Verbal Category of Voice

June 26th, 20126:47 am


Verbal Category of Voice

The verbal category of Voice is an expression of relationship between an action and its subject and object. In other words, as a grammatical cat­egory, Voice shows the relation between the action and its subject, namely, it indicates whether the action is performed by the subject or passes on to it. As a result, Voice is connected with the sentence structure more than other verbal categories. There are two voices in English: the Active Voice and the Passive Voice. The Active Voice shows that the action is performed by its subject, i.e. that the subject is the doer of the action. The Passive Voice shows that the subject is acted upon, that it is the recipient of the action, e.g.: James sent me a letter A letter was sent to me by James.

The opposition is based on the direction of an action. According to the traditional approach to Voice, verbal forms, among other peculiarities, indicate relations between an action and its subject, i.e. Active Voice is used to denote actions directed from the person or thing expressed by subject, whereas Passive Voice forms show that an action is directed towards the subject. It should be underlined that here grammatical direction is meant and not a direction stemming from a lexical meaning of a given verb. Thus, the categorical opposition between Passive and Active Voice is based on several factors: relationships between the subject and the predicate, “inward” or “outward” direction of a verbal action and active or inactive quality of the subject.

Passive voice is expressed by analytical combinations of the auxiliary verb to be with the Past Participle of the notional verb.

It should be noted that there is nothing more characteristic of English than the extent to which it has developed the use of passive formations. One of the most distinct features of the English language is that passive forms are pos­sible not only for transitive verbs (like in many other languages) but also for intransitive verbs. In English, such intransitive verbs as to live, to sleep may be used in Passive, e.g. The bed was not slept in, The room is not lived in.

Mechanical transformations of Active into Passive may lead to a mis­leading conclusion that Passive Voice is a simple result of a reverse opera­tion. This false impression may also become the reason for denying Passive its independence from Active. Thus, for example, Henry Sweet expands on inverted subjects and inverted objects. To regard Passive Voice as a mere syntactic transformation of Active Voice is completely incorrect, since even if both forms may reflect the same situation, they do this differently, plac­ing emphasis according to the speaker’s communicative goals. In sentences with the verb in the form of Active Voice, the doer of an action is obviously contrasted with the object of the action, whereas passive forms presuppose first of all the importance of an action and an object rather than a doer that is given less prominence or dropped altogether.

Passive Voice is used in situations when the doer is not known or is not mentioned for some reason; in other cases, Passive Voice stresses inactiv­ity of the subject, it allows to shift important information onto the semantic patient, recipient, etc., which would be totally impossible in Active.

It should also be borne in mind that some sentences (usually those con­taining numerals or pronouns) may be interpreted differently depending on the speaker’s choice of Voice. Cf. for example

Everyone speaks two languages in this room.

Two languages are spoken by everyone in this room.

Depending on the voice, the interpretation will be either that everyone speaks two languages without these languages being the same (some people may speak German and Italian, some – Russian and Urdu, etc.), or that eve­rybody speaks two definite languages (English and French, for instance).

It is noteworthy that the combination to be+Participle II has two mean­ings. In its first meaning, this combination expresses an action – and then this form is called a simple predicate. In its second meaning, this form denotes a state, and then it is a compound nominal predicate. There are a number of criteria helping to differentiate these two meanings: 1) context, 2) lexical meaning of Participle II, and 3) the form of the verb to be.

Contextual markers of Passive include:

a) adverbial modifiers of time and manner that stress repetition, mo­mentary character or duration of an action: at this moment, at once, frequently, gradually:

Have you ever been sent to Coventry? For a moment he was reas­sured(Hartley)

b) peculiarities of the syntactic structure of the sentence, i.e. the cases when the sentence structure expresses sequence of events:

When the will was read, her first reaction had been one of admira­tion… (Hill)

Alone now, Jacques Sauntiere turned his gaze again to the iron gate. He was trapped, and the doors could not be opened for at least twenty minutes. (Brown)

c) an indirect prepositional object introduced by the preposition by, denoting the doer of the action:

Five hundred cars were burnt by rioters last night.

Verbal Category of Voice – Part 2
Verbal Category of Voice – Part 3