Printer Friendly

The danger of passivity. (Language Teaching & Learning).


The aim of the article is to share some ideas for teaching passivisation looking at some special cases and showing the danger of some `hard and fast rules' that we teachers sometimes tend to use in class. Therefore, the author deals with some constraints and makes some observations while handling the grammatical theme. He presents groups of verbs that might be troublesome and gives some examples of how to supplement textbooks in the light of [L.sub.1] and the students' linguistic competence in [L.sub.2] to clarity any misleading concepts.

To prepare a grammar class, teachers need to consult a variety of grammar reference books in order to establish how a structure is formed, when it is used, and whether there are any particular rules or exceptions governing its use. In sentences like the following:

(a) Somebody has broken my bike.

(b) My bike has been broken (by somebody)

sentence (b) is derived from (a) by press of transformation. This process of transformation can be symbolised in the following way:

[N.sub.1] + [sub.transitive] + [N.sub.2] [right arrow] [N.sub.2] + be + V.sub.Past Participle] (+ by [N.sub.1])

The direct object ([N.sub.2]) in the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive, the verbal form of the active sentence is replaced by the appropriate form of the auxiliary "be" plus the past participle of the verb, and then (optionally) the nominal ([N.sub.1] the subject in the active sentence may be added in a prepositional phrase with "by".

In her English grammar reference book, Frank (1972, p.56) says of the passive:
 "The active voice is used in making a straightforward statement about an
 action ... In the passive voice, the same action is referred to indirectly:
 that is, the original "receiver" of the action is the grammatical subject
 and the original "doer" of the action is the grammatical subject of a
 passive verb is the original object of an objective verb, only a transitive
 verb may be used in the passive voice."

From the fact that only sentences with transitive verbs can be turned into the passive it must not be inferred that any sentence with a transitive verb and a direct object can be made passive. There are a few verbs which, although they occur with an object in the active, have no corresponding passive form or transform. Thus the verb "have" (in most, though not all its uses) does not occur in the passive.

I have a big house in the country.

A passive construction with have occurs in a limited number of contexts:

(a) be obtained

We had hoped to get some tea in the village, but there was none to be had for love or money.

(b) in the cliche: A good time was had by all.

Some other verbs have no passive transform:
Alan wants to buy a new car.
Red suits you. cannot be turned into * You are suited by red.
He resembles his father. * His father is
 resembled by him.

The verb "marry" cannot occur in the passive when it is used in the sense "take to one's wedded wife (husband), but it often occurs in the passive when it means, "officiate at the wedding of".
She married an Irish man. cannot be turned into
* An Irish man was married by her. but
They were married by a Catholic priest. is perfectly possible.

In the following pair of sentences:

1. People speak both English and French in Canada.

2. My sister can speak both English and French.

the first sentence has a passive form, but the second one would not occur in normal English.

Both English and French are spoken in Canada.

* Both English and French can be spoken by my sister.

Besides, instead of a transitive verb, we may have a verb plus a preposition or an adverbial followed by a nominal:

Nobody has slept in this bed for years.

This bed has not been slept in for years.

I disagree with Frank's claim that in the passive voice the same action is referred to indirectly. As proof, I will cite Chomsky's famous example (1965) which shows that active and passive pairs are not necessarily synonymous: "Everyone in the room speaks two languages" (i.e. any two languages per person) and "Two languages are spoken by everyone in the room" (i.e., two specific languages that everybody speaks. Or in the sentence Every man at the party gave a woman a red rose. (Different men gave roses to different women)

A woman was given a red rose by every man at the party. (i.e. every man gave one specific woman a red rose)

In the handling of the passive construction there should be some constraints and some particular cases included even in descriptive grammar books such as Sir Randolph Quirk's "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language" and R.W. Zandvoort's "A Handbook of English Grammar". Examples of these cases are mentioned in an article by George Lakoff entitled "Globe Rules, or The Inherent Limitations of Transformational Grammar" as quoted by Grinder (1978, p.80), in which he states that there are sentences that may not undergo the PASSIVE transformation shown in Quirk's diagram (p. 160).
 S V O
 John admired Mary
Active Subject Active Verb Active Object
 Optional Agent
Passive Object Passive Verb By-Phrase
 Mary was admired (by John)

He presented the following examples for this constraint:

(a) Minnie desired to kick Sam in the shins. (Lakoff's 24)

(*b) To kick Sam in the shins was desired by Minnie.

(a) Sam tried to escape from America. (Lakoff's 25)

(*b) To escape from America was tried by Sam.

It is quite evident that both (b) versions are clearly ungrammatical though they are the result of the application of the passive transformation. However, if the main verbs in this type of examples are ditransitive verbs we could present some well-formed sentences that are clear counter-examples to the constraint:

(a) The policeman ordered Alistair to open the boot of his car.

(b) Alistair was ordered by the policeman to open the boot of his car.

(c) Atistair was ordered to open the boot of his car by the policeman.

Considering this last example, we may notice that the transformation may be written in two different ways. However, there are simple sentences in which only the latter word order is permitted.

Phil gave Alison a bunch of flowers.

(a) Alison was given a bunch of flowers by Phil.

(*b) Alison was given by Phil a bunch of flowers.

There are some other particular cases that should be included in the treatment of the passive voice. Let us consider first a group of verbs that present a special transformation worth taking into account since students often come across them in international exams. The first group, (see Thomson and Martinet, p.98), includes verbs such as: acknowledge, believe, claim, consider, find, know, report, think, understand. In the sentence:

[1] People say that he is a good pianist, the application of the passive gives us the following: * [That he is a good pianist] is said. This sentence will undergo a second transformation in which we use "anticipatory `it'" resulting in:

[2] It is said that he is a good pianist. or we may even have:

[3] He is said to be a good pianist.

There is no difference in meaning between [2] and [3]; but, the latter is preferable as it is heater. Sentence [2] is an example of the passive construction by means of anticipatory it and sentence [3] is sometimes known as the infinitive construction. An examination of the transformation procedure of [1] leads us to consider some other constraints. Analysing this sentence we observe that there are two verbs: say, the full verb in the main clause and be in the subordinate nominal clause. If we consider the verb say the application of the PASSIVE transformation gives us grammatically correct sentences regardless of its tense.

People will say that he is good pianist.

It will be said that he is a good pianist.

He will be said to be a good pianist.

But if we consider now the possibility of changing the tense of verb in the subordinate clause we come to:

People say that he was a good pianist.

It is said that he was a good pianist.

He is said to have been a good pianist.

In this last transformation we have "a perfect infinitive" construction, but if we have other verb tenses in the second part of sentence [1], for instance,

People say he will be a good pianist.

As there is no other possibility of `infinitive forms', the only alternative is:

It is said that he will be a good pianist.

So in this special group of verbs, there are two possible transformations, both of which are grammatically correct but the `infinitive construction' is preferred whenever possible and this means when the verb in the subordinate clause is either in the simple present or the simple past. Within this frame of transformation we may have the following pair of sentences:

[4] You are supposed to know all this.

[5] It is supposed that you know all this.

in which we have the verb suppose and although these sentences have the same of transformation as the verbs mentioned before, these last two examples [4] and [5] have different meanings. Sentence [4] implies some kind of obligation: You should know all this / It is your duty to know all this. Whereas [5] expresses a mere supposition: People suppose that you know all this.

Some other verbs present other peculiarities: an infinitive placed after a passive verb is normally a full infinitive.

Active = We saw the children enter the old building.

Passive = The children were seen to enter the old building.

Active = The Customs Officer made us empty our pockets.

Passive = We were made to empty our pockets.

Or a change of verb in the passive, for instance with the verbs let and steal. Active = Paul's father let him drive his new car.

Passive = Paul was allowed to drive his father's new car. In the following sentence we may have:

Active = Somebody stole Mrs. Parker's gold bracelet.

Passive = Mrs Parker's gold bracelet was stolen. or a change of verb:

Passive = Mrs Parker was robbed of her gold bracelet.

Teachers should try to avoid over-generalisations or hard-and-fast rules that can easily be proved wrong; details should be taught at a later stage in the learning process. The presentation of the passive voice in Headway Intermediate (Unit 13) is quite appropriate as he uses a deductive procedure to identify passive verbs, a good exercise for students to recognise passive verbs reliably. First they underline the PASSIVE sentences and then they answer the question "Why is the passive used ?" (Soars, p.72). Later in the book (p. 100) the authors say that the passive can be avoided in informal language and explain one of the reasons why the passive is used: "Passive sentences move the focus from the subject to the object of active sentences and the "by-agent" is very often omitted because the agent is unknown." But it is also possible to denote an unknown agent or agents by some such nominals as people, one, somebody (Christophersen, p. 227):

Somebody killed him in the Second World War.

One left a parcel for her yesterday.

which are not very common constructions in informal English, so we should use the passive even in informal English. We also use the passive structure in sentences like I've been told ..., which are very common in informal rather than in formal situations. As stated by Christophersen (p. 228), "in many cases the choice between the active and the passive is determined by where we want to place the `centre of interest'. The subject of a sentence usually attracts the main interest; an active sentence tends to focus the interest on the performer of the action while in a passive sentence it is more often focused on the undergoer of the action."

Active = Vincent van Gogh painted his picture with the utmost care. (Soars, p.73)

Passive = This amazing landscape was painted by an unknown French artist.

If we now look at an exercise of turning the newspapers headlines into radio newsheadlines we may come to some interesting conclusions. Some headlines will pose certain difficulties for students of English as a second language. Let us have a look at the following headlines taken from newspapers:

1. DOLE IS CRITICISED OVER HIS TWO MARRIAGES The Daily Telegraph August 8, 1996. (p. 11)

2. "HALF OF BLACK CHILDREN RAISED BY LONE MOTHERS" The Daily Telegraph August 8, 1996. (p.6)

3. "GIRL LEFT FOR DEAD RECALLS DETAILS OF ATTACK" The Independent August 7, 1996. (p.7)

4. "WHEN WE PUT OUR POOL IN OUR HEATING COSTS PLUNGED BY 434 [pounds sterling]" The Independent August 7, 1996, (p. 13)

5. "THE TROTS ARE GONE, BUT THE TOTTERS REMAIN" The Independent August 7, 1996. (p. 9)

The first one is a straightforward example of the form presented in the course book as the passive transformation. In the two following examples we have the passive subject followed by a past participle and the verb to be has been omitted; the corresponding verb to be for these sentences gives the different tenses in the passive sentences, thus in [2] are raised, in [3] was left. This is also a good exercise because students must understand the sentences in order to know the correct tense of the verb. In [4] the student must know the verb plunge otherwise he will take it as a passive sentence when it is not. And finally, in [5], although we have exactly the structure pointed out by some authors, this is not a passive sentence. This supports the previous statement that overgeneralization may cause students to make mistakes.


Grammar is such a vast field that there are many points and constraints that are not mentioned in grammars books. Similarly, I have not considered a number of important points to be studied when dealing with the Passive, for instance, passivity with "get", (or passive sentences derived from active sentences with intransitive verbs, etc). As seen from the above discussion, I feel that authors of course books try to simplify the analysis of the passive to make it simpler and easier for the students to master successfully. The satisfactoriness of the handling of the grammatical theme will depend on how resourceful we, as teachers, are in making important observations to our students and supplement the course books in the light of [L.sub.1] and the students' linguistic competence in [L.sub.2] to clarify any misleading concepts.


Christophersen, P. & Sandved, A. O. (1969). An Advanced English Grammar London, England: Macmillan & Co. Ltd.

Frank, M. (1972). Modern English: A Practical Reference Guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Grinder, J.T. Jr,. (1976). On Deletion Phenomena in English The Hague: Mouton & Co. B.V., Publishers.

Soars J & Soars, L. (1987). Headway Intermediate Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Soars J & Soars, L. (1988). Headway Upper-Intermediate Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

`Dole is Criticised' (1996, August 8) The Daily Telegraph, p.11

`Half of Black' (1996, August 8) The Daily Telegraph, p.6

`Girl Left' (1996, August 7) The Independent, p.7

`When we Put' (1996, August 7) The Independent, p. 13

`The Trots' (1996, August 7) The Independent, p.9.

Thomson, A.J. and Martinet, A.V. (1977). A Practical English Grammar 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Quirk, R. Greenbaum, S. Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language Essex, England: Longman.

Zandvoort R.W. (1972). A Handbook of English Grammar London, England: Longman.

Luis A. Gonzales, National University of Cordoba, Argentina

Luis is a graduate from the "Faculty of Languages", National University of Cordoba where he is now a Lecturer in English Language. He teaches FCE an CEA at the British Association of English Culture. He studied at Gonzaga University in spokane, USA. And recently at the University of Reading, UK. Now he is a candidate for his MA TEFL.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gonzalez, Luis A.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Previous Article:Use, usage or both in english language teacher training programmes? (Language Teaching & Learning).
Next Article:A language-science bridge: ESL for marine science. (Language Teaching & Learning).

Related Articles
Contrastive analysis in language teaching, time to come in from the cold. (Language Teaching & Learning).
Earth and wind: teaching Spanish in China. (Language Teaching & Learning).
Script creation for the design of lesson plans.
Language technologies and the FL teacher.
Theoretical perspectives on second language learning.
Understanding teachers' conceptions: ICI.
Language and second teaching in physics learning.
Linguistics in language teacher education.
The effect of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) on United Arab Emirates English as a foreign language (EFL) school students' achievement and...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters