Episode 301: December 1, 2011
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It’s time to take another look at active and passive voice. I’ve talked about passive voice before, in episode 232, but it’s still such a frequent source of confusion that we’re going to explore it again from a different angle.
I’ll start with a question that Dave from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, asked. He is following a rule book that says “A verb in the passive voice uses any form of ‘to be’ plus the past participle of a main verb ... (for example, ‘were completed,’ ‘is requested’).” But Dave thinks that might be an inadequate definition, and he’s on to something.
It’s pretty good as a quick and dirty definition, but it misses some less typical cases of passive voice. Here’s what I said in my earlier podcast:
In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. A straightforward example is the sentence “Steve loves Amy.” Steve is the subject, and he is doing the action: he loves Amy, the object of the sentence.
In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, “Steve loves Amy,” I would say, “Amy is loved by Steve.” The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn’t doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve’s love.
That’s also not a bad quick and dirty definition, if I may say so. But it’s also not perfect, either. Like Dave’s manual’s definition, it also misses some of the less typical cases of passive voice. Furthermore, if you stick to it too tightly, you’ll end up incorrectly thinking some cases of active voice are passive voice.
I didn’t want to have to do this, but we’re going to go beyond the quick and dirty. To fully understand what passive voice is and isn’t, you need to know what active voice is, so in two—yes, two—episodes, we’re going to get straight on both active and passive voice. Today we’ll cover active voice, so that next week we can talk about passive.
Active Voice: The Agent
Linguists have a term for the person or thing doing the action: the agent. So in other words, I said that in an active sentence, the subject is the agent. Some verbs have to have an agent—they can’t be done unless somebody or something does them. Verbs such as “kick,” “scream,” crawl”—these are all typical verbs with an agent, and that agent always shows up as the subject. In “Aardvark screamed,” Aardvark is both the subject and the agent. In “Squiggly crawls,” Squiggly is both the subject and the agent.
Active Voice: Semantic Role
Agent is an example of what linguists call a semantic role, and for intransitive verbs like “kick,” “scream,” and “crawl,” it’s the only semantic role they have. Another semantic role is the patient: the person or thing that is acted upon. Many transitive verbs have an agent and a patient. For example, “clean” requires an agent (the cleaner) and a patient (the thing that gets cleaned). In an active-voice clause, the agent will be the subject, and the patient will be the direct object. For example, in “Theodore is cleaning his room,” Theodore is both the subject and the agent, and his room is both the direct object and the patient. Simple enough.
So far, our active-voice clauses really do have the agent as the subject. But there are other semantic roles that can show up as a subject, too. In a sentence like “Squiggly got lots of presents for his birthday,” the subject Squiggly is not the agent; other people are the ones taking the action of giving him presents. He’s not a patient, either; it’s the presents that are being acted upon, transferred from the givers to Squiggly. He’s filling the role of recipient.
Active Voice: Recipients and Experiencers
It may have occurred to you that in my example sentence “Steve loves Amy,” Steve isn’t really that much of an agent. After all, he’s just experiencing an emotion, love, and what’s so agent-like about that? Some linguists think of this kind of role as the experiencer role.
And what about Amy, whom Steve loves? She’s not really much of a patient. She doesn’t undergo some kind of change as a result of Steve’s emotional experience. Linguists sometimes call this the stimulus role—the thing that causes an experiencer to experience something.
Active Voice: Patients as Subjects
So in addition to having agents for subjects, active-voice clauses can have recipients and experiencers as subjects. There are even verbs whose subject—in the active voice!—expresses a patient role. In the clause “Roscoe died at 5:43 AM,” the subject refers to the patient. The dying happened to Roscoe, the patient, but he’s the subject of the sentence.
Linguists call verbs like “died” unaccusative verbs. Other unaccusatives include “suffer,” “fall,” and a set of verbs that can be either unaccusative or transitive, such as “open,” “break,” or “melt.” In the clause “Aardvark melted the chocolate in the fondue bowl,” “melt” is an ordinary transitive verb, and Aardvark is both its subject and its agent. The direct object “the chocolate” is the patient.
However, if Aardvark accidentally left the chocolate in a grocery bag in his car on a hot day, we might say, “The chocolate melted.” In that clause, “melt” is an unaccusative verb, and “chocolate” is the subject even though it’s filling the patient role in the sentence. But the sentence “The chocolate melted” is still active voice.
Similarly, in sentences like “Our house sold for $50,000” or “Your receipt is printing,” the subject isn’t the one doing the selling or the printing; it’s the thing getting sold or printed. So once again, it’s a patient showing up as the subject.
To sum up, remember that subjects of verbs in the active voice aren’t always doing something physically active. They can be experiencing something like love, dying, or melting; or they can even be being acted upon!
Now that you have a solid understanding of the active voice, tune in next week to see if you can identify active sentences that are often mistakenly called passive.
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded.
The podcast edition of this article was read by Mignon Fogarty, author of The Grammar Devotional.