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    Quote Originally Posted by Shek View Post
    It is active voice. The verb doing the action was changed from bite to receive. Who is receiving the object? The boy.
    But the action has to occur before the boy can recieve so its passive voice. Its a classic example from the Harbrace- When a verb is in a passive voice, the subject is the reciever of the action.

    Actually, it's a fragment
    true, but still passive since there is no actor.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ArmchairGeneral View Post
    Heh. Seriously, though, the rule about passive voice is almost completely unhelpful for most people- anyone whose grasp of English is good enough to reliably identify the passive voice is probably a good enough writer that they don't need rules like that. And there are plenty of good writers who are completely incapable of identifying passives, as Language Log has tirelessly documented.
    But learning to identify passive voice helps people become more effecitve writers. I have worked with hundreds of students who did not know the basics of effecitve writing- thesis, person and voice.

    All it does is make people worry about their writing unnecessarily. Rules for writing should be simple, easy to understand, and with few and/or clearcut exceptions.

    Of course, this is all coming from someone who managed to avoid all but the most minimal grammar instruction...and a fan of the notorious Strunk 'n White haters at Language Log, to boot. Ignorant and biased, a perfect combination. [/QUOTE]

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    The Little, Brown Handbook, Tenth Edition, 2007

    A passive verb always consists of a form of be plus the past participle of the main verb.
    Bolded emphasis mine. Seems like the rules of grammar have not changed in the intervening decade since my undergraduate text.
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

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    Delayed comeback for teh winz!!
    I enjoy being wrong too much to change my mind.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shek View Post
    The Little, Brown Handbook, Tenth Edition, 2007

    A passive verb always consists of a form of be plus the past participle of the main verb.
    Bolded emphasis mine. Seems like the rules of grammar have not changed in the intervening decade since my undergraduate text.

    You left out the 'to' before 'be' but my agile mind caught your meaning. Anyhow, I was taught that any form of "to be" plus a past participle is passive. However, any form of "to be" alone, without a past participle, is not necessarily passive. Example: "I am sick of grammer arguments."
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    Quote Originally Posted by JAD_333 View Post
    You left out the 'to' before 'be' but my agile mind caught your meaning. Anyhow, I was taught that any form of "to be" plus a past participle is passive. However, any form of "to be" alone, without a past participle, is not necessarily passive. Example: "I am sick of grammer arguments."
    That's how I've always understood it, as well. Now, are you trying to start a spelling argument
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

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    Quote Originally Posted by ArmchairGeneral View Post
    Delayed comeback for teh winz!!
    Had to fix my mother-in-law's garage door and grabbed my English text that I had while I was teaching.
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shek View Post
    Had to fix my mother-in-law's garage door and grabbed my English text that I had while I was teaching.
    You used an English-text to fix a garage door!?!?!?!

    You gutz mad handyman skillz!
    “We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.”
    ― T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

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    No, the text was on how to fix garage doors...
    Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Shek View Post
    That's how I've always understood it, as well. Now, are you trying to start a spelling argument
    Not on your life.
    To be Truly ignorant, Man requires an Education - Plato

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    Quote Originally Posted by JAD_333 View Post
    You left out the 'to' before 'be' but my agile mind caught your meaning. Anyhow, I was taught that any form of "to be" plus a past participle is passive. However, any form of "to be" alone, without a past participle, is not necessarily passive. Example: "I am sick of grammer arguments."
    However he is still missing the point. Passive voice is a form of writing in which the actors in the sentence come after the action, or appear to be reactionary.

    The house got forclosed on and John had to move.= passive.

    John moved after the house was foreclosed.= active

    John is doing something- moving. Moving is not happening to him.

    Passive voice leads to wordy often hard to understand sentences becuase the actors get mixed up.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zraver View Post
    However he is still missing the point. Passive voice is a form of writing in which the actors in the sentence come after the action, or appear to be reactionary.
    It seems to me, Z, we are talking about two different things, grammar and style. Grammar is about structure only. Style is about color, tempo, and usage.

    Shek and me are saying that grammar recognizes two different ways of expressing the relationship between subject and action. Active and passive. If I say, "I walked the dog," I'm speaking in the active voice. Whereas if I say, "the dog was walked by me," I'm speaking in the passive voice. The subject, action and object haven't changed from one sentence to the next. What changed was their relationship or order within the sentence. Grammar, which is essentially about how language is used to express ideas, notes the difference and gives each an appropriate name according to its nature: active or passive. To argue that the passive voice can be active or vice versa is contradictory in terms of grammar. But the stylistic concept of active could very well be satisfied using a sentence constructed in the passive voice, but the voice wouldn't change.

    The house got forclosed on and John had to move.= passive.

    John moved after the house was foreclosed.= active

    John is doing something- moving. Moving is not happening to him.

    Passive voice leads to wordy often hard to understand sentences becuase the actors get mixed up.
    lol...I am battling to keep all my houses...

    The first clause of the first sentence is missing a subject. "House" can't be the subject and the object at the same time. Therefore, voice is in question. The second clause could stand alone as a sentence and is active. And look at that ugly dangling participle, but that's another topic.

    The second sentence is indeed active, but the phrase "the house was foreclosed", is awkward, inasmuch as "foreclosed" is a verb and in this case has no corresponding subject. But I understood what you meant, and I guess that's all that matters in everyday language. The correct way would be to say, "the house was lost to foreclosure" or better yet "the bank foreclosed on John's mortgage."
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    Quote Originally Posted by zraver View Post
    However he is still missing the point. Passive voice is a form of writing in which the actors in the sentence come after the action, or appear to be reactionary.
    Z,

    I am not missing the point. Passive voice is a very explicit grammatical term and refers to a very specific grammatical construction. You've identified a necessary but not sufficient piece of that construction. The verb phrase in the passive voice . . . includes the auxiliary verb be and the past participle of the main verb (if you are speaking/writing colloquially, then you can substitute get for be).

    In using an insufficient rule, you have misdiagnosed several cases of active voice as passive voice, resulting in potentially unnecessary changes that are based on stylistic preferences.

    Quote Originally Posted by zraver
    Passive voice leads to wordy often hard to understand sentences becuase the actors get mixed up.
    No disagreement here. The question becomes one of context - where is the best place to focus emphasis - on the actor or recipient. Typically, it's on the actor, but that is not a golden rule, and your qualification of "often" is wholly appropriate.
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

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    Language Log finally got around to explaining what grammatical passiveness means (according to one linguist, anyway). I did not, in fact, read the whole thing, because I am not a grammatician or a linguist, and did not understand all of what I did read. I merely post in the hope that others will join me in acknowledging and celebrating grammatical ignorance. I don't really know how to identify the passive voice, and I never will. Hooray!

    Quote Originally Posted by Language Log

    Numerous Language Log posts by me, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky among others have been devoted to mocking people who denigrate the passive without being able to identify it (see this comprehensive list of Language Log posts about the passive). It is clear that some people think The bus blew up is in the passive; that The case took on racial overtones is in the passive; that Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened is in the passive; and so on. Our grumbling about how these people don't know their passive from a hole in the ground has inspired many people to send us email asking for a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I'll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay; I can't make it simpler than it is. There is no hope of figuring out the meaning of grammatical terms from common sense, or by looking in a dictionary. Passive (like its opposite, active) is a technical term. Its use in syntax has nothing to do with lacking energy or initiative, or assuming a receptive and non-directive role. And the dictionary definitions are often utterly inadequate (Webster's, for example, is simply hopeless on the grammatical sense of the word). I will try to explain things simply and accurately. If I fail, then the whole of your money will be refunded.

    I won't be talking about passive sentences or passive verbs. Sentences are too big and verbs are too small. We need to talk about clauses. A clause consists, very roughly, of a verb plus all the appropriate things that go with that verb to complete a unit that can express a proposition, including all the optional extras modifying that proposition. Sentences can contain numerous clauses, some passive and some not, so talking about passive sentences doesn't make any sense. Nor does "passive construction" if you define it, as Webster's does, as a type of expression "containing a passive verb form". That would be far too vague even if English had passive verb forms; but in fact it doesn't have any such thing.

    This essay avoids using the rather strange traditional term for the distinction in which active is one choice and passive the other: voice. It mainly serves to confuse people. The active/passive "voice" contrast has nothing to do with finding your voice or having a loud voice or the authentic voice of an oppressed people.

    I'll need to use three abbreviations: a noun-phrase like a storm or the roof or City Hall will be referred to as an NP; a verb-phrase like blew in or damaged the roof as a VP; and a preposition-phrase like with the others or by a bear as a PP.

    Fasten your seatbelt; here we go. Ten short sections follow. You can ignore the footnotes at the end of section 7 without much loss.

    1. English has a contrast between kinds of clause in which one kind has the standard mapping between grammatical subject and semantic role and the other switches those roles around. In the kind of clause called passive some non-subject NP you would expect within the VP is missing, and instead the VP is understood with that NP as its subject.

    Take the verb damage as an example. Active uses of it involve a subject NP denoting a causer or initiator of damage — call that participant the wrecker. There is also a direct object NP, denoting something that suffers or undergoes damage; call that entity the victim. An active clause with the verb damage would be something like Hail damaged City Hall. Notice that the subject NP (hail) denotes the wrecker. In a passive use of damage (I won't give one just yet, but I will in a minute) you would see a form of the verb damage used in such a way that the subject of the clause does not denote the wrecker; it denotes the victim.

    (What about the NP that denotes the wrecker, then? As we'll see, it doesn't have to be expressed at all in a passive clause. If it is expressed, it is put into a PP in the VP, with the head preposition by: you would add by hail to the VP.)

    2. Crucial to the form of passive clauses is the notion of a participle. Nearly all verbs in English (though not quite all) have two tenseless forms with special endings: the past participle, which typically ends in -ed (but for irregular verbs may end in -en or -t or have no ending or may have some yet more irregular form), and the gerund-participle, which always ends in -ing. Here are a few example forms for various verbs (I include for each verb the plain form that you would look up in the dictionary plus the 3rd singular present form ending in -s, and the preterite or simple past tense form, followed by both the participles in red):

    (Unreadable table redacted)

    Notice that for fully regular verbs like damage and nibble, and for some irregular verbs, the past participle is identical in written form and pronunciation to the preterite form.

    The relevance of participles is that a passive clause always has its verb in a participial form. (In the vast majority of cases it's the past participle, but there is an exception, to be considered later, in section 7.)

    3. The next thing to note is that participles never have tense, yet virtually all kinds of English independent clauses are required to have tense. This means that a clause formed of a subject and a participial VP understood in the switched-around manner — what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls a bare passive clause — can hardly ever stand on its own. But there are a couple of exceptions. One is newspaper headlines. Here is an imaginary headline that has the form of a passive clause and nothing else:

    "City Hall damaged by hail"

    Who or what is the wrecker here, semantically? The hail. And the victim? Obviously, City Hall, which is the subject of the clause that makes up this headline. The usual roles are reversed. Normally the wrecker would be denoted by the subject NP, placed before the verb, and the victim would be denoted by the object NP, after the verb. But in the headline above they are switched.

    Bare passive clauses are not only seen in headlines; one other place you see them is when they are used as modifiers. It's somewhat literary, but common enough. A few examples, with the bare passive clause modifier underlined:

    That said, we should not forget that it has also done some good.

    The day's work done, they made their way back to the farmhouse.

    4. The imaginary headline City Hall damaged by hail is not an ordinary independent clause in non-headline contexts. To make it into an ordinary independent clause, we need to give it a tense, either present or preterite. But the verb of the passive clause has to be a participle, so it can't have tense. So there has to be an extra verb.

    One verb that very commonly accompanies passive clauses is the item known to linguists as the copula. Its plain form is be, and the other forms are am, are, aren't, is, isn't, was, wasn't, were, weren't, been, and being. English often makes passive clauses into tensed clauses by using some tensed form of the copula. The subject goes before the copula rather than before the participle in the passive clause, and the rest of the passive clause comes after the copula (it's an internal complement in the VP).

    So to express in the preterite tense the claim that hail damaged City Hall, we could employ the verb was (that is, be in the preterite form that is appropriate for a third-person singular subject), with City Hall in the grammatical subject function, and following that the past participle damaged. To make the wrecker explicit, as I said above, we simply add the PP by hail. The result is the sentence on the right below:

    ACTIVE CONSTRUCTION PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION
    Hail damaged City Hall. City Hall was damaged by hail.

    The verb was adds no real meaning of its own to the passive; it just enables the whole thing to be in the preterite tense so that the event can be asserted to have occurred in the past. Changing was to is would put the clause into the present tense, and replacing it by will be or is going to be would permit reference to future time; but damaged by hail would stay the same in each case. The participle damaged does not itself make any past time reference.

    5. Using the copula is not the only way to make a passive clause that says hail has damaged City Hall. It is often true that a passive clause contains the copula, but not always. This is why it is so disastrous that ignorant writing tutors circle all forms of the copula they notice, writing "Don't use the passive" in the margin (take a look at this terrible example). They are picking up on something that only sometimes occurs near passive clauses. Many passives don't have the copula, and many uses of the copula are not associated with passives. The other verbs that sometimes accompany passive clauses include come, get, go, have, hear, make, need, see, and a few others (though there are all sorts of limitations on the constructions that different verbs require). Here are a few examples, with the main clause verb boldfaced and the passive clause underlined:

    Mary got arrested at the demonstration yesterday.
    Don't get your private life discussed by the newspapers.
    I saw him attacked by a flock of birds.
    I had this made for me by a carpenter.
    Susan had her car stolen last week.
    The problems with the building went unnoticed by the owners for weeks.
    This software comes pre-installed by the manufacturers.
    All of these examples will typically go unidentified as passives if you ask bad writing tutors or trust bad grammar-checking programs. (So will the foregoing sentence.)

    6. In all of the examples so far, the NP missing from the VP is a direct object. Transitive verbs like arrest, discuss, attack, make, notice, install, etc., just have one NP in the VP, and it's the direct object. In a passive, it is the NP that turns up as the subject. But this is one more thing that is not always true in passives, but only sometimes.

    First, the non-subject NP can be an indirect object. That's what we see here:

    ACTIVE CONSTRUCTION

    The School gives each graduate student a laptop.

    PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION

    Each graduate student is given a laptop.

    Second, more interestingly, the non-subject NP can be inside a PP: it can be the complement of a preposition in the active. This is what we see in the following active/passive pair, where the active has a PP (enclosed in brackets) and in the passive version there is a stranded preposition (I put the relevant PP in square brackets, and show by ‘__’ the gap in the passive where the missing NP would have been.):

    ACTIVE CONSTRUCTION
    His classmates sneered [at him].

    PREPOSITIONAL PASSIVE CONSTRUCTION
    He was sneered [at __] by his classmates.

    This construction is the prepositional passive (some linguists have called it the pseudo-passive). All the verbs that take passive clause complements can take prepositional passives. In the following examples the passive clause is underlined, but I don't bother to show the gap after the stranded preposition:

    Mary got picked on at the demonstration yesterday.
    Don't get your private life talked about by the newspapers.
    I saw him pecked at by a flock of birds.
    I had this worked on by a carpenter.
    If you've ever had your poetry laughed at by an audience you'll know how I feel.
    The problems with the building went unlooked at by the owners for a long time.

    In English prepositional passives are quite frequent, especially in relatively informal style. Most languages don't have anything like it (Norwegian is a rare example of a language that does).

    There are some peculiar restrictions on prepositional passives in English. One is that there can be a difference in acceptability according to whether the subject denotes an entity that is tangibly altered in state: This bottom bunk has been slept in is dramatically more acceptable than ??This bottom bunk has been slept above, apparently because sleeping in a bunk bed alters its state (the sheets are wrinkled and so on), while sleeping in the top bunk above it doesn't alter its state at all. Intuitively, you use a prepositional passive when the VP expresses a relevantly important property of the subject. That's a restriction on prepositional passives, because there is nothing peculiar about the active version Someone has slept above this bottom bunk. (Why would a language have a restriction like that? Who knows. I don't make or try to enforce any of the rules; I am merely trying to explain what the rules seem to be.)

    7. The participle in a passive clause is nearly always a past participle, but not quite always: most dialects of English have a construction called the concealed passive in which the verb of the passive clause is in the gerund-participle form. Most commonly a concealed passive clause follows the verb need, as in these examples:

    It needed washing anyway.
    That rash needs looking at by a specialist.
    In these examples washing and looking are gerund-participles, but the sense is still clearly the one that indicates the passive — the subject of wash does not denote the person who does the washing, and the subject of look does not denote the specialist.

    Four footnotes:
    Note 1. For some speakers there are a few verbs other than need that allow this construction. Want may allow it, for example.

    Note 2. There are people (some of them Americans) who say It needs washed; but I think that is accounted for by simply saying that they allow need to take a subjectless passive clause complement just like get does.

    Note 3. In the 18th century there was another passive-like construction with a gerund-participle: the so-called passival, as in His tooth was pulling out by a dentist, where a gerund-participle is the complement of the copula. That is another matter, and a purely historical one; but see this post for recent Language Log discussion of the passival.

    Note 4. I am not dealing here with the case of those few transitive verbs that are sometimes used intransitively with the subject understood the way the object would have been understood: cases like His books sell quite well, which means something like "The enterprise of somebody selling his books is going quite well". This construction is sometimes called the middle. Notice that it differs from the passive in that it can't take a by-phrase.

    8. You can of course leave out all reference to the agent in a passive, precisely because the agent isn't the subject, and only the subject is fully and always obligatory in a tensed clause:

    The mayor had the building torn down.

    That doesn't express the identity of the agent of the actual physical tearing down at all — though in this case the identity of the official who gave the order is clear enough, so there's no evasiveness about responsibility. The context might be one in which we don't know which company did it, and any company could have, and it doesn't matter which one it was. But you don't have to leave the agent unexpressed in a passive. You could say this:

    The mayor had the building torn down by his brother's demolition company.

    The demolition agent is specified here, as you might want it to be if corrupt awarding of city contracts was suspected. So notice that the passive construction has absolutely nothing to do with the notion of being vague about agency: you can be as explicit as you want to be about who or what did the stuff that the clause talks about, and whether you use a by-phrase may not even matter. The passive is often better suited to being explicit about agency than the active is, because the end of the verb phrase is an ideal place to put something you want to emphasize:

    Don't you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!.

    There's no vagueness or evasiveness about whodunnit there: it whacks you in the face with the identity of the murderer. If you want to name names and point fingers, there's often no better way to do it than with a passive construction.

    9. I have not done full justice to this topic; in particular, I have not opened up the topic of the close relation between passives and predicative adjective constructions (phrases like uninhabited are rather clearly adjectival, since there is no verb *uninhabit). But although I have not been fully exhaustive, I hope I have made it clear that almost everything said about passives in standard books of writing advice (and most of what linguistics books say as well) is mistaken. Indeed, often wildly mistaken.

    The passive is not an undesirable feature limited to bad writing, it's a useful construction often needed for clear expression, and every good writer uses it.
    The passive does not always involve a use of the copula.
    The passive does not always involve masking the identity of the agent — it can be used to put the spotlight on the agent.
    The NP that is the subject in a passive is not always the one that would have been the direct object if the clause had been designed as an active one: it can be an NP that would have been the complement of a preposition — some passive clauses involve stranded prepositions.

    10. One other thing. As mentioned on Language Log here and elsewhere, the people who criticize the passive the most tend to use it more than the rest of us. George Orwell warns against the passive in his overblown and dishonest essay "Politics and the English language". E. B. White does likewise in the obnoxiously ignorant little book he coauthored with Strunk, The Elements of Style. Both of these authors have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: around 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.

    Comments are closed, but comments and questions can be emailed to mail2languagelog
    gmail.com — all mail will be read, and ideas or suggestions may perhaps be taken up (in fact many have: thanks to all the readers who contributed suggestions for minor changes that I have made to the post above). A personal response, however, cannot be promised.

    January 24, 2011 @ 7:00 am · Filed by Geoffrey K. Pullum under Prescriptivist Poppycock, Syntax, Usage advice, passives
    I enjoy being wrong too much to change my mind.

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