Passive Constructions

Different Types of Passive Constructions

On the whole, active sentencesOpens in new window are more common than passive ones, especially in fictional writing.

The passive voice is used only when we specifically want to focus on the ‘recipient’ or ‘experiencer’ of an action, rather than on the agent. In other words, the focus shifts. For example, instead of Someone smashed the window, we can say The window was smashed or The window got smashed.

However, we will discuss the passive in much more detail here because different types of passive constructions are possible. The verb be (and sometimes get) can be used as a passive auxiliary to express that the speaker does not pick out the ‘actor’ or ‘agent’ as the main participant, but rather a ‘patient’, someone or something that is the receiver of an action. In other words, the first participant (the subject of the sentence) is not the one performing the action expressed by the lexical verb. Compare the next two sentences.

Active sentence
  • The boy held the balloon.
Passive sentence
  • The balloon was held high (by the boy).

In the active sentence the grammatical subject is the boy, who is seen as the main participant and who is doing the holding. In this sentence, the balloon is seen as the second participant and is therefore a direct object.

In the passive sentence, the grammatical subject is the balloon, which is now seen as the main participant, but which is not the ‘actor’ who does the holding.

If you compare these sentences you can see that they have similar meanings, but the main difference is that the second participant of the first sentence, the balloon is the first participant of the second sentence. Another difference is that the verb phrase has a be verb (was) followed by a past participle (held). The ‘actor’ is now mentioned in the adverbial by-phrase*.

Important Hint
*When the ‘old subject’ is not an ‘actor’ but an ‘instrument’, the preposition in the passive sentence is often another preposition like of, with or through as in The floor was littered with paper.

Since a passive sentence is possible only when an action is involved with at least two participants (after all, if that is not the case you cannot have the perspective shift from actor to undergoer), only transitive verbs are used in a passive construction. In other words, if you see a passive verb phrase, you automatically know that the lexical verb is a transitive one. But since there are different types of transitive verbs and different types of direct objects, these are discussed in more detail below.

  1. Monotransitive verbs and passive constructions

    As you have seen, there are three types of transitive verbs, those with one object (mono-transitive verbs), those with two objects (ditransitive verbs), and those with an object and object attribute (complex-transitive verbs). As you can see from the examples below, verbs such as reading, buy, and give may occur in different patterns.

    • He is reading a book.
    • He bought a bok.
    • He gave a book.
  2. Ditransitive verbs and passive constructions

    Sentences with two objects have two passive alternatives because either the second participant or the receiver may become subject of a passive sentence.

    Active sentence
    • John gave Mary a book.
    Passive sentence 1
    • Mary was given a book (by John).
    Passive sentence 2
    • A book was given to Mary (by John).
  3. Complex-transitive verbs and passive constructions

    Sentences with a direct object and an object attribute have one passive alternative. But how should the passive counterpart be analyzed? Note that when the ‘old’ direct object becomes the ‘new’ subject, the ‘old’ object attribute now says something about the subject, and therefore is no longer an object attribute, but a subject attribute. To remain consistent in naming the type of lexical verb, the lexicl verb in the passive construction is still a complex-transitive one.

    Active sentence
    • We considered him a nuisance.
    Passive sentence
    • He was considered a nuisance.
  4. Non-finite clauses and passive constructions

    Sentences with a non-finite clause functioning as direct object also have passive alternates. Usually, the subject of the non-finite clause becomes the subject of the passive sentence:

    • I know him to be a noisy guy.
    • He is known to be a noisy guy.
    • I certainly expect him to clean up his act soon.
    • He is certainly expected to clean up his act soon.

We just saw that an active sentence like I know him to be a noisy guy should be analyzed as follows:

I = S | know = P | him to be a noisy guy. = DO

This clear-cut solution is not without problems when you consider its passive counterpart. The subject of the non-finite clause may become the subject of the main clause as in He was known to be a noisy guy.

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