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The category of voice

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§ 64. Voice is the grammatical category of the verb denoting the relationship between the action expressed by the verb and the person or non-person denoted by the subject of the sentence. There are two main voices in English: the active voice and the passive voice. There are also other voices which embrace a very limited number of verbs: reflexive (wash oneself), reciprocal (embrace one another), medial (the book reads well).

The active voice indicates that the action is directed from the subject or issues from the subject, thus the subject denotes the doer (agent) of the action:


We help our friends. - Мы помогаем нашим друзьям.


The passive voice indicates that the action is directed towards the subject. Here the subject expresses a person or non-person who or which is the receiver of the action. It does not act, but is acted upon and there­fore affected by the action of the verb.


We were helped by our friends in our work. В работе нам помогли наши друзья.


The contrast between the two voices can be seen from the following examples:


I had asked no questions, of course; but then, on the other hand, I had been asked none. They saw but were not seen. Я не задавал вопросов, но, с другой стороны, и мне не задавали вопросов. Они видели, но их не видели.


The difference in the meaning of the forms helped - were helped, had asked - had been asked, saw - was seen illustrates the morphological contrast between the active and the passive voice.


Of all the verb categories voice is most closely related to the syntax of the sentence. The interrelation of the active and the passive voice on the syntactical level can be presented in the following way:


Subject   Predicate Verb   Object  
John   helped   Pete  
Pete   was helped   by John  


A sentence containing a verb in the passive voice is called a passive construction, and a sentence containing a verb in the active voice is called an active construction, especially when opposed to the passive construction.

The subject of an active construction denotes the agent (doer) of the action, which may be a living being, or any source of the action (a thing, a natural phenomenon, an abstract notion).

The subject of a passive construction has the meaning of the receiver of the action, that is a person or non-person affected by the action.

The object of an active construction denotes the receiver of the action, whereas the object of the passive construction is the agent of the action. The latter is introduced by the preposition by. If it is not the agent but the instrument, it is introduced by the preposition with.


The cup was broken by Jim.

It was broken with a hammer.


Formation and the system of forms in the passive voice


§ 65. The active voice has no special means of formation. It is recognized by contrast with the passive voice, which is composed of the auxiliary verb to be and participle II. Thus the passive verb forms are analytical, the tense of the auxiliary verb to be varies according to the sense. The notional verb (participle II) remains unchanged and provides the whole analytical form with its passive meaning.

The category of voice applies to the whole system of English verb forms, both finite and non-finite.

Table II

The voice forms of the verb

Perfect   Tense   The active voice   The Passive Voice  
    Aspect   Present   Past   Future   Present   Past   Future  
  Non-perfect Common   takes   took   will take   is taken   was taken   will be taken  
Continuous   is taking   was taking   will be taking   is being taken   was being taken   -----------  
    Perfect Common   has taken   had taken   will have taken   has been taken   had been taken   will have been taken  
Continuous   has been taking had been taking will have been taking          
-------------   ----------- -----------  



The verb to get occurs as a passive voice auxiliary, emphasizing the result of the action denoted by participle II.

They got married last year.

I got hurt in an accident.


The active voice

§ 66. The active voice is widely used with all kinds of verbs, both transitive and intransitive. The meaning of the active voice depends on the type of verb and the syntactical pattern of the sentence.


1. The active voice of transitive verbs presents an action as directed from the subject and passing over to the object, that is from the doer (agent) of the action to its receiver.


John made a boat for his brother.

They are building a new railway.

We are talking about the new film.


One of the characteristic features of English is that verbs which were originally intransitive may function as transitive verbs without changing their morphological structure, with or without changing their lexical meaning.


They ran the distance in five minutes.

Frank will run your house.

James stood the lamp on the table.


2. The active voice of intransitive verbs shows that the action, directed from the subject, does not pass over to any object, and thus the verb only characterizes the subject as the doer of the action.


He came here yesterday.

The boy can run very fast.

You acted wisely.

He slept eight hours.


3. The form of the active voice of some transitive verbs, often accompanied by an adverbial modifier, does not indicate that the subject denotes the doer of the action. This specific use of the transitive verb is easily recognized from the meaning of the subject, which is a noun denoting a non-person, and by the absence of a direct object after a monotransitive, non-preposi­tional verb. In such cases the verb is used in the medial voice.


The bell rang.

The door opened.

The newspaper sells well.

The novel reads easily.

Glass breaks easily.

The place was filling up.

It said on the radio (in the article) that the weather forecast is favourable.


The passive voice


The use of tense, aspect and perfect forms in the passive voice


§ 67. As seen from table II, verbs in the passive voice may acquire almost all the aspect, tense and perfect forms that occur in the active voice, except for the future continuous and perfect continuous forms.

The examples below illustrate the use of the passive voice in different aspect, tense and perfect forms.


Common aspect, non-perfect

Students are examined twice a year.

They were examined in June.

They will be examined next Friday.


Continuous aspect, non-perfect


Don’t be noisy! Students are being examined.

The students were being examined when the Professor came.


Common aspect, perfect


Our students have already been examined.

They had been examined by 2 o’clock.

Everybody will have been examined by 3 o’clock.


The passive voice of different verbs

§ 68. The passive voice in English may be found with different types of verbs (mostly transitive) in various verb phrases; monotransitive (non-prepositional and prepositional) and ditransitive. The subject of the passive construction may correspond to a direct, an indirect object, or to a preposi­tional object in the active construction. Accordingly we discriminate a direct passive construction, an indirect passive construction, and a preposi­tional passive construction.

Monotransitive verbs are numerous and almost all of them can form a direct passive construction. These are the verbs: to take, to do, to make, to build, to discuss, to translate, to hate, to love, to meet and a lot of others.


A new railway is being built near our town.

“A Farewell to Arms” was published in 1929.

You will be met at the station.


Phrasal transitive verbs, that is, such verbs as to blow up, to bring in, to bring up, to carry out, to put on, to see off, to turn down, etc. are also often used in the passive voice.


The plan was successfully carried out.

The boats are being brought in.


Originally intransitive verbs may form a direct passive construction, as in these examples:


This distance has never been run in five minutes before.

He thought of the lives, that had been lived here for nearly two centuries.


In the vast majority of cases, English transitive verb + object corresponds to the same type in Russian. There are a number of transitive verbs in English, however, which correspond to Russian verbs followed by an indirect or a prepositional object, or sometimes an adverbial modifier. These verbs are:


To answer To approach To assist To address To admire To affect To attend To believe To contradict To enjoy To enter to follow to help to influence to join to need to obey to speak to succeed to threaten to trust to watch


Sentences with these verbs are rendered in Russian by means of the indefinite personal constructions with the verb in the active voice, or if the doer of the action is mentioned of a personal construction with the verb in the active voice.


We are not trusted, David, but who cares if we are not innocent. The British bicycle was much admired. In the spring of 1925 Hemingway was approached by two Americans. Нам не доверяют...   Этим английским велосипедом восхищались. Весной 1925 года к Хемингуэю подошли два американца.


A direct passive construction is used in the sentences of the type:


1. J. F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

The woman was called Brome.

We were kept busy most of the time.

The walls were painted blue.*

* For details see in Syntax, § 55.


2. He is said (believed, known, reported) to be in town.

He was seen to enter the museum.

He was seen leaving the museum.*

* For details see in Syntax, § 53.


3. The direct passive of verbs of speech, mental activity, and perception is used in complex sentences with the formal subject it.


It was suggested It was reported that he was still in town.

It was said It was believed It was known It was settled   that we should meet once more.



Restrictions to the use of the passive voice


1. Though in many cases there is an evident correspondence of the active and the passive voice construction it is by no means a one-to-one correspondence. There is a certain group of monotransitive verbs which are never used in the passive voice at all, or in some of their meanings; they are: to have, to lack, to become, to fit, to suit, to resemble.

There are semantic reasons for this constraint, as these verbs denote not an action or process, but a state or relation.


John resembles his father. (John looks like his father.)

He lacks confidence. (There is no confidence in him.)

Will this suit you? (Will it be suitable for you?)


The verb to hold can be used in the passive voice only with reference to human activity; for example: The conference was held in April. However, in a sentence like The auditorium holds 5000 people the verb does not denote human activity. The sentence means There can be 5000 people in this auditorium.


2. No passive construction is possible, if the object is a that-clause, an infinitive or a gerund.


John said that everything was all right.

John enjoyed seeing his native town.


Passive constructions with ditransitive verbs


§ 69. Ditransitive verbs take two objects, usually one indirect and one direct. Accordingly they admit of two passive constructions.


The referee gave Mary the first prize .

Mary was given the first prize by the referee.

The first prize was given to Mary by the referee.


The subject of the first passive construction (Mary) corresponds to the indirect object of the active construction, and the construction is therefore called the indirect passive construction. The direct object (the first prize) is retained unchanged after the passive verb and therefore, is called the retained object.

The subject of the second passive construction corresponds to the direct object of the active construction. In this case the indirect object becomes a prepositional one. The preposition to may be omitted.

The agentive by-object corresponding to the subject of the active construction is very rarely used in either type of construction. Of the two passive constructions the indirect passive is by far the most common. As there is no indirect passive construction in Russian, sentences with this construction are translated into Russian by means of the indefinite personal construction with the indirect object in the front position.


You will be given another ticket. I was allowed an hour’s rest. Вам дадут другой билет. Мне разрешили отдохнуть один час.


The indirect passive construction gives greater prominence to the direct object, whereas the direct passive construction emphasizes the indirect object: The first prize was given to Mary implies that it was not given to anybody else. The construction may be translated in two ways, by an indefinite personal active construction or by a passive construction: Первую премию дали Мэри or Первая премия была дана (присуждена) Мэри.

The presence of the by-object makes it of great communicative value.


I was given this watch by my father. The watch was given (to) me by mу father. Часы эти мне подарил мои отец.  


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