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Author Topic: How the grammar of active and passive voice sentences differs  (Read 141 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 10, 2017, 08:23:46 AM »

A member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, Nathan_Yell, posted the following very interesting grammar questions in the Forum:

“What is the function of the prepositional phrase in the passive voice? Most grammar guides say that the object in the active voice becomes the subject in passive. Is the reverse true? Does the subject become the object in the passive? In the sentence ‘The rice is harvested by the farmers,’ isn’t the phrase ‘by the farmers’ a modifier of the verb ‘harvested’ and thus, an adverb phrase rather than an object? Or, is the term ‘object’ generally used to refer to anything that completes, complements or modifies the verb?”

Here are my answers to Nathan_Yell’s questions:
 
The function of the prepositional phrase at the tail end of a passive-voice sentence is to identity the doer of the action of the operative verb, as in the sentence you presented, “The rice is harvested by the farmers.” Such prepositional phrases are, as we know, an optional element in the passive-voice sentence, which can stand without them: “The rice is harvested.”


Now, does the subject of a sentence in the active voice become the object when the sentence is rendered in the passive voice? Before I answer that question, let’s first clarify what the active voice and the passive voice are in the first place.

By definition, a sentence is in the active voice when its grammatical subject performs the action of the operative verb, as in this form of the sentence you presented: “The farmers harvest the rice.” Here, the noun “farmers” is the grammatical subject, “harvested” is the operative verb in the active-voice form, and the noun “rice” is the direct object of that verb.

On the other hand, a sentence is in the passive voice when its grammatical subject receives the action of the operative verb, as in the original form of that sentence you presented: “The rice is harvested by the farmers.” Here, the noun “rice” is the grammatical subject, “is harvested” is the operative verb in the passive-voice form, and the noun “farmers” is the doer of the action.



We can clearly see here that the grammatical subject of the active-voice sentence, “farmers,” is not the direct object in the passive-voice sentence. Instead, by becoming part of the prepositional phrase “by the farmers,” that noun has become what’s known as the object of the preposition. As I pointed out earlier, the object of the preposition is optional to the passive-voice sentence. That sentence can therefore stand without it: “The rice is harvested.”

My answer to your second question is therefore a categorical “no.” The subject of a sentence in the active voice doesn’t become the direct or indirect object when the sentence is rendered in the passive voice. It becomes a different grammatical element known as the object of the preposition—just a noun or a pronoun that follows a preposition to complete its meaning.

As to your third question, whether the phrase “by the farmers” is not an object but an adverb phrase that modifies the verb “harvested,” the answer is yes. It is functionally an adverb phrase that modifies the verb “harvested,” but grammatically, it’s also the object of the preposition “by” in that sentence.


Now to your last question: Does the term “object” generally refer to anything that completes, complements, or modifies the verb? No; the term “object” refers to anything that receives the action of the verb, whether as direct object or indirect object. The term for anything that completes, complements, or modifies the predicate—not the verb—is the complement, which is any added word or expression by which a predication is made complete, like the adjective “impertinent” in the sentence “The judge found the lawyer’s question impertinent” and the phrase “as her traveling companion” in “She chose him as her traveling companion.” (2011)

This essay, 737th of the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the April 30, 2011 issue of The Manila Times, © 2011 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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