Further thoughts about passive voice

Many explanations of active and passive voice state that in active voice, the subject does the action, and in passive, it receives it. This explanation is inadequate, because there are many transitive verbs (that is, verbs requiring a direct object) in which there is no action, or if there is, the receiver of the action is not the direct object. There are several groups of these.

The first includes have, possess and own: I own this car. There may be an action in buying a car, but there is none in owning it. I may drive it less or more, but I would equally own it even if I never drove it. This car is owned by me is rather awkward by itself, but if we were focusing on ownership, I could say This car was owned by my father and my grandfather before him, and now it is owned by me.

The second includes senses. Watching, looking at or listening to may be actions, but seeing and hearing aren’t. I can see and hear an aeroplane without it receiving my sight or hearing. The last Concorde was seen and heard by many people.

The third includes emotions, including love, like and hate. My love isn’t an action, though the many things I say or do are. My wife may ‘receive‘ my love because she chooses to, but in my younger days, many women did not, either because they chose not to or because they plain didn’t know. I can admire one public figure and despise another, but they don’t receive anything from me. They don’t know I exist, or that I admire and despise them. An admired and despised historical figure certainly don’t receive anything from me, because they’re dead. 

The fourth includes do and perform, where the direct object is the action, and not the receiver: She did many good deeds for her elderly neighbour and The paramedic performed an emergency tracheotomy on the patient. The receiver is not ‘many good deeds’ and ‘an emergency tracheotomy’, but ‘her elderly neighbour’ and ‘the patient’. In fact, they are still in preposition phrases even in the passive voice equivalents, the rather awkward Many good deeds were done for her elderly neighbour by her and the less awkward An emergency tracheotomy was performed on the patient by the paramedic (even better An emergency tracheotomy was performed by the paramedic, or An emergency tracheotomy was performed – look, no actor and no (literal and grammatical) patient). 

The fifth is where the verb includes the idea of receiving, including get, receive and suffer: She received a beautiful bunch of flowers and He suffered a heart attack. In both cases the receiver (possibly in inverted commas in the second case) is the subject of the active voice sentence.

The sixth includes lack of action, including neglect, ignore and overlook: He neglects his garden. The grammatical object (the garden) doesn’t ‘receive the action’, because there is no action. 

Certainly, passive voice starts with the ideas of a ‘do-er’, an action and a ‘done-to’. Even Geoffrey Pullum, who is generally scathing about semantic explanations for syntactic categories and functions, writes (or co-writes with Rodney Huddlestone*): ‘In clauses describing some deliberate action, the subject is normally aligned with the active participant in the active voice, but with the passive participant (the patient) in passive voice’. He/they then goes/go on to say ‘Many clauses, of course, do not describe actions, but they can be assigned to the active and passive categories on the basis on their syntactic likeness to clauses like [his/their previous examples]’, and give examples using see and dislike. In my own explanations, I’ve usually added the word ‘usually’.

Some of the passive voice equivalents of the active voice sentences I’ve given are less natural. Maybe I could find more natural examples, but my point stands: active and passive voice can’t be explained entirely in terms of ‘do-er’, action and ‘done-to’. 

*A student’s guide to English grammar, Cambridge University Press, 2005


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