Grammarbites part 11 – passive voice

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 10 – determiners

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

9.1 – Passive voice

(1a) Juliet is a young woman.

(1b) Juliet is in love.

(1c) Juliet is happy.

(2) The Prince banishes Romeo. > (2’) Romeo is banished by the Prince.

(3a) This makes Juliet sad. > (3a’) (?) Juliet is made sad by this.

(3aa) This saddens Juliet. > (3aa’) Juliet is saddened by this.

(3b) This makes Juliet cry. > (3b’) (?) Juliet is made to cry by this.

(4) Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion. > (4’) Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence. >> (4’’) (?) A potion is given Juliet by Friar Lawrence.

(4a) Friar Lawrence gives a potion to Juliet. > (4a’) A potion is given to Juliet by Friar Lawrence. >> (4a’’) To Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence.

(5) Juliet dies.

[For more about these sentence types, see here.]

Passive voice is often misunderstood — by students, teachers and people who write about it in books and online. Ignore anyone or anything which tells you not to use it, or to prefer active voice to passive.

Active and passive voice are ways of focusing our attention on one person (or thing) or another. In sentence (2) we are focused on the Prince and in sentence (2’) we are focused on Romeo.

But there are many restrictions of grammar and usage about how passive voice can and can’t be used. Sentences like (1a-c) and (5) can’t be changed into passive voice, while sentences like (3a’-b’) and (4’-4a’’) are possible but sometimes awkward and sentences like (2’) are very possible, often the better choice and sometimes the only choice.

Usually, to be able to be changed into passive voice, an active voice sentence needs a “do-er” (person or thing) (subject), an action (verb) and a “done to” (person or thing) (direct and/or indirect object). In sentences (1a-c), Juliet doesn’t “do” anything, she simply “is”. In sentence (5), she “does” something, but all by herself; she doesn’t do anything to another person or thing. Compare Juliet kills [someone or something].

In sentence (2), the “do-er” is the Prince, the action is banishment and the “done to” is Romeo. Passive voice doesn’t change these roles. In sentence (2’), the Prince is still the “do-er” even though he’s at the end of the sentence, and Romeo is still the “done to” even though he’s at the beginning.

In sentence 4, the “do-er” is Friar Lawrence and the “done tos” are the potion (directly) and Juliet (indirectly), which is why there are so many choices for that sentence.

In sentences (3a-b), the “do-er” is “This” (that is, Romeo’s banishment by the Prince), which is part of why sentences (3a’-b’) are awkward. But the whole sentence structure doesn’t really suit passive voice: (?) Juliet is made sad by Romeo’s banishment, Juliet is saddened by Romeo’s banishment, (?) Juliet is made to cry by Romeo’s banishment.

It is almost always possible to tell a story entirely in active voice, as in the original sentences. It is impossible to tell a story entirely in passive voice; sentences (1a-c) and (5) simply can’t be changed to passive voice.

Unfortunately, passive voice combines three of the hardest grammar points in English – verb be (usually), the past participle form of main verbs (usually) and subject and object pronouns (sometimes).

The active voice verb tells us the main verb and a verb tense. The passive voice equivalent needs verb [be] in that verb tense and the V-pp form of the main verb.

banishes

> is

banished

banishpresent simple

bepr simp

banishpp

Banish is a regular verb and its V-pp ends in -ed. Give is irregular (give~gave~given).

gave

> was

given

givepast simple

beps

givepp

Present simple and continuous passive involve a choice between are, am and is, and past simple and continuous passive involve a choice between were and was, depending on the subject of each sentence.

I, she, he, we and they as the subject of an active voice sentence become me, her, him, us and them in the “by x” part of the passive voice equivalent, and me, her, him, us and them as the object of an active voice sentence become I, she. he, we and they as the subject of the passive voice equivalent. (You and it do not change.)

So we can say The Prince banished Romeo or Romeo was banished by the Prince, while the Prince can say I banished Romeo or Romeo was banished by me and Romeo can say The Prince banished me or I was banished by the Prince.

Present perfect (simple and continuous) passive and past perfect (simple and continuous) passive need have/has/had been V-pp.

Modal passive (including will for future) needs can/couldwill/would be V-pp (simple), can/couldwill/would be being V-pp (continuous), can/couldwill/would have been V-pp (perfect (simple)) and can/couldwill/would have been being V-pp (perfect continuous). There is also be going to for future, which works similarly to the present tense verbs.

So the complete table of active and passive voice verb tenses is:

simple

continuous

perfect

perfect continuous

present – active

give / gives

are / am / is giving

have / has given

have / has been giving

– passive

are / am / is given

are / am / is being given

have / has been given

have / has been being given

past – active

gave

were / was giving

had given

had been giving

– passive

were / was given

were / was being given

had been given

had been being given

modal (inc future) – active

will give

will be giving

will have given

will have been giving

– passive

will be given

will be being given

will have been given

will have been being given

be going to (for future) – active

are / am / is going to give

are / am / is going to be given

are / am / is going to have given

are / am / is going to have been giving

– passive

are / am / is going to be given

are / am / is going to

be being given

are / am / is going to have been given

are / am / is going to have been being given

We most naturally use passive voice when the “done-to” or the action is more important than the “do-er”. This often happens when the “do-er” is unknown, irrelevant or obvious, or when the most important information is in an adjunct of place or time.

Someone informed the Prince that Romeo had returned to Verona. (possible)

> The Prince was informed that Romeo had returned to Verona (usual/natural).

Who by? We don’t know, or if we do, we don’t care. What’s important is that the Prince was informed.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in the early 1590s and the Lord Chamberlain’s men first performed in the Globe Theatre, London. (possible)

> Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare in the early 1590s and first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the Globe Theatre, London. (possible)

>> Romeo and Juliet was written in the early 1590s and first performed in the Globe Theatre, London. (usual/natural).

The first sentence combines one fact about “Shakespeare” and one fact about “the Lord Chamberlain’s Men”. The second and third sentences combine two facts about “Romeo and Juliet”. In fact, we often use passive voice to keep the focus on the same person, place or thing across two or more sentences: Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It was written in the early 1590s and first performed in the Globe Theatre, London.

But don’t use passive voice just because you can. Using it too much will become very awkward very quickly.

So why do some people say or write that we mustn’t or shouldn’t use passive voice? The most common reason is that it is “vague on agency” — that it, about the “do-er”. But Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare is just as clear about the “do-er” (Shakespeare) as Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.

In many cases, though, the “by x” part can be omitted. After Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt, Benvolio tells the Prince what happened and the Prince summarises: Romeo killed Tybalt because Tybalt killed Mercutio (active). He might say Tybalt was killed by Romeo because Mercutio was killed by Tybalt (full passive), but doesn’t say Tybalt was killed because Mercutio was killed (short passive), because “by who?” is crucial here.

But there are other sentences where no-one would ever omit the “by x” part: Romeo and Juliet was written, though we can easily say Romeo and Juliet was written in the early 1590s.

But active voice can be equally vague on agency. We have Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion (active), Juliet is given a potion by Friar Lawrence (full passive) and Juliet is given a potion (short passive). But we might just as easily say Juliet received a potion (active voice, but no mention of “by who?” (actually, “from who?”)).

In real life, people sometimes use passive voice deliberately, in order to be vague on agency. During a political crisis in the USA, someone said Mistakes were made. By who?

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Grammarbites part 10 – determiners

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 10 – determiners

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

A determiner goes before a noun to make a basic noun phrase, usually giving information about which one(s), whose, how many and how much? The most basic are a, which can be used with any singular countable noun, and the, which can be used with any noun: a/the pizza tastes good (singular countable), (-)/the pizzas taste good (plural countable), (-)/the pizza tastes good (uncountable). 

Pronouns can replace noun phrases, usually giving information about who or what? The most basic are I~me, you, she~her, he~him, it, we~us and they~them. Any singular and most uncountable noun phrases can become she, he or it, and any plural and a few uncountable noun phrases can become they: it tastes good, they taste good. Continue reading

Grammarbites part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 9 – Latin, Greek, French, Norse and English words

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

The word manage might look like it is made up of man and age, but it isn’t – the meaning of manage has nothing to do with the meanings of those two words. Instead, it is related to the Latin word manus, meaning hand. Other English words with similar meanings are maintain, manifest, maneouvre, manner, manual, manipulate, manuscript, manufacture, manure, manicure.

Similarly, the Latin word for foot is pes/pedis, from which we get words with meanings related to feet or travel: biped, expedition, impede, pedal, pawn, pedestrian, pedestal, pedigree, pioneer, pedicure.

At the same time, the Greek word for foot is podós, from which we get the very similar words podiatry, podium and tripod, and the word for hand is kheír, from which we get chiropractic/chiropractor.

Many English words are built on a root taken from Latin or Greek, sometimes a whole word, but often just part of it. Sometimes the connection and meaning is clear, other times people know only by looking in dictionaries or on the internet. Sometimes the Latin and Greek roots are very similar (pes/pedis and podós) and sometimes they are very different (manus and kheír).

But not all man– words are related to hands, or ped-/pod– words to feet. Some man– words are related to Latin manēre, meaning stay (permanent, remain), or Greek mania, meaning crazy (manic, maniac), and some ped– words are related to Greek paîs, paidós, meaning child (p(a)ediatric, pedagogue, pedant). Continue reading

Grammarbites part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 1 – introduction

Part 8 – Building words, prefixes and suffixes

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 7 – pronunciation – the basic sounds of English

Part 4 – pronunciation – consonant clusters

This batch took me forever! Prefixes and suffixes are a major and sometimes overlooked aspect of English. The websites and books I consulted either had too little information with a random selection of prefixes and suffixes, or too much information (Wikitionary has 1,443 prefixes and 703 suffixes). Among other things, the same letter or group of letters can function in different ways: sometimes as a prefix or suffix with one meaning (or one of a small group of different meanings), sometimes as an integral part of a word which had that meaning originally, but which now doesn’t, and sometimes as a completely unrelated word. I had to find the right number of best examples Continue reading

Grammarbites part 7 – Pronunciation

Part 1 – introduction

Part 6 – sentence types

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

this part goes in here

Part 4 – consonant clusters

1 – The basic sounds of English

Standard English uses 44 basic sounds (phonemes). They all occur in the following sentence:

Catching weary waterfowl on thin ice gives surly polar bears huge pleasure and ensures they enjoy good meat unharmed.

(This sentence was written by Richard Gunton and posted to the blog Literal Minded.)

meat; unharmed — on; thin; and; ensures; enjoy; unharmed — catching

polar — bears — waterfowl; meat — and; good; unharmedcatching — gives; good

catching — huge; enjoy


thin — they — waterfowl — gives — ice; surly — gives; bears; ensures — ensures — pleasure — huge; unharmed

weary; waterfowl — waterfowl; surly; polar; pleasure — weary — h(y)uge

catching; thin; gives — pleasure; ensures; enjoy — catching; and — unharmed — on — good — polar; pleasure

weary; surly; meat — surly — unharmed — waterfowl — huge

theyice — enjoy — weary — bears — ensures — waterfowl — polar

Continue reading

Grammarbites part 6 – sentence types

Part 1 – introduction

Part 5 – nouns

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

1 – Five basic sentence types

(1a) Juliet is a young woman.
(1b) Juliet is in love.
(1c) Juliet is happy.

(2) The Prince banishes Romeo.

(3a) This makes Juliet sad.
(3b) This makes Juliet cry.

(4) Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion.

(5) Juliet dies.

Continue reading

Grammarbites ch 5 – Nouns

Part 1 – introduction

[when I put the whole thing in order, Nouns will come here]

Part 2 – auxiliary and modal verbs

Part 3 – regular and irregular main verbs

Part 4 – consonant clusters

I am currently wading through many explanations in grammar books and online of countable and uncountable nouns. Many sources have too many examples, many have too few. My challenge is to provide you with a good amount of representative examples, with some rhyme or reason.

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Grammarbites ch 3

I seem to be on a roll about Grammarbites (I have now decided on Grammarbites rather than Microgrammar), especially about verbs, which I find more interesting than anything else – I don’t know why. The first two installments are here and here.

Vs and Ving – spelling and pronunciation

All main English verbs have at least V/plain present, Vs and Ving forms. Regular verbs also have a V-ps/V-pp form, which is made by adding –ed to the V form. Irregular verbs have either no, one or two additional forms for V-ps and/or V-pp. There are about 100 common and 50 uncommon irregular verbs.

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3rd anniversary, 400th post

I know my blogiversary is the 1st of November, but I found out recently that I was coming up on 400 posts, so it seemed a good idea to combine the two. (By the way, the stats tell me that that I’ve had more readers already this year than in the whole of last year. I welcome/encourage comments, please, please, please!)

I have recently started a series called Microgrammar or Grammarbites, I can’t quite decide. The first installment is here. Following that, I probably should have first written about nouns and pronouns, but I’ve had verbs on my mind.

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