Vague doesn’t mean passive

The passive voice is famous for its vagueness. It lets us say what happened, without mentioning who did it. In fact, this is often the only thing that people know about the passive, and it leads to anything vague being labelled as passive.

But ‘passive’ refers to a very particular grammatical construction, and I think we should get our terms straight. So in the interests of public education, here is a list of ways that we can be vague about agency without using the passive. The next time someone says something is ‘passive’, check here to see if it really is.

Identifying the passive

A typical (transitive) active sentence of English looks like this:

Alice kicked Bob
Subject + Verb + Object

While a passive looks like this. The brackets indicate optional material:

Bob was kicked (by Alice)
Subject + be + Verb (+by Object)

There are four differences in the passive:

(1) The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive version.

(2) The subject of the active sentence becomes an optional object, preceded by the word by. In strict terms, it’s actually an adjunct, not an object, but the term “object” will do for here.

(3) There is an extra verb be before the main verb in the passive. This verb takes the same tense as the main verb from the active sentence. For instance, past tense John kissed Mary is a past passive Mary was kissed by John; the complex John would have been kissing Mary becomes Mary would have been being kissed.

(4) The main verb changes, either by taking a suffix (kick > was kicked), undergoing a vowel change (strike > was struck), both (write > was written) or neither (hit > was hit). Which pattern to use is something you have to learn more or less on a verb-by-verb basis, but the most common pattern involves adding a suffix.

Note that vagueness does not factor into this description anywhere at all. Passives are vague partly because the do-er of the action become an optional bit of language, so this can introduce some vagueness in terms of who did what. However, you cannot use the vagueness of a sentence to decide if something is passive. Here are 4 construction that are vague and might look like the passive, but actually are not.

1. The causative

Causative constructions are used to say that someone got someone else to do something. As if that isn’t vague enough on its own. Here’s an example:

I had the bear stuffed.

Who did the stuffing? We don’t know. The sentence doesn’t say who did it, but this isn’t a passive, it’s a causative. What it crucially lacks is any form of the verb “to be”, which all passives have.

Interestingly, you can reintroduce the agent if you want, just like the passive, and say I had Jeremy stuff the bear. But notice that in the passive, you use a by phrase for the agent (i.e. the bear was stuffed by Jeremy) which is absent in the causative.

2. Reported speech

People are saying that you’re being uncooperative.
Rumour has it that Joseph was fired.

This kind of evasive speech uses verbs like say, tell, report, rumour, overhear which are verbs that take a clause as their “direct object”. This allows the speaker to sneak in any kind of information they like inside the object, but by embedding it under a verb of reporting, they can avoid taking any responsability for that information. But it still isn’t a passive.

3. Expletive subjects

Expletive subjects are are subjects which don’t refer to anything. They exist for purely syntactic reasons. (I’ve previously mentioned these as reasons we shouldn’t think of subject as the thing that does the action.)

It appears that the vase is broken.
It seems we’ve taken a wrong turn

This kind of evasive technique uses a verb like “appear” or “seem” to comment on the state of affairs while distancing the speaker from any consequences.

4. Existential clauses

There has been some discussion.
There was a fight

Existential clauses indicate that some event happened (i.e. that there exists some event) and involve the subject there. These are not to be confused with sentences that begin with the demonstrative there. For example, the sentence “there is the walrus” merely points out where a walrus is.

Using existential clauses clauses allows the speaker to focus on the fact that something happened, without necessarily mentioning who was involved. It allows further “depersonalization” by expressing the event as a noun phrase instead of a verb phrase (“some discussion” instead “we discussed”).

The presence of a verb “to be” in these sentences, plus the vagueness, might fool you into thinking they are passive. You can tell that this isn’t passive by trying to turn it active again. The subject of the passive form should be the object of the active form, but the dummy subject there can’t serve as an object. Also, you can’t re-introduce the agent with a by phrase, like you normally can in a passive, so you can’t say *There was a fight by Thomas (this only works if Thomas is a location and not an agent)


1 Comment

Filed under Linguistics

One response to “Vague doesn’t mean passive

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