THE PASSIVE VOICE

THE PASSIVE VOICE

FORM

  1. The passive of an active tense is formed by putting the verb to be into the same tense as the active verb and adding the past participle of the active verb. The subject of the active verb becomes the ‘agent’ of the passive verb. The agen is very often not mentioned. When it is mentioned it is preceded by by and placed at the end of the clause:

This tree was planted by my grandfather.

  1. Examples of present, past and perfect passive tenses.
Active We keep the butter here.
Passive The butter is kept here.
Active They broke the window.
Passive The window was broken.
Active People have seen wolves in the streets.
Passive Wolves have been seen in the streets.
  1. The passive of continuous tenses requires the present continuous forms of to be, which are not otherwise much used:
Active They are repairing the bridge.
Passive The bridge is being repaired.
Active They were carrying the injured player off the field.
Passive The injured player was being carried off the field.

Other continuous tenses are exceedingly rarely used in the passive, so that sentences such as:

They have/had been repairing the road and

            They will/would be repairing the road

Are not normally put into the passive.

  1. Auxiliary + infinitive combinations are made passive by using a passive infinitive:
Active You must/should shut these doors.
Passive These doors must/should be shut.
Active They should/ought to have told him.

(perfect infinitive active)

Passive He sould/ought to have been told.

(perfect infinitive passive)

USES OF THE PASSIVE

The passive is used:

  1. When it is not necessary to mention the doer of the action as it is obvious who he is/was/will be:

The rubbish hasn’t been collected.     

The streets are swept every day.

Your hand will be X-rayed.

 

  1. When we don’t know, or don’t know exactly, or have forgotten who did the action:
The minister was murdered. My car has been moved!
You’ll be met at the station. I’ve been told that…
  1. When the subject of the active verb would be ‘people’:

He is suspected of receiving stolen goods. (people suspect him of…)

They are supposed to be living in New York. (people suppose that they are living…)

  1. When the subject of the active sentence would be the indefinite pronoun one: One sees this sort of advertisement everywhere would usually be expressed:

This sort of advertisement is seen everywhere.

            In colloquial speech we can use the indefinite pronoun you and an active verb:

You see this sort of advertisement everywhere.

But more formal English requires one + active verb or the more usual passive form.

  1. When we are more interested in the action than the person who does it:

The house next door has been bought (by a Mr. Jones).

            If, however, we know Mr. Jones, we would use the active:

Your father’s friend, Mr. Jones, has bought the house next door.

            Similarly:

A new public library is being built (by our local council)

            Though in more informal English we could use the indefinite pronoun they and an active verb:

They are building a new public library.

            While a member of the Council will of course say:

We are/The Council is building etc.

 

  1. The passive may be used to avoid an awkward or ungrammatical sentence. This is usually done by avoiding a change of subject:

When he arrived home a detective arrested him

Would be better expressed:

When he arrived home he was arrested (by the detective).

            When their mother was ill neighbours looked after the children

            Would be better expressed:

When their mother was ill the children were looked after by neighbours.

 

  1.  The passive is sometimes preferred for psychological reasons.

A speaker may use it to disclaim responsibility for disagreeable announcements:

EMPLOYER: Overtime rates are being reduced/will have to be reduced.

The active will, of course, be used for agreeable announcements:

            I am/We are going to increase overtime rates.

The speaker may knoe who performed the action but wish to avoid giving the name. Tom, who suspects Bill of opening his letters, may say tactfully:

This letter has been opened! Instead of You’ve opened this letter!

 

  1. For the have + object + past participle construction, I had the car resprayed.

PREPOSITIONS WITH PASSIVE VERBS

  1. As already noted, the agent, when mentioned, is preceded by by:
Active Dufy painted this picture.
Passive This picture was painted by Dufy.
Active What makes these holes?
Passive What are these holes made by?

Note, however, that the passive form of such sentences as:

Smoked filled the room.           Paint covered the lock.

Will be:

The room was filled with smoke.         The lock was covered with paint.

We are dealing here with materials used, not with the agents.

  1. When a verb + preposition + object combination is put into the passive, the preposition will remain immediately after the verb:
Active We must write to him.
Passive He must be written to.
Active You can play with these cubs quite safely.
Passive These cubs can be played with quite safely.

Similarly with verb + preposition/adverb combinations:

Active They threw away the old newspapers.
Passive The old newspapers were thrown away.
Active He locked after the children well.
Passive The children were well locked after.

INFINITIVE CONSTRUCTIONS AFTER PASSIVE VERBS

  1. After acknowledge, assume, believe, claim, consider, estimate, feel, find, know, presume, report, say, think, understand etc.

Sentences of the type People consider/know/think etc. that he is. . . have two possible passive forms:

            It is considered/known/thought etc. that he is. . .

            He is considered/known/thought etc. to be . . .

Similarly:

People said that he was jealous of her =

            It was said that he was or He was said to be jealous of her.

The infinitive construction is the neater of the two. It is chiefly used with to be though other infinitives can sometimes be used:

He is thought to have information which will be useful to the police.

When the thought concerns a previous action we use the perfect infinitive so that:

People believed that he was =

            It was believed that he was or He was believed to be . . .

            People know that he was =

            It is known that he was or He is known to have been . . .

This construction can be used with the perfect infinitive of any verb.

  1. After suppose
  2. Suppose in the passive can be followed by the present infinitive of any verb but this construction usually conveys an idea of duty and is not therefore the normal equivalent of suppose in the active:

You are supposed to know how to drive =

It is your duty to know/You should know how to drive

Though He is supposed to be in Paris could mean either ‘He ought to be there’ or ‘People suppose he is there’.

  1. Suppose in the passive can similarly be followed by the perfect infinitive of any verb. This construction may convey an idea of duty but very often does not:

You are supposed to have finished = You should have finished but

He is supposed to have escaped disguised as a woman =

People suppose that he escaped etc.

  1. Infinitive placed after passive verbs are normally full infinitives:
Active We saw them go out. He made us work.
Passive They were seen to go out. We were made to work.

Let, however, is used without to:

Active They let us go.
Passive We were let go.
  1. The continuous infinitive can be used after the passive of believe, know, report, say, suppose, think, understand:

He is believed/known/said/supposed/thought to be living abroad =

People believe/know/say/suppose/think that he is living abroad.

You are supposed to be working = you should be working.

            The perfect form of the continuous infinitive is also possible:

He is believed to have been waiting for a message =

                        People believed that he was waiting for a message.

                        You are supposed to have been working =

                        You should have been working.

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