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					SPRING2004                                                                  Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                                03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                                      Teacher Grammar References

                                     The Passive Voice

                Project Work, Part I: Analyzing Teacher Grammar References


       We have investigated the English passive voice using two teacher grammar

references: Quirk et al. (1985) and Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1999). Quirk et al.

state that the passive voice is one of the two categories of voice in English. They say that

voice “makes it possible to view the action of a sentence in two different ways without

changing the facts reported” (p. 159). Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman highlight that

voice “pertains to who or what serves as the subject in a clause” (p. 343).

       The other category of voice is the active voice, which is used far more frequently

than the passive voice, and both references discuss it in contrast to the passive. They both

emphasize that, while the doer, or agent, of some action is the subject of the active voice,

the receiver, or patient, of some action is the subject in the passive voice. Quirk et al.’s

illustration is helpful to show the contrast between the active and the passive:

              Active:       NP#1 + active verb phrase + NP #2

              Passive:      NP #2 + passive verb phrase + (by + NP#1)

                                                       (Quirk et al, p. 159-160, simplified and modified1)

Note that in these two voices the verb phrases are different as well as positioning of clausal

elements. By citing Langacker (1987), Clelce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman point out the

  The modification was that we put the last two elements – by + NP#1 – in a parenthesis since, according
to Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, “usually in passive sentences, the agent is not mentioned at all” (p.
344) and we agree with this idea.

SPRING2004                                                                  Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                                03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                                      Teacher Grammar References

matter of positioning; “the difference between [the two voices] … is a focal adjustment

analogous to the difference between “The cat is under the blanket” and “The blanket is

over the cat” (p. 343). At this point, it is important to emphasize that the passive is not a

mere reverse of the active voice. The two sources make this point by saying “the passive is

more limited than the active voice in that only transitive verbs may be in the passive”

(Clelce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, p. 346; see Quirk et al, p. 163). In other words, the

passive voice in English is the marked voice.

Forms of the passive voice

           Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman state that the auxiliary verbs be, get and have are

used to form the passive. In addition, these authors suggest that the basic construction of

the passive can be described as:

                   Passive  be/get/have ... past participle (vt.) 2

                   Ex.       Paul McCartney was knighted.                 (be-passive)

                             Barry got invited to the party.              (get-passive)

                             Mary had her purse snatched.                 (have-passive)

                                             (Examples from Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, p. 344-346)

Both sources acknowledge that be is the auxiliary verb most frequently used with the

passive. According to Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, the get- passive is commonly

used in informal conversations. Another variation of the passive construction is what is

referred to as the have-passive. Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman state that in the case of

    Vt. is a common abbreviation for a transitive verb.

SPRING2004                                                            Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                          03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                                Teacher Grammar References

the have-passive, a noun phrase intervenes between have and a past participle, thus this

construction is more complicated.

         Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman shows the following diagram in order to

illustrate how the passive voice works in relation to other grammatical devices such as

tense and aspect at the sentence-level.

 Potential                         (phrasal modal)(perfect)(progressive)(passive)
 Auxiliary            -imperative mood


                 (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman p. 344, abbreviations decoded and emphasis added)

The order of the elements in parentheses indicates the authors’ phrasal structure rules.

When used with phrasal modal, for instance, the passive appears after them, as in

“Diamonds are going to be minded in Botswana” (p, 346). The diagram also indicates that

the passive is affected by the preceding elements as in “Diamonds were being mined in

South Africa” (p. 346, the passive voice with the past tense and progressive aspect).

       Quirk et al. state that the agent-by phrase, which indicates the doer of some action

in the passive, is generally optional in the English passive. As a result, four out of five

English passive sentences have no expressed agent (p. 164). This omission occurs

especially when the agent is irrelevant or unknown (e.g., “The Prime Minister has often

been criticized recently”, Quirk et al., p. 164). In all passive clause types, the agent-by

phrase has the status of an optional adverbial even if the agent-by phrase is absent.

SPRING2004                                                                   Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                                 03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                                       Teacher Grammar References

        Finally, both sources discuss the distinction between two types of past participle:

one functioning as a passive verb and one serving as an adjective3.

Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman describe that, generally speaking, the passive past

participle is dynamic while the adjectival past participle is descriptive. In the case of

ambiguity, they say, the only distinguishing sentence-level feature is the use of by with a

noun phrase to mark an agent in the passive voice (p. 348).

        Ex.      The beans were refried.                    by someone (passive)

                 The beans were refried.             present state of the beans (adjective)

                                                                (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, p. 349)

The Meaning of the Passive Voice

        In discussing the meaning of the passive voice, both sources direct our attention to

semantic constraints as to when it is appropriate to use this form, especially over the active

voice, because of what it conveys. In fact, Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman emphasize

that for ESL/EFL students the learning challenge for the passive lies in learning when to

use the English passive rather than in learning how to form it (p. 344).

        Quirk et al. note that active and passive voices do not have the same prepositional

meaning and both sources say that the passive voice de-emphasizes the role of the agent

(Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, p. 347; Quirk et al., p. 165). There are several reasons

to defocus the agent of some action e.g. it is obvious, irrelevant, unknown, too general to

specify, or intentionally evaded. In the sentence, “Paul McCartney was knighted”, for

 Quirk et al. talk about this distinction in terms of passive sentences and copula sentences, in which a
past participle functions as an adjective.

SPRING2004                                                          Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                        03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                              Teacher Grammar References

instance, it is obvious and unimportant to mention that it is Queen Elizabeth who knighted

Paul McCartney. More importantly, the focus of this sentence is the event happened to Paul

McCartney, the subject of the sentence. Or in the case of “The bank was robbed yesterday”,

it is obvious that some robber robbed but we do not know exactly who it was. Finally, in a

situation where someone would say “An error was made in the budget”, it is likely that the

speaker is deliberately avoiding naming the agent(s) (examples are from Celce-Murcia and


       Quirk et al. suggest that the get-passive in particular puts the meaning on the subject

instead of the agent. Similarly, Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman introduce studies on the

meaning of the get-passive by Carter and McCarthy (1997) and Yim (1998). Carter and

McCarthy found that the get-passive tends to be used adversely as in “She got locked in.”

“He got killed.” (p. 348). Furthermore, Yim found that the get-passive occurred with verbs

from semantic categories related to physical assault (get hit), hindrance (get trapped),

transference (get snatched), and verbs of emotional or mental strain (get punished) (p. 349).

The Passive Voice and Speech Acts

       Information about passive voice and speech acts was unfortunately not present in

either of the teacher grammar references we reviewed.

SPRING2004                                                            Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                          03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                                Teacher Grammar References

The Passive Voice and Discourse Types

       Contrasting the active and passive voices, Quirk et al. suggest that there is a notable

difference in the frequency with which they are used. Active is by far more common, but

there is considerable variation among individual text types. Passive have been found to be

as much as ten times more frequent in one text than in another. In addition, Quirk et al.

suggest that the major stylistic factor which determines frequency is a distinction between

informative and imaginative prose, rather than a difference between spoken and written

English. Passive is more common in informative than imaginative writing and is more

frequent in the objective, impersonal style of scientific articles and news reporting.

Similarly, Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman introduce Bank’s argument (1997) that

“scientists choose to use the passive not so much due to their desire to sound objective as to

the fact that the theme of scientific writing deals with the apparatus or results of a study

rather than the person conducting the investigation” (p. 353).

The Passive Voice and Variation

         Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman introduces the middle voice, an intermediate

between active and passive voice, as another means to put a nonagentive noun phrase into

subject position. Likewise, according to Quirk et al., some active transitive verbs are called

Middle Verbs, which do not occur in the passive. These verbs are typically a stative class of

verbs of "being" or "having" (Ex. “John resembles his father.” p. 162). Similarly, Celce-

Murcia & Larsen-Freeman suggest that while some languages utilize reflexives to express

spontaneous occurrences (reporting happenings) English uses the middle voice with

SPRING2004                                                           Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                         03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                               Teacher Grammar References

ergative – or change-of-state verbs. They are special verbs that allow the object of a

transitive clause to be a subject of an intransitive clause without changing voice. (p. 350).

Please refer to the examples that follow for comparison of the three voices.

         Active:       Her high C shattered the glass.

         Passive:      The glass was shattered by her high C.

         Middle:       The glass shattered.

                                                         (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, p. 350)


       To highlight what we have learned in conclusion, these two sources seem to

emphasize the following points. Firstly, the passive is not just a mere reverse of the active

voice but it has its unique and complex semantic effects in using the English language.

Furthermore, even among passives the be-passives and the get-passives differ in meaning.

Secondly, by +agent phrase is generally absent for a variety of reasons; when it is irrelevant,

unknown, or too general to mention. At other times, we omit it because we are deliberately

evasive. Thirdly, although the usage of the passive varies considerably, it often signals a

shift in responsibility for an action or event, and this focus appears in the discourse genres

where passive is frequently used (e.g., scientific or informative writing). In other words, the

use of the passive is affected by discourse types.

SPRING2004                                                         Erin Bartolotta & Yuki Ryu
LIN530B Structure of English                                                       03/20/2004
Prof. Lynn Goldstein                                             Teacher Grammar References


Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL

          teacher’s course (2nd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G., Svortvik, J. (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the

          English language. New York: Longman.


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