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Grammatical Functions and Categories


P a r t 5 : Voi c e

11. Voice: Active vs passive

11.O. Overview of voice as a verbal category

11.O.1. Structural properties of the passive

11.O.1.1. Voice defined as a verbal category

What is the essence of voice as a verbal grammatical category? Consider the
differences between the following pairs of sentences:

a. The butler murdered the detective.

b. The detective was murdered by the butler.


a. The men respected her.

b. She was respected.

The active-passive relation involves two levels of grammatical description: the level of
the verb phrase, and the level of clause. What happens at each of these two levels when
an active construction is turned into the passive?

a. active: NP1 (subject) + active VP + NP2 (object)

b. passive: NP2 (subject) + passive VP + (by + NP1)

As is obvious from the above examples, and the structural schema, one of the most
conspicuous aspects of the passive constructions is the difference in the order of the
clause elements referring to the two main protagonists in the above events: the passive
construction in (3) b. begins with NP2. Voice can thus be defined as a grammatical
category that makes it possible in English to view the action of a sentence either from
the point of view of the doer or the agent, i.e. of the subject of the sentence, or from the
point of view of the undergoer, the affected/effected entity, i.e. of the patient of the
activity or its recipient. This other point of view takes in syntactic terms one of the
objects as its vantage point. The former point of view is expressed by the active voice,
the latter by the passive voice.


Part 5: Passive

In what follows we shall take a closer look at the changes that may be observed in
pairs of sentences standing in the active-passive relationship by examining the two
grammatical levels in turn, beginning with the verb phrase and then proceeding to the
clause level.

11.O.1.2. Active vs passive VPs

The passive is in morphosyntactic terms an analytical form consisting of:

appropriate tense form of the auxiliary be (or some other auxiliary, such as get);

past participle (-en form) of a transitive verb

In other words, the difference between the two voice categories is that the passive adds
a form of the auxiliary followed by the past participle of the main verb, and thus
invariably results in a more complex VP. Sometimes get can be used as the auxiliary.

The inventory of passive verb phrases

All tenses of the common/simple aspect (including combinations with the perfective)
are found in the passive voice, but only two of the VPs exhibiting the progressive aspect
are actually attested, the rest being generally considered too clumsy to be used
(although, strictly speaking, grammatical). The present perfect progressive passive is
thus simply replaced by the present perfect non/progressive passive, i.e. (6) b. below
functions as a passive counterpart of has been taking in.
(4) a. I am taken in...
b. I am being taken...
(5) a. I was taken in...
b. I was being taken in...
(6) a. I have been taken in
b. ??I have been being taken in...
(7) a. I had been taken in...
b. ??I had been being taken in...
(8) a. I shall be taken in...
b. ??I shall be being taken in...
(9) a. I shall have been taken in...
b. ??I shall have been being taken in...

Grammatical Functions and Categories


The passive auxiliaries: be and get

The passive auxiliary is normally be. It can in some contexts be replaced by get
(which is not an auxiliary, properly speaking). Try to specify the limitations to which the
latter is subject. Study the following sets of data:
(10) a. The cat got run over (by a bus).
b. James got beaten last night.
c. James got caught (by the police).
The get-passive is avoided in formal style, and is less frequent than the be-passive
regardless of style and medium. Get is more common as a 'resulting copula' in
constructions that look like passives, but which could not be expanded by an agent:
(11) a. We are getting bogged down in all sorts of problems.
b. I have to get dressed before 8 o'clock.
c. I don't want to get mixed up with police again.
Such sentences may be analysed syntactically as follows:
(12) a. IS gotV completely confusedC.
b. IS wasV completely confusedC.
Copular constructions like those in (11) and (12) a. are called pseudo-passives.
What is the implication that often obtains in examples like (13-14)? Notice that this
also has to do with the presence of an explicit agent.
(13) He was/?got taught a lesson on the subjunctive (by our new teacher).
(14) How did that window get opened?
It is very frequently the case that get places emphasis on the passive subject referent's
condition (often an unfavourable one for which the subject is also in a sense
responsible, i.e. the event is not solely due to the agents action), or reflects an
unfavourable attitude towards the event. These implications may also account for its
distribution: it is less common with expressed agents, cf. (13). Sentence (14) is normally
interpreted as implying that the window should have been left shut.
Notice that the idea of passive can sometimes be conveyed even without a special
passive auxiliary, e.g. in the causative have constructions there is only have, in both the
active and the passive.


Part 5: Passive

11.O.1.3. Active vs passive clauses

Since the function of the passive voice is to focus on the participant towards which
the activity denoted by the main verb is directed, it involves a rearrangement of the
clause elements within the sentence or clause. The difference in the arrangement of
clausal elements between an active sentence and its passive counterpart is illustrated
schematically as:
(15) a. DickensSUBJECTact wroteVPact Oliver TwistOBJECTact.
b. Oliver TwistSUBJECTpass was writtenVPpass by DickensAGENT-ADV.
In other words, there are altogether three types of changes:
(16) a. NP functioning as OBJact SUBJpass
b. NP functioning as SUBJact (AgADV)
c. VPact VPpass
The object (the undergoer, the patient or the affected participant) of the active clause
appears in the passive clause as subject. The subject of the active voice may be
converted, if necessary, into a prepositional phrase that is introduced by the preposition
by (the so/called agent-phrase), but it can also be omitted. This prepositional phrase (or
the noun phrase which is part of it) is by no means an object but an optional adverbial.
Remember that passive clauses are no longer transitive and that they cannot therefore
contain an object.

11.O.2. Factors favourable to the use of the passive

Although passivisation is a fairly productive rule of English (i.e. it can be applied in
many cases), there are a number of exceptions where the active and passive clauses are
not in systematic correspondence. Such constraints appear to be heavier on the passive
voice than on the active one.
Passive forms may be used in preference to the active in the following cases:

SUBJact is unknown or fairly low in referentiality, i.e. vague (somebody, one, they,
(17) a. Milk is used for making butter and cheese.
b. The matter will be discussed tomorrow.
c. English is spoken all over the world.

Grammatical Functions and Categories


When the subject is heavy, i.e. long and complex in terms of the number of words,
especially when it is a coordinate structure consisting of two NPs linked by and. In
accordance with the principle of end-weight, such long structures are better placed
at the end of the sentence, as happens e.g. in sentences with extraposed clausal
subjects. The passive construction is an ideal means of repositioning such subjects.

When we take greater interest in the object (patient) than in the subject (agent) of
the action, i.e. when the result of the activity is in the fore. Note that en participles
that help form passives are very close to adjectives, whose primary function is to
refer to states:
(18) a. This poem was written by Keats.
b. Our cat was chased by the neighbour's dog.

When the subject of the active construction is not mentioned on account of modesty
or tact (especially 1st person in writing):
(19) Enough has been said here of a subject which will be treated more fully in a
subsequent chapter.

In written language as a device to save changing the subject of a sentence, i.e. to

preserve the same topic:
(20) a. He spoke at great length; people asked him many question at the end, which
he answered satisfactorily.
b. He spoke at great length, was asked many questions at the end, and
answered them all satisfactorily.

11.T. Topics for further discussion

11.T.1. Indirect objects and passivisation

Passivisation provides us with very interesting and relevant data concerning the
status of indirect objects. If both objects are present, it appears that two passive
constructions are possible, since either can be made subject of the passive:
(21) a. I gave Mary a flower.
b. A flower was given to Mary.
c. Mary was given a flower.
It should be remembered that, as we have seen above, the passive construction in
English is not choosy about what becomes subject:


Part 5: Passive

(22) a. They laughed at me.

b. I was laughed at.
The important thing is that a prepositional phrase can never become the subject of a
passive construction. The NP inside a PP must be somehow made non-prepositional,
this is achieved in (25) by reanalysing the verb as laugh at, as if it were a
monotransitive phrasal verb taking a direct object. Similarly,
(21) d. *To Mary was given a flower.
e. *I gave a flower Mary.
It could be said that (22) b. and (21) c. are the same, but notice that the preposition is
dropped altogether in (21) c. and that in (22) b. it is stranded with the verb. The passive
construction can never dispose of prepositions and other particles. It follows that Mary
must have followed the direct object, and therefore appeared with a preposition in the
passive, the end result being unacceptable. It is relevant that (21) e., in which Mary
appears without the preposition, is ungrammatical. In other words, Mary must have
been the first object, since it appears without the preposition. The passive sentence
corresponding to a sentence in which the phrase a flower is the second object is rejected
by many speakers:
(24) f. ?A flower was given her.
The only explanation seems to be that a flower can be made subject of the passive only
if it is the first object, but since Mary must have occupied this position, judging by the
absence of the preposition, the whole is out. Mary can be made subject of passive only
if it is not introduced by the preposition, i.e. when it comes first and thus precedes the
direct object. This means that we have a pretty sharp dividing line between
nonprepositional indirect objects and prepositional ones.

11.R. Readings
11.R.1. Recommended reading
Svartvik, J., G. Leech (1975: 676-682)
Thompson, A.J., A.V. Martinet (1960: 302-306)
11.R.2. Further reading
Leech, G. (1971: 146-154)
Greenbaum, S., R. Quirk (1990: 3.25-25)

Grammatical Functions and Categories


Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, J. Svartvik (1985: 3.63-78)

Stein (1979)
11.R.3. Sample texts for discussion
11.R.3.1. H. Poutsma: A Grammar of Late Modern English. Part II. The Parts of Speech.
Section II: The Verb and the Particle. Groningen, 1926, 101-102.
a. The principal occasion of the use of the passive is the desire of the speaker to
avoid mentioning the primary participant of the action, because not clearly known or
thought of no importance, or because involving the possibility of compromising him.
b. Conversely the passive construction is frequently resorted to serve the
diametrically opposite purpose of giving prominence to the primary participant of the
action, by mentioning it expressly at the end of the sentence. Thus in The dog was killed
by his own master the back position of the inverted subject is an excellent expedient to
draw the attention to the originator of action. Sometimes the passive construction would
even hardly convey complete sense without it. Thus the omission would deprive the
following sentences of all point
He was fed by a wild beast.
He was wounded by an arrow.
In some contexts the inverted subject is even absolutely indispensable; thus in:
He was frequently met in the lanes by pedestrians and others without his seeing
c. The use of the passive voice entails a transposing of the verb and its objective
complement and, accordingly, destroys the connexion between these two elements of
the sentence...
d. The passive construction represents the object of the action more distinctly and
emphatically as undergoing an activity than the active. It is therefore apt to be preferred
when this notion is particularly prominent in the speakers mind.

11.R.3.2. R.M.W. Dixon: A New Approach to English Gramar on Semantic Principles.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, pages 298-299.
A passive sentence in English is not an automatic transformation of an active one. It
is an alternative realisation of the relation between a transitive verb and its object, and
involves an intransitive construction with a subject (corresponding to the transitive
object), a copula-like verb be or get, and a participial form of the verb. Thus,


Part 5: Passive

corresponding to A man took away the mad dog we get the passive The mad dog was
taken away. A passive clause may include an NP, introduced with by, corresponding to
the transitive subject (e.g. by a man), but it does so only relatively seldom (in formal,
written English, more than 80 per cent of passives are agentless, and the figure is
undoubtedly higher for colloquial, spoken styles).
There is always a meaning difference between active and passive constructions.
There are some transitive verbs which - for semantic or other reasons - never occur in
the passive () and, for many verbs, ability to passivise depends on the nature of the
object. As Bolinger (1977: 10) puts it: We can say George turned the pages or The
pages were turned by George; something happens to the pages in the process. But when
we say George turned the corner we cannot say *The corner was turned by George - the
corner is not affected, it is only where George was at the time. On the other hand, if one
were speaking of some kind of marathon or race or game in which a particular corner is
thought of as an objective to be taken, then one might say That corner hasn't been
turned yet. I can say The stranger approached me or I was approached by the stranger
because I am thinking of how his approach may affect me - perhaps he is a panhandler.
But if a train approaches me I do not say *I was approached by the train, because all I
am talking about is the geometry of two positions.
The passive is a marked construction, used according to one or more of a number of
factors that are mentioned in 9.1. A passive should ideally be quoted together with its
discourse and sociocultural context; sometimes, a putative passive which sounds odd
when spoken in isolation is immediately acceptable when placed in an appropriate
context. When judging the examples quoted in this chapter, the reader is asked to keep
his or her imagination on a loose rein, adding a bit of prior discourse and attributing to
the speaker a motive for using a passive construction.

11.R.3.3. Dwight Bolinger: On the passive in English. In: The First LACUS Forum
1974., ed. By A. Makkai and V. Becker Makkai, Columbia, SC: Hornbeam
Press, 1975, pages 75-76.
Though most of the examples I have cited in the second half of this paper have used
either simple verbs or monotransitive prepositional verbs, ditransitives obey the same
principles. A couple of illustrations should suffice. It is normal, for instance, to service a
table by laying a tablecloth on it, but a book on a table is merely there. On the other
hand, a shelf is made to be loaded with books, not ordinarily with tablecloths:
Which tables have been laid tablecloths on?
*Which tables have been laid books on?
Which shelves have been put books on?
*Which shelves have been put tablecloths on?

Grammatical Functions and Categories


The last example suggests ludicrously that the shelves have been provided with
tablecloths. Although all four examples are lowered in acceptability by the addition of
the definite article (one usually services a table with tablecloths, indefinite, not with
tablecloths, definite), the relative acceptability remains the same and the contrasts show
more clearly:

Which tables have been laid the tablecloths on?

**Which tables have been laid the books on?

Which shelves have been put the books on?

**Which shelves have been put the tablecloths on?
The English passive has established a semantic distinction between true transitivity
and spatiality. It has its own meaning, which the speaker calls on to accord with his
intentions. Given the semantic features of most verbs, we can safely predict whether a
speaker will elect to use them transitively or not, and in this sense transitivity may be
regarded as a feature of those verbs. But with many simple verbs and most prepositional
verbs, transitivity is not a feature of them but a feature in them, put there on occasions
of use. The difficulties that linguists have had with prepositional verbs have been due
partly to too much insistence on immanent rather than transcendent features, and partly
to lumping all cases of ungrammaticality together and failing to separate those due to
violations from those due to difficulties of processing. This assessment is only a
particular way of saying that constructions with prepositional verbs must meet the same
two tests as all other constructions: they must sustain a meaning, and they must be interpretable.
Does transitivity as I have defined it have any reality in our minds? A list of examples
from this study was presented without explanation to a group of 70 college freshmen
with instructions to find a reason for acceptability or its lack. The replies were random
except in one respect: 10% approximated the wording "passive if really acted on". As
with most such distinctions, not many untrained people can bring them to the surface.
The fact that a few can is proof enough that the mechanism is there and functioning.

11.E. Exercises
11.E.1. Rewrite the sentences in the passive.
1 Everyone knows this fact very well.
2 They opened the theatre only last month.
3 People will soon forget it.
4 You must write the answers in ink.
5 Someone has taken two of my books.
6 We have already filled the vacancy.
7 What should one do in such cases?


Part 5: Passive

8 Did they say anything interesting?

9 Did no one ever make the situation clear to you?
10 One should keep milk in a refrigerator.
11 I don't think anyone can do it.
12 They would undoubtedly have killed him if he hadn't promised to cooperate.
13 You must finish the work by seven o'clock.
14 They are now manufacturing this type of computer in many European countries.
15 No one could possibly have known the secret.
11.E.2. Active-passive correspondence. Give the passive transformation of the
following sentences, supplying the by-phrase only if it contains relevant
and essential information.
1 The management has almost completely changed the arrangement of food at the
2 People still speak Gaelic in some parts of Scotland.
3 Motorists have not yet used the new section of the motorway.
4 The rules of the League promoted the club to the First Division at the end of the
5 Workmen have expertly laid our new carpet.
6 Anyone may justly criticize teachers if they do not listen to their students.
7 Mechanics should be servicing my car this week.
8 Someone must have stolen your fur coat.
9 Someone ought to have reported it to the police.
10 Decorators will have painted the walls white by the time you come here again.
11 Something or other thoroughly disorientates many long-distance jet travellers by the
time they reach their destination.
12 That boy's calculating ability would dumbfound the average person.
13 Bored-looking dancing-girls were titillating the tired businessmen.
14 Something or someone has grossly distorted my views on this subject.
15 The fact that he had forgotten to change his shoes vitiated the effect of his disguise as
a woman.
16 New regulations will soon supersede the old ones.
17 An odour of incense does not pervade most Anglican churches.
18 The lowering of import duties abroad may boost overseas sales.
19 Ill-health has been greatly hampering me for the last two months.
20 Their enemies annihilated the Roman legions in the forests of Germany.
21 The incoherent manner in which you are endeavouring to refute me exemplifies my
argument about modern education.
22 He wanted to tell the story, but the sense that it might cause embarrassment
temporarily inhibited him.
23 People believe that somebody has sighted a flying saucer over Hendon.
24 I'm sorry we left you out when we sent the invitations.
25 What's causing that odd noise, do you think?
26 Has anyone done anything about that large box someone left on our doorstep?
27 I have often heard people assert that the British are the most unsociable people in the
world; but can one prove such a statement?

Grammatical Functions and Categories


28 Don't worry; they'll look after you well in hospital.

29 Who wrote that?
30 Have they made any allowance for inflation?
31 This college is already full. We are turning away students all the time.
11.E.3. Rewrite in the passive the sentences or clauses containing a verb in italics.
1 The fact that the new scheme raised such a storm of disapproval means that no one
can have explained it properly to the public.
2 His father warned him not to let others lead him astray.
3 The chairman of the committee complained that they were taking up too much time in
discussing trivialities.
4 People put down the boy's rudeness to his parents' having spoiled him.
5 Not until later did they discover that someone had stolen the picture.
6 Never before had they sent anyone to prison for that particular crime.
7 They could make the law effective only in this way.
8 People said that no one could reach any agreement in this question.
9 The army put down the rebellion and declared martial law.
10 He wanted them to treat the information as confidential.
11 Had they told me that someone was to bring up the subject of finance at the next
meeting, I wouldn't have mentioned it.
12 He dislikes his fellow-workers thinking him a fool.
13 The public having ignored him for many years, the writer suddenly became famous.
14 Should someone prove beyond doubt that an accident caused the fire, the police will,
naturally, release the man they are at present holding on suspicion of arson.
15 On their informing him that the police wanted him, the man realized that his
accomplice had betrayed him.
11.E.4. Passive to active transforms. Rewrite in the active the sentences or clauses
containing a verb in italics. Where the agent is not stated, a suitable subject
for the sentence or clause should be inferred from the context.
1 The fire was finally got under control, but not before extensive damage had been
2 Don't let yourself be depressed by your failure.
3 In view of the widespread concern that is felt by the community, at the plan for a main
road to be built through the village, it has been decided by the local Council that a
special inquiry should be held.
4 The house had been broken into, and two thousand pounds's worth of jewellery had
been stolen.
5 Only after it had been subjected to searching laboratory tests by the scientists was the
new vaccine put on the market by the Company.
6 The plan hadn't been at all well thought out by the leader.
7 It ought to have been made quite clear to the shareholders before the annual meeting
was held that they would not be allowed to vote for new Board by proxy.


Part 5: Passive

8 Your lawyer's advice should have been obtained before any decision was made by you
for the matter to be taken further.
9 He needn't have been caused so much distress by being told by the army authorities
that his brother had died in action, as it was later discovered that a mistake had been
made as to the missing man's identity.
10 Information about the source from which the startling news had been obtained was
withheld by the reporter.
11.E.5. Answer the questions using a passive form of the verbs in brackets, together
with a suitable adverbial particle (off, on, in, on, out, up, etc.)
1 What must be done with a bad tooth? (pull)
2 What has to be done with dirty crockery and cutlery at the end of a meal? (wash)
3 What should happen if mistakes appear in a student's work? (point)
4 What might happen if you crossed a busy road without looking? (knock)
5 What would happen to alighted candle if there were a sudden gust of wind? (blow)
6 What may happen to a man who has committed his first offence? (let)
7 What happens if negotiations look like being unsuccessful? (break)
8 What happens to traffic in a traffic jam? (hold)
11.E.6. Rewrite the sentences using the passive form of the verbs in italics.
1 They gave up the search after three hours.
2 They ought to have pointed that out to me at the very beginning.
3 No one brought up that question at the meeting.
4 Someone should look into the matter.
5 It was clear that the parents had brought the child up well.
6 We had to put off our visit until later.
7 I was shocked to hear that someone had broken into your house.
8 Don't speak until someone speaks to you.
11.E.7. Rewrite the sentences in the passive, making the italicized words the
subject of the sentence.
1 They gave the oldest councillor the freedom of the city.
2 They denied access to the secret documents to all but a few.
3 Someone showed the child how to use the telephone.
4 They declared him 'persona non grata' and allowed him only 48 hours to leave the
5 They gave him artificial respiration.
6 Why didn't they offer him the job?
7 Didn't they promise you a rise in salary at the beginning of the year?
8 Someone left him a legacy of $ 10,000.
9 When he looked at the stamps, he found they had sold him forgeries.
10 Why did they pay you for doing the job?

Grammatical Functions and Categories


11 Someone should tell him never to do that again.

12 They asked you to meet me here al 11 o'clock, not half-past.
13 Will someone send me the details?
14 We shall send you the goods as soon as they are available.
15 Someone must teach that boy a lesson!
16 It is said that he is an honest, hard-working man.
17 It is considered that this surgeon is a brilliant practitioner.
18 It is now thought that some redundances in the Company are inevitable.
19 It was proved that the statements he had made were false.
20 It was understood that the delegation was keen to meet the Prime Minister.
11.E.8. Passive transforms using the infinitive. Rewrite the sentences in an
alternative passive form, beginning your sentence with the words in italics.
1 It is said that he is an honest, hard-working man.
2 It is considered that this surgeon is a brilliant practitioner.
3 It is now thought that some redundancies in the Company are inevitable.
4 It was proved that the statements he had made were false.
5 It was understood that the delegation was keen to meet the British Prime Minister.
6 It is believed that the Chancellor is thinking of imposing new taxes to raise extra
7 It is expected that the electricity supply industry will be running into surplus capacity
by next year.
8 It is reported that several Japanese manufacturers are planning to set up plants
9 It is expected that brewers will raise the price of beer in the near future.
10 It was claimed that the drug produced no undesirable side-effects.
12 It was alleged that the Prime Minister had misled the House.
13 It is believed that the Government has had second thoughts on this problem.
14 It was believed that the explosion had been caused by a mine.
15 It is presumed that the ship's radio equipment was put out of action during the fire.
16 It is thought that the driver had both legs broken in the crash.
11.E.9. Have/get + noun + past participle. Rewrite the sentences using a form of
have or get with the past participle of a suitable verb, making any other
necessary changes.
1 You should arrange to install central heating before winter comes. (have)
2 He is arranging for an artist to paint his wife's portrait. (have)
3 They were man and wife in 1980. (get)
4 Five years later, they were no longer man and wife. (get)
5 Drive carefully if you don't want to risk the police endorsing your licence again.
6 The tree was so diseased that we had to ask someone to cut it down. (have)
7 The authorities are encouraging mothers to arrange for the vaccination of their
children. (get)


Part 5: Passive

8 Someone has written all the answers in this book. (have)

9 She made an appointment with the optician for an examination of her eyes. (have)
10 Nobody would ever have beaten the champion if he had retired after his last fight.