Passive and Voice


Non prototypical associations of semantic roles and grammatical relations

Subjects are prototypically agents or experiencers. Direct  objects are  prototypically patients or themes, and indirect objects are prototypically recipients or addressees. The subject may sometimes express other semantic roles.

(1)      Patient       

          The branch broke

(2)      Recipient

          Maurice   received a care package from his mother.

Sometimes there are regular rules for creating verbs with exceptional semantic roles.  Here’s passive clause in English:

(3)      Arthur was startled by Lancelot.

Clearly, the subject of the clause is Arthur. Arthur has the syntactic and morphological characteristics of a subject. That is, it acts like other clear examples of subjects with respect to word order, agreement, and case. First, it occurs in the normal position for subjects in English: preceding the verb. Second, the verb be agrees with it, as can be seen by comparing (3)  with (4).

(4)      the knights were startled by Lancelot.

Third, if we replace Arthur with a pronoun. We get the subject case of the pronoun.

(5)      He/*him was startled by Lancelot.

But, even though Arthur is the subject, it does not refer to the agent, but rather to the patient. Again we see that the traditional definition of the subject as the ‘doer of the action’ (the agent) has so many exception that must be rejected as incorrect.

       On the other hand, the NP referring to the agent. Lancelot, is clearly not the subject, since it is part of an oblique PP, it occurs after the verb, it does not determine agreement on the verb, and any pronoun in that position is in the object case.

(6)      Arthur was/*were startled by the knights.

          Arthur was startled by him/*he.

So, the subject is not the agent and the agent is not the subject.

       It is important to make a careful distinction between form and meaning, between grammar and semantics, when we discuss language. Meaning provides misleading information about grammatical relations in some in some types of clauses. Grammatical relations are a part of grammar, so we must look to grammatical patterns rather than meaning to help us form hypotheses about the syntactic structure of clauses.

      Grammatical relations: word order, syntactic category membership (NP versus PP), omissibility of pronouns (pro-drop), case, and agreement.


Let’s look at passive clauses in a bit more detail. Each of the following clauses is passive.

(7)      a.   The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg.

  1. the town clock was struck by lightning at midnight last Saturday.
  2. Many new books were published this year.
  3. This course has been taught differently every semester.

Passives in English have several things in common. The subject typically has the semantic role of patient or theme, roles that we would normally expect of a direct object. The agent or experience is not necessarily expressed at all, but if it is, it occurs after the verb as the object of the preposition by. There is no syntactic direct object in a passive; passives are intransitive.

       As for morphology, the verb always appears in a form which has traditionally been called the past participle, i.e, the form which in regular verbs is formed by adding the suffix –(ed). The participle is preceded by some form of the auxiliary verb be.  Thus in a passive, be shows tense and agreement, and the participle does not.

      Which aspects of English passives are universal, and which are peculiar to English? As linguistics have analyzed many languages, they frequently find a type of verbal morphology which is like the English passive in certain ways. This type DETRANSITIVIZES a verb (i.e., turns a transitive verb into an intransitive) by doing two things:

(8)       a.   the direct object of the transitive verb becomes the subject of the intransitive.

  1. the subject of the transitive either becomes an oblique with the intransitive verb or is omitted entirely.

      When this morphology has been found, it has generally been called PASSIVE. The transitive verb is called the ACTIVE VERB, and the intransitive one is called the PASSIVE VERB or sometimes the PASSIVE FORM of the verb. The clauses are also named ACTIVE and PASSIVE, depending on the type of verb they contain.

       Passive is often considered to be a derivational process, rather than an inflectional one, for several reasons:

  • it changes the subcategory of the verb (it changes a transitive verb into an intransitive one( or even the category (from verb to adjective)
  • it involves a relatively major change in the meaning of the verb (in terms of the semantic role of the subject)
  • there is no syntactic rule that needs to refer to the distinction between active and passive verbs (it is irrelevant to the syntax)

       not all languages have passives; even when they do, the form and function of passives may be very different from what it is in English.

Adjectival and verbal passives

       In English, the verb form used in the passive is called the ‘past participle’ of the verb. Usually the past participle is identical to the past tense form of the verb, but not always.

(9)      Stem            Past tense               Past participle

          Create           created                   created

          Destroy         destroyed                destroyed

          Pinch            pinched                   pinched

          Bring             brought                  brought

          Say               said                        said

          Give             gave                      given

          Write            wrote                     written

          Sing             sang                       sung

The past participle has a variety of uses: when used in a passive, it is actually an adjective. It cannot occur by itself as a verb, but instead must follow nonactive verbs like be and seem. Also, it can modify nouns in noun phrases.

(10)    a.  The police officer was startled by the condition of the room.

  1. The occupant seemed puzzled by the search warrant.
  2. They arrested the confused man.

Passive in English apparently derives an adjective from a verb. However, this is an adjective that can have indirect objects and obliques associated with it as part of an adjective phrase, parallel to what happens in a verb phrase.

(11)    The reward was [AP  presented to the informant at the ceremony yesterday].

       In many other languages, passives are clearly verbs, not adjectives.

Long and short passives

      In many languages the agent (or other ‘former’ subject) may be expressed in a passive clause by some sort of oblique. The agent phrase is generally optional, which is appropriate for its status as an oblique.

(13)    a.   The banana was given to a friend (by John).

  1. He was seen (by the police)

(Note that an agent phrase is a new type of oblique.

When a language has a way of expressing an agent phrase in a passive clause, it is  said to have a LONG PASSIVE (even in sentences which omit the agent phrase). Here, the terms LONG and SHORT PASSIVE refer not to individual sentences, but to the type of passive construction that is used in a language. Thus, an English passive clause without agent phrase, such as ‘Superman was seen in Bombay’ is still considered to be an example of a long passive, because English allows the possibility of expressing an agent.

The meaning and function of passives in discourse

      Typically, passive is used to deemphasize the agent or experiencer when it is unimportant to the discussion or when the speaker wants to hide the information. For example, consider the following three sentences:

(15)    a.   Caviar is considered to be a delicacy.

  1. Harold considers caviar to be a delicacy.
  2. Caviar is considered by Harold to be a delicacy.

The passive in (15a), by omitting the agent phrase, is able to talk about caviar and its status as a delicacy without mentioning who considers it such.