Grammar Basics: Active and Passive

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The previous posts give a very broad overview of the nature of English grammar, but they omit many important topics. I would urge anyone seeking more information to consult some of the books listed on the References page. However, I will, in this and in subsequent posts, look at some particular grammar topics which, for the sake of simplicity, I have left out of earlier ones. In the first few, I’ll consider some further points about verbs, starting with what are called the Active and the Passive Voice, although not all linguists use the term ‘voice’.

An example of the verb in the active is Picasso painted my portrait. That’s a sentence, on the SVO pattern. We can express the same idea in another way. We can say My portrait was painted by Picasso. Here something rather peculiar seems to have happened. The Object in the first sentence, my portrait, has somehow become the Subject in this sentence. It’s on the pattern SVA, Subject-Verb-Adverbial, the Adverbial being by Picasso, because it tells us something about the way in which the portrait was painted. The verb has changed, too. The past tense painted has become the past tense of be, followed by the past participle of paint: was painted. Although my portrait is the Subject of the sentence, we still have the sense that something is being done to it, rather than that it is doing something itself. In other words, it’s being, well, passive. Be is a copulative verb and that means that it acts rather like an ‘equals’ sign. So, my portrait = painted and the past tense ‘was’ tells us that it happened some time ago.

We can conclude from this that the English passive is formed by taking the object of the sentence as it appears in the active and placing it at the beginning of the passive sentence, thus making it the subject of the new sentence. We change the verb from the active to the passive by taking its past participle, painted in this case, and placing it after the appropriate tense of the primary auxiliary verb be. My portrait was painted by Picasso happens to contain, as we have seen, the Adverbial by Picasso. Such a constituent of the sentence is called the Agent or the  Instrument, the latter because it tells us who (or sometimes what) was, yes, instrumental, in bringing about the action described. Note, though, that an Instrument is not always necessary in a passive sentence. We can say, for example, My house was broken into without saying who by, perhaps because we don’t know.

An important point to notice about the formation of a passive sentence from an active one is that the process is possible only when the active sentence has an object, that is, when it is on the pattern SVO, SVOO or SVOA. That’s because, as we have seen, the Object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence. If the active sentence has no Object, then there can be no passive version.

Functional Grammar analyses a sentence like Picasso painted my portrait rather differently. Picasso is a Participant, known as the Actor in this kind of sentence, painted is the Material Processand my portrait is another Participant, known as the Goal. When it’s made passive the Participants remain the same: My portrait [GOAL] was painted [MATERIAL PROCESS] by Picasso [ACTOR].

Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics, University of Edinburgh, has written a full and authoritative exposition on ‘The Passive in English’ on Language Log. He also shows how little those who comment on it actually know about it in his paper ‘Fear and Loathing of the English Passive’.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Grammar Basics: Active and Passive

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Sentence Structure (3) | Caxton

  2. Nice clear explanation Barry – and thanks for the reminder of the crazy time that was studying functional grammar! Shall follow your links to the eminent Prof Pullum. I teach EFL but even I get confused occasionally.

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  3. Thank you for this – it is very good to have an accessible account that refers back to the terms used.

    I have questions! Three:

    1. In verse you can find examples of agentive assertions where S does not precede V – e.g., Alexander Pope’s Iliad: “Then turn I to Thracia from the field of fight” – are these too non-standard for Pullum’s analysis? Does it make sense to say they are in active voice? (This question is less idle than it might sound. )

    2. Is there a reason for the restriction to transitive verbs? “Jack runs” is a verb with an agent that is in subject position – it seems to make most sense to me to say this is in active voice. If I had to guess, it is that SV sentences can’t have patients and so can’t be converted to passive voice and the people who coined the terminology cared most about the pedagogical assignment of changing sentences in active to passive and v.v.

    3. So there are two definitions of active/passive voice, one based on simple syntactic role, the other on functional grammar? I take it that Pullum’s definition is the latter. And I take it that a sentence with a stative transitive verb, e.g. “Bob believes Alice”, will come out differently on the two analyses (active on the purely syntactic vs. neither active nor passive on the functional)? No wonder there is so much confusion out there.

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    • 1. Pope’s sentence is active. The inversion of Subject and Verb doesn’t make it otherwise, and it doesn’t make it any the less a sentence on the pattern Subject (I)-Verb (turn)-Adverbial (to Thracia from the field of fight).

      2. A sentence containing an intransitive verb cannot be made passive, because, by definition, there is no object that can become the subject in the passive. Jack runs is on the pattern Subject-Verb, and runs is intransitive. By contrast, Jack runs a large corporation (where runs has a different meaning, of course) is on the pattern Subject-Verb-Object. Runs is here transitive, so the sentence can be made passive as A large corporation is run by Jack (although that is a rather unlikely sentence).

      3. Functional grammar (FG) takes a quite different approach from that of traditional grammar. It’s unfair to compare the two, because they do different things. In fact, FG is little known outside Australia and some UK universities. I’ve tried to give a simple account of it in the link in my post. Pullum’s approach is not that of a functional grammarian, although it’s none the worse for that. Your sentence Bob believes Alice has an active construction on the pattern Subject-Verb-Object. The passive would be Alice is believed by Bob. In FG terms, it’s a different kind of sentence from Jack runs a large corporation, because where runs describes an activity in the external world, believes describes something going on inside Bob’s head. The Participants are Bob and Alice, but because the verb believes represents a Mental Process (rather than a Material Process), FG describes Bob as the Senser and Alice as the Phenomenon. In the passive version, FG continues to regard Bob as the Senser and Alice as the Phenomenon, where traditional grammar reverses the roles of Subject and Object.

      I don’t think different approaches to language should be regarded as confusion. Language is an immensely complex subject, and we should not expect descriptions of it to be any simpler than descriptions of, say, particle physics or molecular biology. (But we’re going way beyond ‘Grammar Basics’ here!)

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      • Thanks, especially with respect to your discussion of FG, which is helpful and cleared up a misunderstanding I had. FG is actually popular here in Germany, to the extent that it influences the presentation in school grammars and grammars for learners of German.

        With respect to (2), I did see that we have stipulated that there is a one-to-one correspondence between clauses in active vs. passive voice. The question is: Why? It makes perfect sense to say the intransitive SV sentences are active voice, and to me it seems more principled. But this is perhaps a question whose answer is hard to find.

        Alternative theories: the Chomskian (or rather, a Chomskian) account is found at http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Passive – it’s fine to have different theories, with differences driven by the needs of linguists. But if one theory says that some rule of school grammar correctly eliminates only mistakes while another theory says that the rule is prescriptivist poppycock that excludes perfectly valid and useful constructions, or if two theories provide distinct interpretations of the informal rule, then that is confusing for the would-be end user of the grammar. But that does not seem to be going on here, and indeed these are deeper waters.

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        • It’s unfortunate that that most learnèd article doesn’t give an example of an occasion on which ‘it is not even clear whether a given construction is to be regarded as a passive or not.’ I prefer Pullum’s account.

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          • Indeed, Glossopedia is not very complete or all that readable, but I think the information there is sound. I think there is a general problem that the Chomskians have with providing good theoretical exposition, which is maybe a result of the school’s history (they have had at least three cataclysmic changes in what the received theory is, and there is something not very straightforward in, e.g., the way many of the key texts are write-ups of talks given by Chomsky that had limited circulation as preprints for ages before publication).

            The interesting point, and the reason I provided the link, is that the definition of passive is given in terms of the theta roles the verb takes, not the shape of the verb in terms of SVO. I guess it is worth getting to the bottom of this. A project for another day.

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  4. Charles:

    1) This sentence is active with non-standard word order: I is both subject and agent. In older English, it was common to place the verb in the second place, so that if the subject was not first it had to appear after the verb. This word order was lost in conversation and prose by the 15th century or so, but the possibility of it persisted longer in verse.

    2) Yes, “Charles runs” is in active voice, though there is no passive.

    3) Conventional and functional grammar apply different labels to sentence parts, but don’t disagree on what is active and what is passive.

    Barrie: SVA sentences can in fact be passivized in English: the passive of “Many people live in the house” is “The house is lived in by many people”, as if “live in” were a transitive verb.

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    • I’d say that ‘Many people live in the house’ was SVO, because ‘live in’ is a prepositional verb having the meaning ‘occupy’, and, as you say, transitive. ‘Live’ on its own is intransitive, except where it has a cognate object, in clauses like ‘I live life to the full’, or ‘She lived a blameless life’.

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  5. Pingback: ‘Grammar Basics: Active and Passive’ by Barrie England | Rakesh Patel

  6. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Subjunctive | Caxton

  7. John Boyd

    Hi–Thanks for these blogs. I believe the following sentence is not passive, for there is no object, as you write is necessary to make it so. “The lecture will be held at 5 p.m.” So what kind of sentence would you call it?

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    • Hello, John. I hope you find these posts helpful.

      Your example is of a passive sentence. It is not the case that a passive sentence needs an object. On the contrary, a passive sentence cannot have an object. What happens when an active sentence is made passive is that the object in the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive sentence. The active version of your example would be ‘[Someone] will hold a lecture at 5 p.m.’ where ‘a lecture’ is the object of ‘will hold’. In the passive sentence, ‘a lecture’ is the subject of ‘will be held’.

      A passive sentence doesn’t necessarily tell us who or what the action will be performed by. However, your example could read ‘The lecture will be held at 5 p.m. by the Arts Faculty’. That is the passive of ‘The Arts Faculty will hold the lecture at 5 p.m.’ In that case ‘by the Arts Faculty’ is usually called the ‘agent’.

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      • John Boyd

        Thank you for the clarification. I got muddled and miswrote. So if I understand correctly, it is the past participle “held” that turns my sentence into a passive construction. For if I wrote, “The lecture will be at 5 pm,” then I’ve merely written a statement, but adding “held” to it makes it a passive construction. Therefore, is it a case of were a “be” verb and past participle occur together without an object, the construction is ALWAYS inherently passive?

        And could I impose further by asking the following? How about when I change Strunk & White’s infamous non-passive, “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground,” to “A great number of dead leaves were lying on the ground.” This, I believe, fulfills the passive construction’s requirements.

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        • Sorry for the delay in replying.

          Yes, a passive construction consists of an appropriate form of the verb be and the past participle of the verb describing the action. The sentence The lecture will be at 5 pm doesn’t really provide a very clear example, because, even in that form, it already uses the verb be. The difference might be clearer in a sentence like The thieves stole the money. That is an active sentence. It can be made passive by taking the object, the money, and turning it into the subject of the following passive sentence, using was, the past tense of be, and stolen, the past tense of steal: The money was stolen by the thieves.

          Neither There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground nor A great number of dead leaves were lying on the ground is a passive sentence. The first is a variation of the second, in which there, rather than A great number of dead leaves, is the subject. This use of there is known as existential ‘there’.

          These examples have nothing to do with active and passive constructions. In his article entitled ‘Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice’ that example (and others) prompted Geoffrey Pullum to write:

          What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.

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          • John Boyd

            Thank you again. Yes, as a fan of Language Log (where I discovered your post and hence this site!) I’ve read G. Pullum’s essay several times and have already used the same passage you quote in a draft of something I’m writing on prescriptivists, which is why I really want to nail down my understanding of the passive before taking it further.

            One more point on this subject and I promise to desist! The following variation of my last example sentence above is surely a passive construction: A great number of dead leaves were laid (out) on the ground (in neat rows by the children).

            If that is the case, then the only essential difference in *construction* between this sentence and the previous one above is “laid” versus “lying,” though of course my latest example (without my parenthetical additions) indicates/confirms via the past participle that an agent is involved, while the “lying” construction does not, it is merely a statement about something observed. Therefore, it is these two aspects–an agent (stated or not) together with the past participle that indicates/ implies the agent that marks out a sentence as passive from my “lying” example. Correct?

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