The Passive Voice. Forms and Functions. Noelia Malla García. Complutense University of Madrid Spain

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1 The Passive Voice Forms and Functions The 3 rd Global Virtual Conference Noelia Malla García Complutense University of Madrid Spain Abstract Quirk defines voice as a grammatical category which makes it possible to view the action of a sentence in either two ways, without change in the facts reported. These two ways are referred to as passive and active voices, which, as Huddleston states, differ in the way semantic roles are aligned with syntactic functions. In order to cover this topic, I will first describe the form of the passive, contrasting it with the active voice. To do so, I will focus in the first place on the form of verb phrase and then on the different syntactic functions of the noun phrases in the clause. Secondly, and based on the above, I will define the different types of passives, depending on the elements the sentence has and / or meaning. Finally, I will refer to the factors governing the choice of a passive over an active sentence or viceversa. Keywords- passive voice; types of passives; choice of active / passive voice. I. INTRODUCTION The passive is typically against the active voice. This relation involves two grammatical levels: the verb phrase on the one hand, and the noun phrase or equivalent within the clause. In the verb phrase, the difference between the active and passive voices is that the passive adds a form of the auxiliary BE followed by a PAST PARTICIPLE (-ed) of the main verb. Regarding the clause, the syntactical function of the noun phrases in the active undergo changes regarding their function in the passive voice: Thus, the noun phrase functioning as subject in the active, typically functions as agent introduced by BY in the passive, while noun phrase functioning as object in the active becomes the subject in the passive voice. A. The verb phrase The verb phrase in the passive voice is made up of an auxiliary plus the PAST PARTICIPLE of the verb which expresses the action. Although the most frequent auxiliary in the passive voice is BE, this is not the only option as shall be seen below. B. The auxiliaries The auxiliary in the passive voice takes on the inflection of the active verb except for any person-number feature, which is determined by the subject/verb agreement. Thus, with the most common auxiliary in the passive (i. e. BE) we make different combinations, like for example: The house is being painted; a solution has been found; they were deposed, etc. But BE is not the only auxiliary we find in the passive voice: GET is also common, although usually limited to constru c- tions without an animated agent, like in I got broken or they got killed, which does not mean it never occurs with an animated agent as in They got arrested by the police. In these cases, typically, Get passives occur mainly in the spoken language, or with dynamic verbs, or when the passive subject is seen as having some role in the situation or some responsibility in it, or in clauses involving adversity or benefit. Get is also used in sentences of the type I get my hair cut every two months and so is HAVE in such constructions I have my hair cut every two months. In fact, this construction of GET / HAVE SOMETHING DONE is very common in English and tends to present problems for the Spanish speaker, because the equivalent in Spanish is always in the active. We also find instances of no auxiliary, (what Huddleston calls bare passive ), ex. We saw the man run over by the lorry or, to a much lesser extent, BECOME, OR EVEN LOOK, SEEM, and others as will be explained later. The past participle The main verb in the passive voice is a past participle, as pointed out before, and the action expressed by the passive describes an event, like in the examples above: thus, The house is being painted describes the event which in the active is expressed as somebody is painting the house. The diffe r- ence is on focus, as will be explained later on. There are instances, however, like in the sentence the glass was broken, when the passive could either express an event someone broke the glass or a state, similar to that expressed in the glass is hot. In the latter case, the participle functions as a verbal adjective, and thus, the passive can be considered an adjectival passive, which is different from the proper verbal passive, as will be analyzed later. This expression of states, rather than of events, is expressed in Spanish with the verb estar while the passive proper used the verb ser as the auxiliary. Another important point to bear in mind regarding the past participle, particularly in bare passives, is to make sure that it is actually a bare passive and not a bare perfective (i. e. there is omission of passive auxiliary be rather than of perfective auxiliary have). Let s consider the following cases: a) mistaken for a student, the new teacher went into the classroom unnoticed : In this case mistaken for a stu ISBN:

2 dent is a bare passive phrase as the equivalent would be the new teacher was mistaken for a student. b) fallen in disgrace, the prime-minister s former adviser was not allowed in : Here the phrase fallen in disgrace is not passive but perfective, since its equivalent is the former adviser had fallen in disgrace. Finally, it should also be pointed out that, although the past participle of the verb expressing the action is by far the most common form, we also find instances where the present participle is used, with a passive value and even an expressed agent, as in these trousers need mending by somebody who knows how to do it properly. This form is usually referred to as concealed passive because whereas it has a passive meaning, it does not have the usual past participle form. II. THE SYNTACTIC FUNCTIONS OF THE NOUN PHRASES Fro m a syntactic point of view there are important structural differences between an active and a passive clause: A. The subject of the active agent in the passive The first structural difference is that the subject of the active becomes in the passive the complement of the preposition by. Nonetheless, there are times when the agent is omitted in the passive voice as shall be explained later in Types of passives. B. The subject of the passive and the objects in the active The other structural difference is that the object of the active typically becomes the subject of the passive. But while this is rather straightforward in Spanish, it is not so in English. Let us first analyze the case of the object in monostransitive verbs in the active voice, then in ditransitive verbs, thirdly prepositional verbs or verbal idioms, fourthly the case of clauses when they function as complement of the active verb, and finally object complementation in the active. Monotransitive verbs in the active voice TABLE I. T HIS IS THE SIMPLEST AND MOST COMMON CASE, AND THE CLOSEST TO SPANISH: THE DIRECT OBJECT OF THE ACTIVE VERB BECOMES THE SUBJECT IN THE PASSIVE VOICE: The storm damaged the crops The crops were damaged by the storm This conversion is possible with most monotransitive verbs, although there are some which do not allow the passive conversion: Ex. He failed me cannot be put in the passive when it means let down ; although it can be used in the passive when it means not pass. Other verbs which have a direct object in the active but do not allow the passive transformation will be dealt with when covering the choice of passive or active forms. Ditransitive verbs in the active In principle, ditransitive actives have two options for the passive, depending on whether it is the direct or the indirect object which becomes the subject of the passive. And this option is an important difference with the formation of the passive in Spanish, which only allows the direct object of the passive to become the subject of the passive. TABLE II. T HUS, THE ACTIVE SENTENCE: Sarah sent Peter a beautiful TABLE III. a) HAS TWO POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES IN ENGLISH: Peter was sent a beautiful (by Sarah) Or b) A beautiful was sent (to) Peter by Sarah These two alternatives is what Huddleston terms as first passive, and second passive, respectively, depending on whether the first or second object in the active becomes the subject in the passive. It should be pointed out here, though, that even if in theory either is possible, there is a tendency in most cases to prefer the first alternative, and in some cases, particularly in American English, the second alternative is hardly possible unless the Indirect Object (IO) is preceded by prepositions to or for. Prepositional verbs or verbal idioms in the active voice Prepositional verbs or verbal idioms which have an object in the active voice can be found in the passive. Quirk states that, generally speaking, it could be said that prepositional verbs or verbal idioms can take the passive voice, while verb + prepositional phrase does not. Thus, for example, in these two sentences: 1) The engineers went carefully into the problem (verbal idiom). 2) The engineers went carefully into the tunnel (verb + prepositional phrase) Only the first sentence may be used in the passive: the problem was carefully gone into by the engineers. Consequently, it could be said that, generally speaking, the object of a prepositional verb or verbal idiom becomes the subject of the passive voice. This type of passive is what Huddleston terms as prepos i- tional passive. In fact, he says that there are two main types of prepositional passives: ISBN:

3 a) When the preposition is specified by a prepositional verb (like for instance approve of: The plan was approved of by the teacher; look at: the statue was often looked at by the passersby, etc.), or as part of a verbal idiom (lose sight of: the final objective was lost sight of; look up to: she was a good boss, one that was looked up to by all the employers). b) When the preposition is not specified by the verb and has a locative meaning: ex. Sit on: I m afraid your hat has been sat on. However, not all verbal idioms or prepositional verbs can appear in the passive: We cannot convert the active sentence my son takes after me into a passive form. The same applies to verb + preposition with locative meaning, as we saw in the example the engineers went carefully into the tunnel. According to Huddleston, there are also pragmatic considerations to be taken into account, as shall be explained when dealing with the choice of voice. Clause as complement of active verb Transitive verbs can have a finite or a non-finite clause as their object, like for example: 1. Peter loves watching sports 2. He hoped to see them again 3. Peter considered at first taking out a mortgage. 4. Peter decided to accept the offer 5. Nobody knows what will happen to them 6. My son suggested that we should call an ambulance 7. The doctor assured us that it was not serious Some of these sentences are accepted in the passive, while others are not. Thus, for example, both Quirk and Huddleston state that when the complement in the active is a non-finite clause, then it is not usually possible to have a passive equiv a- lent, as is the case with the first two examples above. Nevertheless, this does not mean that no infinite or gerund can be the subject of a passive sentence, although they are basically restricted to catenative verbs, that is, verbs which are always followed by infinite or V ing form. Consequently, X considered taking out a mortgage has the passive equivalent taking out a mortgage was considered ar first. Somewhat different is the case of the infinitive as complement of the active catenative verb, since in these cases it is more frequent for it to be in ext raposed position, with introductory it as the subject of the passive: thus, the passive equivalent of X decided to accept the offer would be it was decided to accept the offer. Regarding complement interrogative clauses in the active, we find that, generally speaking, they can be transferred to the passive voice, although there are a few cases which do not allow passivation. For example: a) Nobody knows what will happen to them What will happen to them is not known (by anybody) b) They haven t decided yet what to do what to do had not yet been decided. But: Nobody minds what they do has no pass ive equivalent. The same applies to declarative complement sentences, which in most cases can be turned into the subject of the passive, but whether it is possible or not depends on the verb: e. g.: we should call an ambulance was suggested by my son. But We complained that there was no water cannot be put in the passive. With some verbs, though, it can be done if the clausal object is extraposed and replaced by the anticipatory it: e. g.: They argued that it wasn t the right thing to do it was argued that it wasn t the right thing to do Finally, and following the trend regarding the indirect object, when the active sentence has a personal object and a clause complement, the personal object is preferred as the subject of the passive: The doctor assured us that it was not serious we were assured that it was not serious. Object complementation in the active There are other cases when the active has an object and an object complement, like in They considered him a bright student, or they knew him to be irresponsible. In these cases, usually the object becomes the subject of the passive, and its complementation is placed after the passive verb: He was considered a bright student and He was known to be irresponsible. This is not always possible, though, as for example in: They want the Prime Minister to resign or in they like their soup almost cold. An important point to consider here is the case of make and let, in the active construction: make/let somebody do something, where both use a bare infinitive as the complement of the object. In the case of make, the passive equivalent is possible, with the object becoming the subject, and the bare infinitive complement changing into a to-infinitive. Thus in he made me clean the mess becomes I was made to clear the mess. However, the active construction with let has no equivalent in the passive, unless we use the verb allow instead of let. Thus: He let me arrive late can only be expressed in the passive as I was allowed to arrive late. Finally, a further case worth mentioning here is when somebody arranges for other people to do something for them. Although there may be an active form such as The mechanic across the road repaired my car (for me) English prefers the passive construction not a Passive proper but rather a past participle functioning as the complement of an object with auxiliary have or get + object + past participle of action verb + (optional) by agentive: I had my car repaired by the mechanic across the road. TYPES OF PASSIVES In spite of the fact that we tend to define the passive in terms of contrast with the active, the formal definition of the passive, that is, that it contains auxiliary be (or get) plus past participle is very broad and it includes many types that do not have an active equivalent. Here, I will mainly fo llow the class i ISBN:

4 fication made by Quirk, comparing it with terms and definitions provided by Huddleston. Central passives Quirk defines as central passives those which have an active equivalent. In this case, we can find passives with an e x- plicit agent what Huddleston terms as long passives, or without explicit agent or short passives, following Huddleston. With explicit agent / long passives The agent in the long passives is introduced, as we have seen, by the preposition by and is equivalent to the doer in the active sentence; for example: Peter greeted me becomes I was greeted by Peter, and in both cases the doer or performer of the greeting was Peter, the only difference between the passive and the active is the focus of the information, that is, the theme and rheme, or the given and the new information. This does not mean, though, that all passives which have a prepositional phrase introduced by the preposition by have the agent explicit or are long passives. There are cases when this is not so. Thus, for example, in the sentence: Champagne was replaced by cava, cava is not the doer or performer of the replacement, but the instrument used for the replacement. Without explicit agent / short passives Taking the case mentioned above into account, it can be stated that passives without an explicit agent or short passives, as Huddleston calls them, are those which leave the subject of the active undetermined, and indeed have no active counterpart proper, although an equivalent in the active might be found. This type of passive is the most frequent in English, and the reason Huddleston calls it short passive is because it usually only has the passive subject and the passive verb, like in my friend was mugged although, as we have seen, it may also have some place adjunct as in the best coffee is produced in Colombia or even a means adjunct as in success was achieved by working hard. Semi-passives or adjectival passives There is another type of passive (i. e. be + Past participle) where, even if they may have an active equivalent, their past participle behaves, to a greater or lesser extent like an adjective, as it was pointed out when covering the form of the verb in the passive. Let s consider these sentences: 1. My son was attacked. 2. Sarah has been tired for the last few weeks. 3. Alex is interested in the environment. In all these examples we can find an active equivalent, but while the first example is clearly a verbal passive, the other two share to a greater or lesser extent certain characteristics with adjectives. This is why Huddleston refers to them as Adjectival passives, and Quirk classifies them into semi-passives and pseudo-passives saying that they have adjectival properties. These adjectival properties are the following: 1. They can be coordinated with adjectives. 2. They can be modified by very, too, rather, etc. 3. The auxiliary be can be replaced by a lexical copular such as feel look, seen, i.e. verbs which take predicative complements. 4. They always have a stative interpretation. Thus a verbal passive tends to be dynamic, while an adjectival passive is static. This in Spanish is expressed, as mentioned before, through the distinction ser / estar. 5. They can take the negative prefix un. 6. They can be complemented by a prepositional phrase, even one introduced by non-agentive by. Consequently, the examp le Alex is interested in the environment, is clearly a semi-passive or adjectival passive, because we can say Alex is very/ too interested in the environment or Alex seems very interested in the environment or Alex sounds interested in the environment or even Alex seems uninterested in the environment. Of course, not all adjectives accept this modification for not all of them are gradable. And there are other cases when the difference between adjectival and verbal passives is blurred. In these cases, we can also use verbs such as look, seem, beco me, etc. as the auxiliaries. However, a case when it is easy to tell that the ed form is a verb and not an adjective is when the subject takes either a predicative or an infinitive complement, as adjectives cannot take either. Thus, sentences like: Anne was regarded as an asset for the company (predicative complement) or Tom was known to be a compulsive liar are clearly verbal passives. Pseudo-passives Within this category, Quirk includes those passives which are only passive in their form, but have an active meaning, or rather a resultant state: Thus, in Sarah has been tired for the last few weeks and in the house is totally demolished, the meaning is not that Sarah is undergoing tiredness, but that she is in a state of tiredness, nor that the house is undergoing demolition, but that it is in a state of demolition. These two examples are very much like Huddleston s adjectival passives. A somewhat different case is when Quirk points out that this type of pseudo-passive is common with intransitive verbs of motion or completion, like why are all these cars stopped at the corner? and by the time I got there, everybody was gone. These examples are only passive in form, but not in meaning, and indeed, the active form is used with much more frequency. ONLY ACTIVE CHOICE OF PASSIVE / ACTIVE GOVERNED BY VERB TYPE Copular and Intransitive verbs, having no object, do not occur in the passive voice, but there are also some transitive stative verbs which do not usually allow the passive voice, except when they are verbs of volition or attitude. Thus, sentences like: They have a big car, or This dress really suits you, He lacks confidence, he resembles his mother, etc. cannot ISBN:

5 be turned into passive. But notice other cases like: The police want him he s wanted by the police. Only passive There are other verbs, though, that can only occur in the passive, like be born, be reputed, be rumored, and in a sense could be considered defective, only having the past participle. A different case is say, which is freely used in the active, except when followed by an object + co mplement infinitive, like in he is said to have disappeared. Choice depends on meaning of the verb Some other times, whether the transitive verb can be turned into passive or not depends on its meaning, as in the case of this room holds 123 people which has no passive equivalent, while they are holding the conference in Madrid becomes the conference is being held in Madrid. Furthermore, some prepositional verbs, as shown above, may be used in the passive, while others cannot. OTHER CRITERIA The choice of active or passive is influenced by constraints other than verb type, such as the type of object particularly when the object is a clause as was shown above or by the following: Pragmatic constraints However, when both options are possible, there are some pragmatic factors governing this choice. Taking into account that in English, the theme that is the main information focus comes first, usually as old or given informat ion followed by the rheme usually new information, the speaker primarily chooses whether the information focus is on one element or another. Consequently, when the speaker chooses an agentive or long passive over an active form, it is because the subject in the passive is more familiar in the discourse than the agent. Agent constraints Regarding the non-agentive passives or short passives, the main difference between the active sentence and the nonagentive passive is that the information relating to the doer or agent is omitted in the passive. This may be done because it is unknown, or because the speaker may wish to omit that information for different reasons. Meaning constraints Another important factor is meaning: Not all matching active and passive sentences always have the same propositional meaning. Thus, modal auxiliaries change their meaning or focus depending on whether they are followed by an active or a passive bare infinitive: can usually means ability in the active and possibility in the passive: for example: John can answer this question means something different from this question can be answered by John. The same can be said about You must tell them off = it is your duty do so and They must be told off = they ve done something they should not have done. Moreover, there are times when the change of focus, also changes the meaning of the sentence; thus, it is not exactly the same to say that beavers build dams as to say that dams are built by beavers. Style constraints Finally, there are stylistic factors governing the choice of active or passive. Thus, more than oral versus written English the choice seems to be more related to the distinction between imaginative versus informative prose, with the passive being more common in informative writing, and particularly in the objective, impersonal style of scientific art icles and new reporting. Moreover, the passive becomes less frequent in complex verb constructions, becoming almost non-existent in combinations such as perfective progressive passive (have been being done) or modal perfective progressive passive (can have been being done). CONCLUSION To sum up, the passive is a voice often seen as contrasting with the active, even if as has been shown there is not always a near equivalent and even when there is one, there is a difference either in meaning or in the information focus. Moreover, the passive voice in English is much more frequent than in Spanish which prefers the active over the passive and has at its disposal the se-construction or pasiva refleja. But frequency in use is not the only difficulty the Spanish student of English faces: the fact that English favours the personal over the impersonal subject with ditransitive verbs in the passive is normally a major obstacle in their mastery of this voice which, particularly in informative writing, is so common in English. REFERENCES [1] Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (2007). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman. [2] Huddleston and Pullum (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: University Press. [3] Downing, Angela and Locke, Philip (2006). English Grammar: A University Course. London: Routledge ISBN:

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