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Encyclopedia > English passive voice
English grammar series

English grammar The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. ... English grammar is a body of rules specifying how meanings are created in English. ...

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In English as in many other languages, the passive voice is the form of a transitive verb whose grammatical subject serves as the patient, receiving the action of the verb. The passive voice is typically contrasted with the active voice, which is the form of a transitive verb whose subject serves as the agent, performing the action of the verb. The subject of a verb in the passive voice corresponds to the object of the same verb in the active voice. English's passive voice is periphrastic; that is, it does not have a one-word form. Rather, it is formed using a form of the auxiliary verb be together with a verb's past participle. A case of disputed English grammar arises when there is disagreement about whether a given construction constitutes correct English. ... Verbs in the English language are a lexically and morphologically distinct part of speech which describes an action, an event, or a state. ... In English, verbs are conjugated for tense, aspect, mood, and voice, and in some cases to agree with their subjects in person and number. ... English has a large number of irregular verbs. ... In the English language, a modal auxiliary verb is an auxiliary verb (or helping verb) that can modify the grammatical mood (or mode) of a verb. ... The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to modern German or Icelandic. ... The English personal pronouns are classified as follows: First person refers to the speaker(s). ... Note: This page or section contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. ... A compound is a word composed of more than one free morphemes. ... An honorific is something that is attached to the name but is not normally used elsewhere, e. ... This article is focused mainly on usage of English relative clauses. ... The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ... In grammar, voice is the relationship between the action or state expressed by a verb, and its arguments (subject, object, etc. ... A transitive verb is a verb that requires both a subject and one or more objects. ... The subject of a sentence is one of the two main parts of a sentence, the other being the predicate. ... In linguistics, a grammatical patient is an entity upon whom an action is carried out. ... In linguistics, a grammatical agent is an entity that carries out an action. ... An object in grammar is a sentence element and part of the sentence predicate. ... Periphrasis is a figure of speech where the meaning of a word or phrase is expressed by many or several words. ... In linguistics, an auxiliary (also called helping verb, auxiliary verb, or verbal auxiliary) is a verb whose function it is to give further semantic or syntactic information about the main or full verb which follows it. ... In linguistics, a participle is an adjective derived from a verb. ...

Contents

The canonical passive

Passive constructions have a range of meanings and uses. The canonical use to map a clause with a direct object to a corresponding clause where the direct object has become the subject. For example, consider the following sentence: In grammar, a clause is a group of words ordinarily consisting of a subject and a predicate, although in some languages and some types of clauses, the subject may not appear explicitly. ...

  • John threw the ball.

Here, threw is a transitive verb with John as its subject and the ball as its direct object. If we recast the verb in the passive voice (was thrown), then the ball becomes the subject and John disappears:

  • The ball was thrown.

The original subject can typically be re-inserted using the preposition by:

  • The ball was thrown by John.

Promotion of other objects

One non-canonical use of English's passive is to promote an object other than a direct object. It is usually possible in English to promote indirect objects as well. For example, consider the following:

  • John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book.

In the active form, gave is the verb; John is its subject, Mary its indirect object, and a book its direct object; in the passive form, the indirect object has been promoted and the direct object has been left in place.


It is also possible, in some cases, to promote the object of a preposition:

  • They talked about the problem. → The problem was talked about.

(See also Preposition stranding.) Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition appears without an object. ...


Promotion of content clauses

It is possible to promote a content clause that serves as a direct object. In this case, however, it typically does not change its position in the sentence, and an expletive it takes the normal subject position: In grammar, a content clause is a subordinate clause that provides content implied by, or commented upon by, its main clause. ... The word expletive is currently used in three senses: syntactic expletives, expletive attributives, and bad language. The word expletive comes from the Latin verb explere, meaning to fill, via expletivus, filling out. It was introduced into English in the seventeenth century to refer to various kinds of padding -- the padding...

  • They say that he left. → It is said that he left.

Stative passives

The passives described so far have all been eventive (or dynamic) passives. There exist also stative (or static, or resultative) passives; rather than describing an action, they describe the result of an action. English does not usually distinguish between the two. For example, consider the following sentence:

  • The door was locked.

This sentence has two meanings, roughly the following:

  • [Someone] locked the door.
  • The door was in the locked state. (Presumably, someone had locked it.)

The former meaning represents the canonical, eventive passive; the latter, the stative passive. (The terms eventive and stative/resultative refer to the tendencies of these forms to describe events and resultant states, respectively. The terms can be misleading, however, as the canonical passive of a stative verb is not a stative passive, even though it describes a state.)


Some verbs do not form stative passives. In some cases, this is because distinct adjectives exist for this purpose, such as with the verb open:

  • The door was opened. → [Someone] opened the door.
  • The door was open. → The door was in the open state.

Adjectival passives

Adjectival passives are not true passives; they occur when a participial adjective (an adjective derived from a participle) is used predicatively (see Adjective). For example: In linguistics, derivation is the process of creating new lexemes from other lexemes, for example, by adding a derivational affix. ... An adjective is a part of speech which modifies a noun, usually describing it or making its meaning more specific. ...

  • She was relieved to find her car undamaged.

Here, relieved is an ordinary adjective, though it derives from the past participle of relieve.[1]


In some cases, the line between an adjectival passive and a stative passive may be unclear.


Passives without active counterparts

In a few cases, passive constructions retain all the sense of the passive voice, but do not have immediate active counterparts. For example:

  • He was rumored to be a war veteran. ← *[Someone] rumored him to be a war veteran.

(The asterisk here denotes an ungrammatical construction.) Similarly:

  • It was rumored that he was a war veteran. ← *[Someone] rumored that he was a war veteran.

In both of these examples, the active counterpart was once possible, but has fallen out of use.


Double passives

It is possible for a verb in the passive voice — especially an object-raising verb — to take an infinitive complement that is also in the passive voice: In linguistics, a raising verb is a verb with an argument that is a verb and one or more arguments that are nouns, such that one of the noun arguments is semantically an argument not of the raising verb, but of the verb argument. ...

  • The project is expected to be completed in the next year.

Commonly, either or both verbs may be moved into the active voice:

  • [Someone] expects the project to be completed in the next year.
  • [Someone] is expected to complete the project in the next year.
  • [Someone] expects [someone] to complete the project in the next year.

In some cases, a similar construction may occur with a verb that is not object-raising in the active voice:

  • ?The project will be attempted to be completed in the next year. ← *[Someone] will attempt the project to be completed in the next year. ← [Someone] will attempt to complete the project in the next year.

(The question mark here denotes a questionably-grammatical construction.) In this example, the object of the infinitive has been promoted to the subject of the main verb, and both the infinitive and the main verb have been moved to the passive voice. The American Heritage Book of English Usage declares this unacceptable,[2] but it is nonetheless attested in a variety of contexts.[3]


Other passive constructions

Past participle alone

A past participle alone usually carries passive force; the form of be can therefore be omitted in certain circumstances, such as newspaper headlines and reduced relative clauses: A relative clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun. ...

  • Couple found slain; Murder-suicide suspected. [1]
  • The problem, unless dealt with, will only get worse.
  • A person struck by lightning has a high chance of survival.

With get as the auxiliary

While the ordinary passive construction uses the auxiliary be, the same effect can sometimes be achieved using get in its place:

  • Jamie got hit with the ball.

This use of get is fairly restricted. First of all, it is fairly colloquial; be is used in news reports, formal writing, and so on. Second of all, it typically only forms eventive passives of eventive verbs. Third of all, it is most often (but not necessarily) used with semantically negative verbs; for example, the phrase get shot is much more common than the phrase get praised.


Ergative verbs

Main article: Ergative verb

An ergative verb is a verb that may be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when it's intransitive plays the same semantic role as its direct object when it's transitive. For example, fly is an ergative verb, such that the following sentences are roughly synonymous: An ergative verb is a special kind of verb which allows the object in a transitive clause to become the subject in an intransitive clause. ...

  • The airplane flew.
  • The airplane was flown.
  • [Someone] flew the airplane.

One major difference is that the intransitive construction does not permit an agent to be mentioned, and indeed can imply that no agent is present, that the subject is performing the action on itself. For this reason, the intransitive construction of an intransitive verb is often said to be in a middle voice, between active and passive, or in a mediopassive voice, between active and passive but closer to passive.


Reflexive verbs

A reflexive verb is a transitive verb one of whose objects is a reflexive pronoun (myself, yourself, etc.) referring back to its subject. In some languages, reflexive verbs are a special class of verbs with special semantics and syntax, but in English, they typically represent ordinary uses of transitive verbs. For example, with the verb see:

  • He sees her as a writer.
  • She sees herself as a writer.

Nonetheless, sometimes English reflexive verbs have a passive sense, expressing an agentless action. Consider the verb solve, as in the following sentences:

  • He solved the problem.
  • The problem solved itself.

One could not say that the problem truly solved anything; rather, what is meant is that the problem was solved without anyone solving it.


Gerunds and nominalization

Gerunds and nominalized verbs (nouns derived from verbs and referring to the actions or states expressed by them), unlike finite verbs, do not require explicit subjects. This allows an object to be expressed while omitting a subject. For example: In linguistics, a gerund is a kind of verbal noun that exists in some languages. ... In linguistics, derivation is the process of creating new lexemes from other lexemes, for example, by adding a derivational affix. ...

  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
  • Generating electricity typically requires a magnet and a solenoid.

Criticisms

Many usage guides and teachers of English discourage the use or overuse of the passive voice because it is believed to obscure the agent or to create unnecessary ambiguity[4].


The passive voice may be vague, or it may obscure the cause but not the effect:

  • Mistakes were made. (passive voice)
  • I made mistakes. (active voice)

But this "bureaucratic passive" usage may be very effective when a writer/speaker intentionally wishes to avoid mentioning the party responsible for (or affected by) an untoward occurrence:

  • Taxes were raised.
  • Difficulties were encountered.

In other cases, the passive voice is less awkward and the active voice would rarely be used, possibly because the agent is implied:

  • He was born on August 1. (passive voice)

rather than:

  • His mother bore him on August 1. (active voice)

Sometimes, the passive voice is preferable because a writer wishes to place or maintain emphasis on the patient of the action, not for purposes of deception or concealment, but simply as a matter of style. In such cases, the agent may also be obvious, or explicitly supplied with a by X construction later on. In linguistics, a grammatical patient is an entity upon whom an action is carried out. ...

  • A foul ball hit the umpire. (active voice)
  • The umpire was hit by a foul ball. (passive voice)

In related cases, the passive may be used to maintain better "old/new information flow:" i.e., if the patient is known from previous context, but the agent (etc.) is new information. Compare the following:

  • Another highly valuable precious metal is gold. People first discovered this metal in prehistoric times. (active voice)
  • Another highly valuable precious metal is gold. This metal was first discovered in prehistoric times. (passive voice)

Some people would consider the second pair of sentences to flow better, since this metal, referring to gold (i.e., the old information in the second sentence), appears closer to the front of the sentence, more logically connecting it with the previous context and easing the transition to all the newer information about gold, which comes afterward.


The passive voice is still commonly used in formal and business communications. Particularly in journalistic writing, science writing, and law, the passive voice is often considered normal, rather than a sign of deception. Similarly, in scientific writing it is sometimes more convenient to use the passive voice with an implied agent, for example: "The error was found to result from contamination" instead of "We found the error to result from contamination." However, contemporary scientific writing is increasingly using the active voice, usually with we as the subject. There is also a trend to reduce the use of the passive voice in law, particularly in documents meant for public consumption, such as software licenses. Journalism schools currently teach to avoid passive voice whenever possible, to the point where each sentence in passive voice can earn students a drop in one letter grade for an assignment.


Notes

  1. ^ Language Log: How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing
  2. ^ The American Heritage Book of English Usage, ch. 1, sect. 24 "double passive." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/024.html. Accessed 13 November 2006.
  3. ^ "Double Your Passive, Double Your Fun," from Literalminded. http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2005/05/16/double-your-passive-double-your-fun/. Accessed 13 November 2006.
  4. ^ See for example The Elements of Style.

  Results from FactBites:
 
English passive voice - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1229 words)
The passive voice consists of a form of the verb "to be" plus a past participle of the verb.
Morphologically, the English passive voice is a periphrastic construction consisting of a form of the auxiliary verb be and the past participle of a transitive verb, as illustrated by the following sentences (passives in bold).
Sometimes, the passive voice is preferable because a writer wishes to place or maintain emphasis on the patient of the action, not for purposes of deception or concealment, but simply as a matter of style.
  More results at FactBites »

 
 

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