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Linguistic Topic # 8:

Voice. Conditions for Passivisation

R. Quirk

The term VOICE is used to describe one of the major verb categories: that which
distinguishes the active verb phrase (ate) from the passive one (was eaten). There are
two major prerequisites:

• The passive construction (when it appears) occurs in final position in the VP

• Voice is a category, which concerns not only VPs, but also the clause.

I. Voice Defined

1. Voice is a grammatical category, which makes it possible to view the action of

the sentence in two possible ways, without changing the facts reported1:
• Active (→ The clerk gave me the form)
• Passive (→ The form was given to me by the clerk)

2. As the examples above show, the active-passive relation involves two

grammatical levels:
• Verb phrase
• The Clause

2.1. Voice on the level of the VP

• A verb phrase is considered to be active, when it does not contain the following
Auxiliary BE + -ed participle2,3
• If the phrase contains it, it is therefore a passive one

Corresponding active and passive constructions do not always have the same value, however. Compare:
→ Every child knows one joke at least (whomever the child, he/ she knows some joke)
→ One joke at least is known by every child (there is one particular joke that every child knows)
This construction is referred to as a Type D construction in the following topic #9
The prepositional phrase (agent by-phrase) of passive sentences is generally an optional element. Smetimes ‘get’
appears as the passive auxiliary:
(1) Note that ‘get’ tends to be limited to constructions without an expressed animate agent
→The cat got run over
(2) Furtermore, the get-passive is avoided in formal style and even in informal English it is far less frequent than
the be-passive.
(3) It is presumably because of the emphasis which ‘get’ places on the subject referent’s condition (usually an
unfavourable condition) that the agent is less usual with the get-passive
→ How did that window get opened? (typically implies: ‘It should have been left shut!’)

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2.2. Voice on the level of the clause

Clauses containing a NP as object are distinguished by the fact that they are usually
matched by passive clauses, in which the object noun phrase now appears as subject.
→ They (S) considered (V) him (O) a genius (C)
→ He (S) was considered (Vpassive) a genius (Cs) by them (Agent)
At the clause level, changing from the active to the passive involves rearrangement of
two clause elements and one addition:
• The active subject becomes the passive agent
• The active object becomes the passive subject
• The preposition ‘by’ is introduced before the agent

II. Conditions for Passivisation

Although it is a general rule that the transitive4 verb sentences can be either active or
passive, there are a number of exceptions, where the active (transitive) and passive
sentences are not in systematic correspondence. There are five kinds of ‘voice
constraint’ associated respectively with:
(1) The verb
(2) The object
(3) The agent
(4) Meaning
(5) Frequency of use

1. Verb constraints

1.1. Active only

There are greater restrictions occurring on verbs in the passive than on verbs in the
active. Verbs that cannot take the passive are:
• Intransitive verbs (→ I sing)
• Copular verbs5
• Some transitive verbs, called ‘middle verbs’: they belong to the stative class
of verbs of ‘being’ and ‘having’.
→ They have a nice house
He lacks confidence
The auditorium holds 500 people
John resembles his father
The dress becomes her

1.2. Passive only

Conversely, there some verbs and verb constructions, which occur only in the passive:
• → John was said to be a good teacher (* They said him to be a good

Transitive verbs are followed by an object (enjoy, consider, put etc.), while intransitive verbs are followed
by no obligatory element and occur in clause type SV.
Copular verbs are usually followed by a subject, complement or an adverbial (become, be)

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• → He was born in Amsterdam (* His mother bore him in Amsterdam)
• → The old man fell into the water and was drowned (not equal to ‘…and
someone drowned him)

1.3. Prepositional Verbs

Prepositional verbs consist of a lexical verb followed by a preposition. It is only in the

abstract figurative use that prepositional verbs and many other idiomatic expressions
accept the passive:
→ The expected result was eventually arrived at (* not: The coliseum was
eventually arrived at)

2. Object constraints

The object can be:

• Phrasal object (→She posted a new letter. A new letter was posted by her)
• Clausal object: with clausal object passive transformations are restricted in use
→ Finite clause: John thought that she was attractive (*not: That she was
attractive was considered by him)
→Non-finite: infinitive: I hoped to meet her (*not: To meet her was hoped
by me)
→ Non-finite: participle: I enjoyed seeing her (*not: seeing her was enjoyed by
• Pronoun: if the object is one of the following pronouns, it does not take the
- reflexive pronoun (→ She brushed herself)
- reciprocal pronoun (→ They could not understand each other)
- possessive pronoun (→She brushed her hair)

However, with finite clauses as objects the passive often becomes acceptable if:
• The clausal object is replaced by the anticipatory pronoun ‘it’
→ John thought that she was attractive
→ It was thought that she was attractive
• The subject of the object clause is made the subject of a passive superordinate
→She was thought to be attractive

3. Agent constraints

Unlike the subject, the agent by-phrase (sometimes for-phrase) is usually optional
(approximately 4 out of 5 passive sentences in English have no expressed passive
agent). Omission occurs especially when:
• The agent is unknown (→Order had been restored without bloodshed)
• The agent is left out as redundant (→ John and Michael fought last night and
john was beaten)

Yet, in some sentences the agent is not optional:

→ The music was followed by a short interval

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4. Meaning constraints

The difference of order brought about by changing an active sentence into a passive
one or vice versa may well make a difference:
• In emphasis (see footnote 1)

• Shift of modal meaning

→ He cannot finish it (ability)
→ It cannot be finished by him (possibility)
→ She wouldn’t ride the grey mare (she refuses to)
→ The grey mare wouldn’t be ridden by her (the mare refuses to)

• Shift of the perfective aspect

→ Winston Churchill has twice visited Harvard (could be said if Churchill
was still alive)
→Harvard has been visited twice by Winston Churchill (Harvard is still
there, so it could be said even nowadays)

• The scope of negatives and quantifiers (see footnote 1)

5. Frequency contrasts

The major factor determining the frequency of use of the passive and the active voice
in a text seems to be related to the distinction between:
• Informative texts (more common use of the passive, especially when it comes
to objective impersonal style of scientific articles and news reporting);
• Imaginative texts (predominant use of active voice)

The passive becomes very much rarer with other complex constructions (AD, BD,
ACD6), perhaps in part because of avoidance of the ‘be being’ sequence.
→ The parliament has been consistently voting against the proposed tax
→ *The proposed tax reforms has been being consistently voted against.

See LT#9, p.3

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III. The Passive Gradient

The purely formal definition of the passive (the clause containing the construction be
(get) + -ed participle) is very broad. Yet, there are certain clauses that contain the
construction in question, but cannot be considered as being in the passive:
→ The building is already demolished.
The clause above should not be considered as passive because it does not correspond
to an active verb phrase or clause (unlike ‘The violin was made by my father’, for

1. Central Passives

The sentences, which have a direct active-passive relation, are called ‘central’ or ‘true’
passives. Examples are:
→ The violin was made by my father (My father made the violin)
→ This conclusion is hardly justified by the results (The results hardly justify
this conclusion)

The most common type of passive is that which has no expressed agent (‘agentless
→ This difficulty can be avoided in several ways.

2. Semi-passives

Semi-pasives or ‘mixed’ passives are sentences whose members have both verbal and
adjectival properties.
2.1. They are verb-like in having active analogues and the possibility of agent
→ This person was interested in our organization. Our organization
interested this person

2.2. On the other hand their adjectival properties include the possibility of:
• Coordinating the participle with an adjective (interested person)
• Modifying the participle with quite, rather, more etc.
• Replacing ‘be’ by a copular verb such as ‘feel’ or ‘seem’

3. Pseudo-passives

Pseudo-passive are sentences, where the be+-ed construction is only in a superficial

form, but in terms of meaning it does not correspond to an active structure, nor there
is a possibility of agent addition:
→ The building is already demolished
The sentence above is pseudo-passive, because its active correspondent will not be
‘*Someone already demolishes the building’, but ‘Someone has already demolished
the building’. Also, in this case ‘demolish’ has the adjectival properties listed above.

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