VOICE : Valence changing Morphology

Voice: the way in which a language expresses the relationship between a verb and NP which are associated with it.

Active and passive: two sentences can differ in voice and yet have the same basic meaning.

Verbs are classified according to the number of noun phrases they require to complete a sentence. The number is called the valency of the verb.

Give as in The sales girl gave Jane a parcel. Would have a valency of three.


Passive belongs to a class of phenomena which are referred to generally as VOICE, that is, derivational morphology which changes the valence of a verb, the semantic roles of its complements, or both.

      Languages vary in terms of how much variety they allow in the mapping from semantic roles to grammatical relations. In some languages, the mapping is very straightforward—agents are always subjects, patients are always direct objects, and so forth. Such languages do not have passives or other types of voice. So, don’t expect to find passives or other examples of voice in every language. But, the following are some of the more common types that occur.


        In many languages, there is a way of upgrading an indirect object to direct object, which is sometimes called DATIVE PASSIVE. For example, in English, It is a way of upgrading an indirect object to a direct object.

(16)    a.   I wrote the letter to my brother.

  1. I wrote my brother the letter.

In (16a), ‘letter’ is the direct object and ‘to my brother’ is the indirect object, as we might expect. Notice that the direct object is an NP and the indirect object is a PP using the preposition ‘to’. In (16b), things are different. The recipient ‘my brother’ is an NP, while the theme, ‘letter’, is the object of the preposition which is used for a variety of obliques. The most reasonable hypothesis is that direct object of (16b) is the recipient, ‘my brother’.

       There are passive clauses that correspond to both clauses in (16); the passive (17a) corresponding to (16a) has ‘the letter’ as subject, while the passive (17b) corresponding to (16b) has ‘my brother’ as subject.

(17)    a.   The letter was written to my brother.

  1. My brother was written the letter.

In other words, passive treats ‘my brother’ in (16b) as if it is the direct object, even though it is the recipient.

      Because of the prevalence of dative shift in the world’s languages, many linguists analyze the following pair of English sentences to be an example of dative shift, even though there is no overt morphology on the verb.

(18)    a.   Mary gave a kiss to John.

  1. Mary gave John a kiss.

Specifically, this analysis regards John in (18b) as a syntactic direct object, even though it is the recipient. This is somewhat different from the traditional analysis, which considers John in (18b) to be indirect object, following, what one might expect on the basis of semantics.

       We won’t try to settle the issue for English here. But, there are two points to be made: (1) It’s not uncommon to find the same data analyzed in more than one way.(2) It is legitimate to propose an analysis in which a direct object is a recipient. That is, when we analyze voice, we should pay attention to the grammatical characteristics of the various constituents in the clause. When we do, we may arrive at an analysis that we would not expect based solely on meaning.


Benefactive : N or NP that refers to person or animal who benefits, or is meant to benefit from the action of the verb.

       Some languages provide ways of changing obliques to direct or indirect objects. For example:

(19)    My wife prepares food for many poor families.

In (19), ‘many poor families’ is syntactically a benefactive, with the preposition ‘for’.   In (20), ‘cook’ is direct object and ‘market’ is a locative oblique.

(20)    The woman sent the cook to market.

 Such verb forms involving an oblique promoted to objecthood are sometimes called APPLICATIVES.


Most languages use some special device when the subject and object of a verb refer to the same person(s) or thing(s). that is, a special device is used to express situations that are REFLEXIVE (acting on oneself) or RECIPROCAL (acting on each other).

(21)    a.   I see myself in the mirror every morning.

  1. You will find yourself in a dimly-lighted room.
  2. They were beating themselves with freshly-cut branches.

(22)    a.   Now that it was getting light, we began to see each other.

  1. I think you will find each other to be very attractive.
  2. They were beating each other with freshly-cut branches.

Many languages have a special verb form, called a REFLEXIVE VOICE, which indicates that  the subject and direct object refer to the same person or thing.

(23)    Reflexive

          He/she is helping him/herself.

(24)    Nonreflexive

          He/she is helping him/her (i.e., someone else).

An important thing to note here is that the reflexive verb is intransitive in form, even though the meaning (at least from one perspective) is still transitive.


Causative verb: a verb which shows that someone or something brings about or causes on action or a state.

Example: Peter killed the rabbit.

In some languages there is a verbal suffix meaning roughly ‘to cause’ which derives CAUSATIVE verbs; these have more complements than the verbs they are derived from.

(25)    Hasan died.

          Ali killed Hasan (caused Hasan to die).

Just as with reflexives, all languages have a way of expressing causation, but not all do it with special morphology. Many simply have one or more verbs meaning ‘cause’ which take embedded clauses as their direct objects. This is true in English, for example:

(26)    a.   John ate supper.

  1. His mother made/had [John eat supper].
  2. His mother caused/forced [John to eat supper]


Some languages have a way of combining nouns with verbs called NOUN INCORPORATION or OBJECT INCORPORATION. Typically, a verb is combined with a noun that represents its direct object, as in (27b)

(27)    a.   The friends set the net.

  1. The friends set the nets (lit., were net-setting).

The formal analysis of passive 

Including semantic roles in lexical entries

      Recall why we want to include semantic roles in the lexical entries for verbs. Two verbs may have the same compliments (the same strict subcateforization), but different semantic roles, such as in the pairs of verbs below.

(47)              subject                    direct object            indirect object

          Walk   Agent

          Break  patient

          Make  Agent            Patient

          See     Experiencer    theme

          Give    Agent            Theme          recipient

          Tell     Agent            Theme          Addressee

Or, a verb such as break may be either intransitive or transitive, but the semantic role of the subject will be different.

(48)              Subject         Direct Object

          Break  Patient

          Break  Agent            Patient


Lexical entries for passives

(53)   The driver was murdered


The AP may or may not contain a PP. in (54) PP is interpreted as the Agent of the verb.

(54)   The driver was murdered (by George)