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’.