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passive voice

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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.

Passive voice can be used in any number of tenses.

Canonical passives

Passive constructions have a range of meanings and uses. The canonical use is to map a clause with a direct object to a corresponding clause where the direct object has become the subject. For example:

* 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 (it is promoted to the subject position) 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.

[edit] 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:

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

* John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book by John.

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 forms, the indirect object has been promoted and the direct object has been left in place. (In "A book was given to Mary", the direct object is promoted and the indirect object left in place. In this respect, English resembles dechticaetiative languages.)

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

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

In the passive form here, the preposition is "stranded"; that is, it is not followed by an object. (See Preposition stranding.) Indeed, in some sense it doesn't have an object, since "the problem" is actually the subject of the sentence.

[edit] 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:

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

[edit] 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:

* The rule was broken.

This sentence has two different meanings, roughly the following:

* [Someone] broke (violated) the rule.

* The rule was in the broken (dysfunctional) state.

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.

[edit] 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:

* 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.

[edit] 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.

[edit] 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:

* 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]

[edit] Other passive constructions

[edit] Past participle alone

A past participle alone usually carries passive force; the form of be can therefore be omitted in certain circumstances, such as signs, newspaper headlines, and reduced relative clauses:

* 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.

[edit] With get as the auxiliary

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

* 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, it typically only forms eventive passives of eventive verbs.

[edit] Ergative verbs

Main article: Ergative verb

An ergative verb is a verb that may be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when it is intransitive plays the same semantic role as its direct object when it is transitive. For example, fly is an ergative verb, such that the following sentences are roughly synonymous:

* 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 ergative 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.

[edit] 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's solving it.

[edit] 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:

* The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

* Generating electricity typically requires a magnet and a solenoid.

The same applies to infinitive constructions:

* The easiest way to make more space would be to install more shelving.

* The first step is to read the manual.

[edit] Usage and style

Many English educators and usage guides, such as The Elements of Style, discourage the use or overuse of the passive voice, seeing it as unnecessarily verbose (when the agent is included in a by phrase), or as obscure and vague (when it is not).[4] [5] However, the passive voice is commonly found in good writing, and many of those who claim that it is bad actually use it frequently themselves. It is even used in The Elements of Style in a sentence devoted to explaining why it should be avoided.[6]

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