “run-ran-run” is part of a small group of irregular English verbs whose past participles are identical to their present tense/infinitive forms, which may make the temptation to use a past tense instead stronger. I can’t really articulate this “temptation” well except to say that the past perfect feels like it needs a special verb form, and it is (again, for lack of a better word) slightly disappointing to use one that looks and sounds exactly like the version that is in the dictionary.

I did COCA searches for a small sample of irregular verbs from different categories, which I’ll let you figure out yourselves. I almost exhausted my limit of free searches, which feels good to say on a vacation day.

Hat tip to Catherine Whitsett, my coworker at Cypress College who first gave me a big list of irregular verbs sorted by the type of change they undergo for their past tenses and past participles.

Below is the data that I found on COCA. (You can tell this is a true blog post and not a repurposed academic article because say “data is” rather than “data are”.)

PP = past participle, PT = past tense. For example, the 43261 under “do” and “have PP” means that people used “have done” 43261 times in COCA, compared to 128 for “have did”.

The rows in yellow are key. The numbers in the yellow rows are the ratios of past tenses to past participles in the present perfect (“have did” vs. “have done” or “has did” vs. “has done”) and in the past perfect (“had did” vs. “had done”). The last yellow row is also present perfect, but only “has did/done”.

The reason for differentiating “has did/done” from “have did/done” rather than just lumping them all together is that “have did/done” potentially includes non-present perfect verb forms, such as to-infinitives (“I want to have done a TED Talk”), bare infinitives (“I might have done it”) or imperatives (“Just have done it before you clock out”). I didn’t want to do all the work of calculating all of these usages separately (again, blog post, not rejected academic article) and then subtracting them from the “have” scores, so you just have to accept that the “have” scores all have quite a lot of non-present perfect usages included. The “has” scores don’t have this problem – they are all present tenses (and of course the “had”s are all past tenses – there were no “have had done”s).

First question

Basically, yes:

As you can see, substitution of the past tense for the past participle in the past perfect (“had did”) is not much more common than in the present perfect (“has/have did”). However, if we include only “has” as our representative for the present perfect, then the past perfect wins. This is not just because there are more “have”s in the corpus than “has”s – what we’re measuring is the ratio of past tense uses vs. past participle uses, not the number of samples. As you can see, the ratios of PTs to PPs are very similar if we include “have” as a representative of the present perfect, but if we don’t, the ratio of PTs to PPs is close to double for the past perfect than for the present perfect (0.0083 vs. 0.0047 on average)

In short, people are more like to use a past tense rather than a past participle in the past perfect than in the present perfect, at least in COCA. Next step is to scan their brains to confirm my suspicion than it’s the saliency of the pastness. Need to look up “neural correlates to saliency of pastness” on Wikipedia and then rent an fMRI machine.

Second question

Basically, no:

  • people are not more likely to use the past tense instead of the past participle regardless of tense (present perfect or past perfect) when the verb is from the group whose past participles and present tenses are the same. Also,
  • people aren’t especially likely to use the past tense instead of the past participle in the past perfect when the past participle and present tense look the same.

The plain numbers for PT-PP substitution are not the lowest for the “come-came-come” group, but again not as high as “go” and “do”, which have wacky and idiosyncratic past tenses and past participles. The “drink” group (whose past tenses and past participles undergo a vowel change) and the “speak” group (whose past tenses and past participles are differentiated by “-en”) have much higher rates of substitution. This comports with my recollections – should auld acquaintance be forgot, indeed.

As you can see in the red row at the bottom, the numbers of PTs/PPs in the present perfect and past perfect are more similar for the groups of irregular verbs whose PTs and PPs are differentiated by a vowel (“begin-began-begun”) or whose PPs are just the PPs plus “-en” (“forget-forgot-forgotten”). The verbs whose past participles are the same as their present tenses are right in the middle. The verbs most likely to have PT-PP substitution in the past perfect over the present perfect are the wacky irregulars like “go-went-been/gone” or “do-did-done”. Not sure what this means, but when the fMRI rental comes through I’ll be able to make much more elaborate hypotheses.


COCA data is always imperfect – I’m sure there are at least a few instances of “have woke friends” hiding in the “have [wake]” search results, not to mention negations and other forms of present or past perfect I just didn’t search for at all. Feel free to improve on this research, write it in an article, have that article rejected because you cited a blog, and then post the article on your own blog.

Like and subscribe to my Canvas course

I’ve taught an online 1st year writing course for the last 3 semesters, and I’m prepared to make overarching claims about online pedagogy overall.

The 10% missed-assignment threshold is now a 5% missed-assignment threshold

I’m only half kidding. I am mostly interested in seeing how closely these purely online and remote courses reproduce the patterns that I’ve observed in my in-person or hybrid IEP courses. But along the way I’ve found a pattern in Canvas New Analytics that probably holds true for many other online courses.

The short answer to the first question is yes, and to an extreme degree. Students who miss more than 10% of assignments have dramatically lower grades than those who miss fewer than 10%. The cutoff seems to be even higher in purely online courses – the students who missed fewer than 5% of assignments in all 3 semesters had average grades of ~85%, while those who missed more than 5% of assignments had average grades of ~40%. The precise numbers were within 10% of each other across all 3 semesters. In simpler language, students who missed at least a few assignments tended to miss a great many assignments, and this caused them (much more than doing poorly on completed assignment) to fail the course.

Page views = success

I also found something interesting while playing with Canvas’ New Analytics. Canvas, in addition to final grades, lets you see WordPress-like statistics on engagement, including logins, page views, and “participations” (which consists almost entirely of assignment submissions). This seems to be intended for teachers to see who checks the class Canvas page the most often as an online equivalent for taking attendance, and is ripe for some basic analysis with Google Sheet/Excel’s CORREL function.

To pick the lowest-hanging fruit first, page views are positively correlated with final grades at 0.76. Page views are positive correlated with #s of perfect scores, and negatively correlated with numbers of 0s. In plain English, students who check Canvas more often are more likely to get perfect scores on assignments and less likely to fail to turn them in (the most common reason for a score of 0). The correlation scores average to 0.65 in all three semesters for the former and -0.69 for the latter.

To pick even lower-hanging fruit than the one I just described as the lowest-hanging, participations (which, again, on Canvas are mostly assignment submissions), also correlate positively with final grades (0.81), positively with #s of perfect scores (0.67), and negatively with numbers of 0s (-0.87).

Interestingly, the ratio of participations to page views also correlates with final grades – negatively (-0.40 on average for the 3 semesters). The ratio of participations to page views is basically the likelihood that a page view will result in an assignment being submitted. Some students browse the module materials for hours before turning something in, and others open a page once and submit the assignment described without clicking around much. It’s not obvious why students in the latter situation would tend to do worse than the former, but students who were more likely to submit assignments after small numbers of page views tended to get lower final grades. I can think of two reasons that this could be true:

  1. Students who have lower grades tend to do more assignments at the beginning of the class than the end, usually dropping off between weeks 3 and 10. More assignments in the early weeks of class can be completed with little or no revision of class materials (which would result in more page views) than at the end. The assignments that require more review (and hence more page views) tend to come later in the course, and are less likely to be completed.
  2. Students who have lower grades tend not to review module materials before turning in assignments. In the class that I teach, where there are rotating topics from week to week, some 0s are for writing on the wrong topic (for which students have the chance to resubmit the assignment, but many don’t).

There’s a chicken-and-egg question with the page views – is it that more page views cause students to focus more on completing assignments, or that students who are focused on completing assignments tend to view more pages (or are both caused by a third thing, such as not having a TikTok account)? Are page views more like practice hours on a musical instrument, in that even an unmotivated student will gain something from simply increasing that number, or are they more like volunteer hours, in that successful students are likely to have many of them, but increasing their number doesn’t make one more successful?

I have a feeling that they’re the former – in the attention ecosystem of a teenager’s mind, more views will lead reliably to more participation, and I need to get eyes on my pages any way I can. I might see greater engagement with my courses if my Canvas pages sent reminders with as much salience as Instagram or WhatsApp instead of being relegated to the black hole of their .edu email addresses. Perhaps I should do what Denise Maduli-Williams does and make an IG account just for teaching. Or include more BTS content in my course materials.


Note: Yes I am just posting Japanese homework here now. Still better than reading GPA statistics, no?



確かに、一つの学校の中では、個性を抑える機能を果たすと言っても良いでしょう(記事が言うには「没個性的」)。でも、その一つの学校の外から「高校生が高校を指定できる制服を着る」と言う現象を見ると、制服の違いは社会格差を拡大すると思います。一つの高校を例にして、高いお金を払いながら行っている生徒がいる傍、奨学金で行っている生徒もいて、見た目でその区別がつきません。言うまでもなく、これは私立だろうが公立だろうが話が変わりません。でも、その高校がある町には他の高校もあって、それぞれの 大まかの学力レベルがその町の人に知られています。もちろん、高校それぞれの制服が違って、どの制服がどの高校のということもその町の人に知られています。その結果、見た目で一人の高校生の学力レベルを大まかに推測できます。それは個人それぞれの私服で収入を推測するのとは違うけれども、お金でできる社会格差ではなく学力での社会格差を固定すると言っても良いでしょう。

















Video library 2022

I’ve been focused on the kind of PD that actually results in new lines on my CV lately, meaning the blog has fallen a bit by the wayside. I do have some videos of presentations that I mostly prepared for conferences and recorded, and I figure I might as well share them here for the people who still follow my blog.

Identity as a lens for text-on-text academic writing

Basically an elaborate lens for CLIL-oriented writing classes.

Academic Writing the The Power of Habit and Digital Minimalism

In my view, rectifying a weakness in PoH.

Semi-synchoronous Discussion Circles

A video version of this post.

What the Language Used in Syllabi Says about Their Purposes

This will hopefully someday be a published article.

VISAS Volunteer Programs: Facilitating Contact between International and Domestic Students

This sometimes feels like my main job at my current university.

Haafu as a Sum of Natural Identities

The following is a sample paper I made for an ESL project-based class using real, but very limited, research – hence the somewhat simplified writing style and dearth of citations. Still, I think it comes to a legitimate conclusion that is somewhat supported by the data, and the research is on a worthwhile topic.

Haafu Identity

Gerry thought she was white. She didn’t understand why her teacher always grouped her with Black kids in her recently integrated class. As a biracial, part Japanese and part White, she was not always identified as a member of a minority group, but institutions, including her school, sometimes forced a minority identity on her (“Beyond the Binary”).

Japanese biracials and the communities around them seem to have conflicting opinions on their ethnic identity (Morrison). Some see them (or themselves) as simply Japanese, particularly if they were raised in Japan. Others see their Japanese side as a kind of decoration on their basic Whiteness, something that adds to their basic White identity instead of conflicting with it. Others still see biracial Japanese, and sometimes other Asian ethnicities, as a unique identity of its own. Among these, “haafu” has emerged as a popular descriptor. Unlike the Hawaiian “hapa”, “haafu” refers specifically to Japanese biracials, as it originates from the Japanese word for these people (which originates in the English word “half”).

Like other identities, “haafu” identity can be formed and recognized in many different ways. The psychologist James Paul Gee has divided identities into four categories: Nature, Institution, Discourse, and Affinity. All of these categories share a basic definition of identity. As Gee describes, “When any human being acts and interacts in a given context, others recognize that person as acting and interacting as a certain ‘kind of person’ or even as several different ‘kinds’ at once” (99). I.e., being recognized, not simply being, is an essential part of an identity. The basis for this recognition creates the four categories. For instance, if one is recognized as being a certain “kind of person” because of circumstances of one’s birth, then that identity is called a Nature identity, or N-identity (Gee 102). On the other hand, people can come to have a Discourse identity (or D-identity) “through discourse and dialogue (D-Identities) without the overt sanction and support of ‘official’ institutions that come, in some sense, to ‘own’ those identities” (Gee 103). That is, a D-identity is not sanctioned by an institution (which is an I-identity) or seen as natural (which would be an N-identity). Last, an A-identity is one “shared in the practice of ‘affinity groups’” (Gee 100). Gee gives being a member of a fan club as an example to illustrate that an A-identity is not seen as natural or given by a formal institution, but is formed in practices that one participates in with other people voluntarily. It may seem obvious that a racial identity like “haafu” is an N-identity, but as we shall see, not everyone views “haafu” identity as strictly a matter of nature.

In order to study what kind of identity “haafu” is, I conducted research on people who identify as “haafu”. The methods of this research will be covered in the following section.


In order to study the definition of “haafu” identity, I was faced with several issues. Among them were how to reach a large enough number of people, which questions to ask, how to reduce bias, and whether to focus on quantitative or qualitative data.

To reach a large enough number of people, I decided to reach out to people on the Internet with a simple, short survey. To find people who identify as “haafu”, I joined several groups on Facebook that had “haafu” or “hapa” in the title. I then posted the link to my survey with a short explanation, and hoped that I would gather enough participants that way. I also reached out informally to a small number of people known to me, and told them that they may also pass the survey to anyone they know who might be interested in completing it. In this way, I was able to gather 11 surveyees. I kept the survey short because I did not want people to be afraid to spend the time to answer every question. 

I wrote the survey itself to give equal attention to each of Gee’s categories of identity. The reason for this was simply that I did not want to bias the answers by appearing to favor a particular interpretation of “haafu” identity. I assigned two questions to each of the four categories. The reason for the two separate questions was that, as Gee points out, identities are sometimes assigned despite the will of the individual, meaning that people may have different views of their own identities than the people around them. As Gee states, some identities “can be placed on a continuum in terms of how active or passive one is in ‘recruiting’ them” (104). In other words, identities can be given and they can be earned, or sometimes both. I wanted to assess how much people’s own views of their identities matched how other people saw them, so there were one question about self-identity (what one thinks of oneself) and one about other-identity (what one thinks that others think of oneself) for each category. For example, the questions about N-identity said, “People around me see ‘haafu’ identity as a matter of birth” and “I see my ‘haafu’ identity as a matter of birth.” These questions served to find whether there was a difference in whether the individual saw his or her identity as an N-identity and whether he or she thought that other people saw it that way. 

Each question had an optional “comments” section as well, which was intended for open-ended elaboration. This means that I mostly focused on quantitative data in order to calculate statistics, but I allowed for qualitative data as well. The reason that I focused on quantitative data was that I suspected that people would rate the different categories of identity differently, and I wanted to be able to find that difference easily and display it in numbers. For that reason, almost all of the questions in the survey were on a scale of 1-5 (a Likert scale). The results of this survey will be given in the next section.


The survey results show that people who identify as “haafu” overwhelmingly consider it an N-identity. They consider their own “haafu” status as coming from natural forces, and believe that others around them also consider it natural. Full results can be seen in Appendix A.

To go into more detail, the mean responses on a scale from 1-5 for the N-identity questions were 4.4 (whether others see “haafu” as an N-identity) and 4.6 (whether the surveyee sees it as an N-identity). No other question had an average higher than 3. The lowest averages were for I-identity. This indicates that people see “haafu” status as similar to the way Gee describes being a twin: “Being an identical twin is a state that I am in, not anything that I have done or accomplished. The source of this state-the ‘power’ that determines it or to which I am ‘subject’-is a force (in this case, genes) over which I had no control” (Gee 101). It seems that the surveyees agreed that “haafu” status fits this description, as a result of nature.

Qualitative comments after the N-identity survey questions confirm surveyees’ opinions that “haafu” status was a result of genes. Two surveyees responded unambiguously that “haafu” (and also “Japanese” and “non-Japanese”) were natural, immutable identities. In their words: 

The definition of hafu only depends on whether a person is born from one parent who is non-Japanese, and another who is Japanese.

Haafu means ‘half-Japanese’, or having one Japanese parent, and one non-Japanese parent.

One respondent acknowledged the complications inherent in the topic: 

I believe that to be ‘haafu’ you need to be born as such. But identity is complicated, and individuals who fall into this category may not identify as ‘haafu’. 

Another surveyee put it quite bluntly in a comment after the D-identity survey items: 

Haafu is an absolute circumstance of birth, not a particular experience. There are no degrees of haafu. 

In sum, most of the comments reify the status of “haafu” as an N-identity.

Moreover, people who felt that “haafu” was an N-identity were especially unlikely to consider it a D-identity. Gee defines a D-identity against N-identity specifically, using his friend’s “charismatic” identity as an example: “It is not something that one just ‘is’ (‘born with’; note that one cannot be charismatic all alone by oneself on an island)” (103). Appendix B holds a correlation table for each of the quantitative answers. The N-identity questions (#1 and #2) are correlated with the D-identity questions for others (#5) more negatively than any other set of items in the table. In simpler language, people who believe “haafu” is an N-identity (according to themselves or according to others) tend not to think of “haafu” as a personal characteristic like “stubborn”, “charismatic”, or “friendly”, and those who do think of it as a personal characteristic are less likely to consider it natural, genetic, or a matter of birth (and again, most respondents thought it was a matter of birth).

The qualitative comments bring a bit more nuance to the apparent difference between those who view “haafu” as an N-identity and those who view it as a D-identity. One key distinction that surveyees made is in the audience; specifically, among a Japanese audience, “foreign” behavior is more associated with “haafu” identity than “Japanese” behavior is. One surveyee responded: 

People will always see me as Haafu no matter how Japanese I act, or even if I get better grades than the rest of the class in [Japanese national language], the assumption is that English will be my ‘thing’. Being able to behave according to Japanese norms is important to me but doesn’t change others’ views. It must be hard for Haafu who were never raised with the second language, foreign parent, or experience of ever living abroad to be viewed with these assumptions when in reality their experience is 100% Japanese.

“Hafu behavior” does seem to get pushed by the media in Japan … As a result, many people are given information from various sources on expected behavior of hafu in Japan…

Other surveyees responded that language skills might identify them more with Japan or with an English-speaking culture, but not with “haafu” in particular.

I tend to not really define myself as “haafu” since that feels kind of vague. Instead I’m more likely to think about myself in relation to the “wholes” (Japaneseness or Americanness, Whiteness) which my behavior feels like it appeals to. So speaking better Japanese makes me feel more Japanese but not more “haafu”.

I am not sure how others view this. I have heard myself being described as “more Japanese” because of behavior but never as more or less haafu.

In other words, “haafu” does not seem to have a set of behaviors associated with it; rather, the two societies that a person identified as “haafu” is presumed to inherit do. Instead of a person identified as “haafu” exhibiting “haafu” behavior, that behavior is instead attributed to Japan or the other country. 

One surveyee pointed out the difficulty in measuring identity according to Gee’s definition (recall that Gee’s definition explicitly depends on other people’s thoughts): 

It seems extremely nebulous to have people comment on what other people think. People thinking about what others are thinking. Better to ask people for their own views? Otherwise just very foggy.

This may be an inherent difficulty of studying social identity. If, at least in Gee’s conception, an identity is a view of the individual by the people surrounding them, then determining an identity for that person should involve asking many other people rather than the person himself or herself. A researcher would do well to remember that any individual has at best indirect information about their own identities and can only make partially educated guesses about what the “others” that “recognize” them are thinking. A future version of this research should probably rely less on self-assessment for determining identity under Gee’s definition.


The N-identity definition of “haafu” includes reference to at least two other identities typically thought of as N-identities, although the one which provides a salient difference to the majority population depends on the host culture. To illustrate, in Japan, in which the majority identify as Japanese, it is the “foreign” heritage which seems to provide most of the content of a “haafu” identity. Conversely, in a society where Japanese are not the majority, it is Japanese heritage that sets “haafu” apart from other racial identities. Perhaps because most of the characteristics which might be used to identify “haafu” behaviorally are already associated with a larger, more culturally salient group (“foreign” in Japan and “Japanese” elsewhere), it is difficult to describe people as acting “haafu”; instead they act foreign or act Japanese. Characteristics that might be attributed to “haafu” identity are therefore subsumed by these larger groups. Even as an N-identity, “haafu” status is defined only by its relationships to the larger groups and is not thought to constitute an original group itself (notice that even those respondents who insisted that “haafu” was an N-identity defined it with reference to Japaneseness and non-Japaneseness). 

It may be that “haafu” does not constitute a “kind of person” to many people at all, much the same way “100 pounds of bananas” is not as much a “kind of thing” as “a banana” or “a bunch of bananas”. Being derived from a combination of the rules of logic and components that are themselves natural classes does not make the result also a natural class. It seems that although people view “haafu” status as the combination of the “kinds of person” that are “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” (which is definitely a “kind of person” in Japanese society), it may not be a “kind of person” itself.

A larger point implied especially by the qualitative responses is that “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” are considered “kinds of person” in ways that “haafu” is not. Notice that no respondent felt the need to define “Japanese” in terms of its component parts. One may object that “non-Japanese” is defined by its component parts (or rather the lack of a particular part), but it must be remembered that Japanese culture tends to treat the foreign world as comprising a homogeneous group of English speakers (Tsuneyoshi). What constitutes a “kind of person” that can be accepted as-is is beyond the scope of this paper, but it seems that where identity is concerned, 1+1 may only equal 1+1, as 2 has no definition of its own.

Appendix A

People around me see “haafu” identity as a matter of birth.4.4
I see my “haafu” identity as a matter of birth.4.6
People around me consider “haafu” identity to be derived from an institution that grants that status (e.g. a government document or school record).1.9
I regard the official institutional status of my “haafu” identity as important.2.7
People around me see “haafu” identity as a matter of behavior (e.g. “acting Japanese”) or achievement (e.g. bilingual skills).2.6
I see myself as more “haafu” or less “haafu” depending on my behavior and/or achievements.2.3
People around me regard “haafu” identity as a matter of shared appreciation and/or experience.2.7
I regard myself as more “haafu” when I have shared experiences or participate in activities with other people who identify as “haafu”.2.5

Appendix B

People around me see “haafu” identity as a matter of birth.I see my “haafu” identity as a matter of birth.People around me consider “haafu” identity to be derived from an institution that grants that status (e.g. a government document or school record).I regard the official institutional status of my “haafu” identity as important.People around me see “haafu” identity as a matter of behavior (e.g. “acting Japanese”) or achievement (e.g. bilingual skills).I see myself as more “haafu” or less “haafu” depending on my behavior and/or achievements.People around me regard “haafu” identity as a matter of shared appreciation and/or experience.I regard myself as more “haafu” when I have shared experiences or participate in activities with other people who identify as “haafu”.

Works Cited

“Beyond the Binary: An Interview with JALT2014 Plenary Speaker Gerry Yokota”. Journal and Proceedings of the Gender Awareness in Language Education Special Interest Group, Vol. 8, 2015, pp. 58-71.

Gee, James Paul. “Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.” Review of research in education 25.1 (2000), pp. 99-125.

Morrison, Hanna. “Value of ‘haafu’ as a Category in Education Research.” International Journal of Japanese Sociology 28.1 (2019), pp. 170-182.

Tsuneyoshi, Ryoko. “8. Communicative English in Japan and ‘Native Speakers of English’.” Native-speakerism in Japan, edited by Stephanie Ann Houghton and Damian Rivers, Multilingual Matters, 2013, pp. 119-131.

D-identities in the context of other identities

This is a sample paragraph I wrote while my students were doing the same. It is based on this video. The prompt is “In an academic paragraph, compare one of Hetain Patel’s identities to one of yours. Come to a meaningful conclusion about identity from your comparison.”

Both my and Hetain Patel’s D-identities are reevaluated as the opposite of their initial states based on our I-identities, which shows that I-identity can provide a context for the assignment of other identities. Both Patel and I have D-identities that at first seem to contrast with our I-identities. Specifically, I am unserious and jokey in class, which contrasts with my I-identity as “teacher”; and Patel’s D-identity as serious and intelligent is made to contrast with his I-identity as an artist. In both cases, the apparent contrast forces people to reevaluate our D-identities: me as a serious teacher, and Patel as a skilled artist. In my case, my apparent casualness is seen in the context of my classes as attentiveness to students and a modern, unpedantic teaching style, which are valued by other teachers as signs of modern pedagogical thinking. This makes me seem to be an even more dedicated teacher precisely because I seem to be so unserious in class. On the other hand, Patel’s apparent seriousness is eventually revealed during his act to be an intentionally shallow façade, which because it is part of an artistic performance, shows him to be a humorous artist with an eye for the ironic. That is, his seriousness increases the impact of his comedic performance and the audience’s esteem for him as an artist because the audience knows it to be a skilled performance. In both cases, a quickly formed D-identity changes to an opposite D-identity when seen in the context of an I-identity.

When it’s not passive, but it *feels* passive

I did a bit of very informal research last night – almost the least formal kind possible, just above whatever anti-maskers are referring to when they say “do your own research”.

It involved searching for “passive voice” on Twitter and making notes of what people were calling “passive voice” when it wasn’t what grammar books call passive voice – that is, something other than what is described here.

It probably doesn’t help that many descriptions of passive voice say things like “put the verb in the passive voice” when, like many manipulations of the verb phrase in English, passive voice often involves 2 or 3 verbs (like “it has been completed”), and is often described with its semantic, aesthetic, or strategic characteristics (“unclear”, “wordy”, “obfuscatory”, etc.) rather than its more formal, nuts-and-bolts characteristics that set it apart from other “unclear” phrasings. Is it my imagination, or are ESL explainers a lot clearer about what passive voice is than ones written for native English speakers?

People seem to have taken certain of those semantic, aesthetic, and strategic characteristics and extended the meaning of “passive voice” to anything with those characteristics – or so I thought. It is actually mostly just about particular types of intransitive verbs, plus a few others with similar characteristics, as we shall see below.

I’ve written before about how certain terms of art in the grammar teaching/copy editing/annoying people on Twitter world have made the leap into popular discourse with some metaphorical extension. I just wanted to verify that my instincts about which features of passive voice were the basis for the extension were correct.

My methodology was extremely simple: search Twitter for “passive voice” and note the first 20 unique instances of people incorrectly identifying it. I didn’t include people identifying it correctly (which seemed like about half the time) or separate instances of people calling out the same piece of writing, as happened with this selection from the New York Times:

Then, I counted the characteristics of the verb phrases that were incorrectly identified as “passive voice”. Three major categories revealed themselves: unaccusatives, transitives, and others. The breakdown and some examples of each are below.


Just to recap, an unaccusative verb has a subject, but the subject is not an agent. In the example below, the cause of the explosion is not clear – the agent isn’t identified, and “explode” doesn’t imply that the building had a hand in its own destruction, unlike agentive, intransitive verbs like “swim” or “proceed”.

Called out as “passive voice” in the replies

Unaccusative verbs, like many passive voice constructions, are missing an agent, leading people to confused the two.

Whenever I found someone misidentifying passive voice, I replied:

And most people probably assumed I was a troll or a pedant (a venn diagram with a lot of overlap), but a few replied. Most who replied implied that it was the lack of agent that led to their judgment:

While a few backtracked and said that while it wasn’t technically passive voice, it shared some characteristics with it:

And one instructed me that I was wrong about passive voice in the first place:

So basically, the reasons that people have for extending the meaning of the technical term “passive voice” to unaccusatives fall into three categories:

  • Some extend the meaning in casual discourse while acknowledging that the technical meaning of “passive voice” is separate,
  • Some extend the meaning of the technical term because they aren’t sure of the technical meaning, and
  • Some have a concrete notion of the technical meaning that deviates from that of most orthodox English grammars.


Here’s where I was initially confused, because I assumed that transitive verbs in the active voice are about as far as you can get from passive voice, both semantically and gramatically. I only found two examples of people calling transitive active constructions “passive”, but two is a surprising number when you’re basically counting the number of people who confuse a crocodile not with an alligator but with a flamingo. As we shall see, however, some transitive constructions are actually not far off from unaccusatives in obfuscating the agent.

The characteristic of “Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza” that the author thinks is passive voice is probably that, as with unaccusatives, the subject isn’t an agent here. The “airstrikes” aren’t the cause of their own “hitting” in the same sense as a structurally similar sentence like “Bob hits Jim” (“hit” polysemously indicating either intentional striking or mere physical contact). It’s not what a style manual would call passive voice, but like passive voice often does, this sentence conceals the agent. I would need to study this for real to find out, but I imagine people like the author of the tweet above would not call “Israel hits Gaza” passive, since it heavily implies intent (inaccurate as it may be to attribute motives to an entire nation), even though it has the same active and transitive structure as “Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza”.


I found a few other cases of people calling out passive voice where it wasn’t that didn’t fall into one of the two larger categories. One simply had too many verb phrases for me to identify what the author was trying to call out:

And one where a prepositional phrase is called out as “passive voice”:

Note that it is technically possible for a prepositional phrase to contain passive voice (e.g. “in being attacked”), but not here.

Neither of these tweet authors replied to my formulaic query, so I don’t know what they considered passive about these passages/phrases, but my instinct is the lack of a blameable agent.


My previous assumption is partly verified here: People identify the “passive voice” where the agent is not obviously identified. This tends to happen most often:

  1. In sentences with unaccusative verbs
    • Examples: “die”, “explode”, “collapse”, etc.
    • But not unergative (i.e. agentive but intransitive) verbs like “retaliate” or “invade”
  2. In sentences with unagentive transitive verbs
    • Examples: “hit” (as in “the ball hit the ground”), “include”, “take (place)” etc.
  3. In sentences where agency is unclear
    • Examples: “My country is at war”, “I was in the middle of a crime influence network”

To me at least, this is more evidence for a “folk” definition of passive voice that is distinct from its technical grammatical definition. And although it may have seemed like I was pulling rank on some of the people above by questioning what they thought was passive voice (the implication being that it really wasn’t passive voice), I think we may need to get to a place where “passive voice” just means different things in technical and non-technical contexts and everyone generally recognizes that. After all, we don’t tolerate neuroscientists butting in on our telling funny anecdotes to insist that we aren’t technically “recalling” a memory, or classical voice teachers interrupting American Idol to take issue with Randy Jackson’s use of the word “pitchy” (note: I am old).

It is a bit of an issue if people use the term “passive voice” with its non-technical definition thinking that they are in fact using it with its technical definition (as in the tweet author who corrected my correction above), but perhaps each piece of jargon that undergoes this secularization has to go through a stage like that. Maybe there was a time in the lifetime of the verb “to short-circuit” when people weren’t aware that a person getting suddenly confused and an electrical circuit being shorted weren’t literally the same thing, and it took many years of the casual use in sentences like “he totally short-circuited” before people began to “rediscover” the technical definition.

I try to take a linguist’s perspective on such changes: notice but don’t judge.

What I have learned by looking at grades with basic statistics

At the behest of some congenial podcast hosts, I’ve been reflecting on how I got started analyzing the grades I give this way and why I continue to do it, almost compulsively, at the end of every semester.

I started using a few basic tools of analysis in Excel for my MA studies, and realized pretty quickly that although you could spend a lifetime exploring multivariate statistics, you can also do a lot right now with a half dozen or so functions on Google Sheets (mostly AVERAGE, CORREL, STDEV, TTEST, assisted by FILTER) and no more knowledge of statistics than you gained in your first year of undergrad.

I am decidedly not an expert on statistics, and especially not for someone who works at a university. I just started the habit of throwing the .CSV file that Canvas optionally spits out at you at the a semester into a Google Sheet that computes a bunch of things automatically, and keeping my eyes peeled for anything extremely odd or patterns across multiple semesters. In the interview that spurred this post (listen here), I compare my way of working to Black Sabbath in that I make the most of a small palette of tricks*, painting as much as I can in primary colors.

So just to provide a hook in case you want to start looking at your own course grades a bit more rigorously, below is a list of changes I’ve made in my courses based on things I learned by applying basic statistics to grades.

  • Most recently, I’ve decided to decrease the number of small assignments at the beginning of the course in favor of mini-projects mostly done during class time after I found that the number of 0s for graded assignments(the most common cause of failing my classes) have increased since our switch to remote teaching, and that they predict failure even on relatively lightweight assignments near the beginning of the term. I’m not sure that my approach will result in more completed assignments and fewer failures, but I did notice recently (anecdotally) that groupwork was more likely to be to be completed, and I would prefer that students who fail do so for poor work (and that they get the practice that even poor work requires, in order to do better next time) rather than because they just don’t check Canvas on weekends.
  • I’ve mostly eliminated extra credit in favor of flexible deadlines and accepting late work after finding that extra credit assignments didn’t correlate much at all with final grades. The negative correlation that I expected would have been due to students with lower final grades using extra credit to go from D to C, but I found that just as often, it was being used to go from A- to A. In either case, extra credit assignments are usually not designed with as much rigor as my usual assignments, so if they’re not being used for what I intended them for in the first place, I figured I should just replace them with the original missed assignment and save myself a bit of time, especially when lateness doesn’t seem to indicate problems with planning or time management as much as I had assumed.
  • Adding a bit of extra data gathering on top of my usual spreadsheets that Canvas spits out for you, I found that fasting during Ramadan does seem to adversely affect students’ test grades in some cases. I no longer work at the institution that required these high-stakes reading tests, but if I did, and I still taught evening classes during April or May, I would replace those exams with applied projects of some kind that could be completed at a more flexible pace.
  • I stopped making essays due in class on the first day of the week after finding that students who edit essays the day that they are due tend to do worse in the class overall, if not on those essays in particular. The flipside of that coin is that students who edit essays more overall and spread their edits across many days tend to do better, even on assignments that aren’t directly affected by the editing (In short, the timing and number of student edits on an essay shows more about their general tendency to do well in the class than their grade on that specific essay). I now put much more of the writing process during class hours and give more of the reflection process as homework.
  • On a related note, I give much more support now during the drafting and editing process and give explicit points for showing me how they’ve consulted a corpus during the editing process, left comments on each others’ drafts, reflected on those comments, etc., since I have consistently found that rough drafts predict final grades almost as well as final drafts do although rough drafts are worth far fewer points. This indicated a redundancy in my grading – I was essentially giving “A” writers two As for the work of one. Instead of focusing on perfect final drafts, I now focus more on the process of editing, checking, rewriting, and asking for help. (Not to mention that in the age of Google Translate, you have far less control over what forces have combined to produce the final drafts that you’re grading, and focusing on whether or not using Grammarly constitutes academic dishonesty takes the focus off of much more important skills.)

Last, I’ve updated the Google Sheet I dump all my classes’ grades into, and you can make copies of it for your own use here:

And here is a short video introduction:

*unfair to Black Sabbath, by the way – they wrote quite a spectrum of tunes, including, unexpectedly, the theme to Big Mouth.