Author Topic: Dealing with the vexing inverted syntax of passive-voice sentences  (Read 13125 times)

Joe Carillo

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We all know the difference between active-voice and passive-voice sentences, with most discussions about them revolving around the idea that as a norm in writing, the active voice should be preferred over the passive voice. This is because the subject-verb relationship and the sentence structure in an active-voice sentence are decidedly simpler and more straightforward than those in the passive voice sentence, as we can see in the following comparative constructions:

Active voice: “We pushed through with our plan despite the insurmountable difficulties.”
Passive voice: “Our plan was pushed through by us despite the insurmountable difficulties.”

We can see that the syntax of the passive-voice construction tends to become convoluted when it is forced to supply all of the equivalent grammatical elements of its active-voice counterpart; in particular, the phrase “by us” in the passive-voice sentence above sticks out like a sore thumb and makes the statement sound icky. Indeed, the grammar and structure of passive-voice sentences differ in remarkable ways from that of active-voice sentences, as I explain in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in April of 2011 in reply to a Forum member who expressed bafflement over those grammatical differences. (April 8, 2012)

How the grammar of active-voice and passive-voice sentences differs

A Forum member, Nathan_Yell, asked the following very interesting grammar questions:

“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.” As we know, such prepositional phrases are an optional element in the passive-voice sentence, which actually 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 phrase in the passive-voice form, and the noun “farmers” is the doer of the action.

                                                IMAGE CREDIT: QUORA.COM


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. The object of the preposition, as I pointed out earlier, 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 in this passive-voice form of the sentence you presented: “The rice is harvested by the farmers.”

As to your third question on 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, “the farmer” is 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, definitely not; the term “object” refers to anything that receives the action of the verb, whether as direct object or indirect object. Anything that completes, complements, or modifies the predicate—not the verb—is a complement, which by definition 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.” (April 30, 2011)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 30, 2011 issue © 2011 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: November 10, 2022, 04:31:07 PM by Joe Carillo »

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Re: Dealing with the vexing inverted syntax of passive-voice sentences
« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2012, 05:08:14 PM »
I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles.I am very impressed with the article I have just read.Thanks a lot.

Joe Carillo

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Re: Dealing with the vexing inverted syntax of passive-voice sentences
« Reply #2 on: December 28, 2012, 06:13:56 PM »
You're welcome and thanks for the compliment about my articles in the Forum! I want you to know that I greatly appreciate it.