Verbs, we’ve said, are regarded as the most important part of English sentences because they contain so much information. That information is reflected in the many forms verbs can take. Here, we examine more of those forms and the changes they cause in other parts of the sentence.
VERBS HAVE VOICE: ACTIVE AND PASSIVE
In Chapter 8 on complements, we discussed two classes of action verbs called transitive and intransitive:
He sang a song.
She wrote a novel.
We said that verbs are transitive when they have direct objects, as in the examples above. Linking verbs are never transitive.
Now we learn another thing: Transitive verbs—and only transitives—are capable of two voices: active and passive.
With active voice verbs, the subject is the performer of the action and the direct object is the receiver of the action.
The batter hit the ball.
In passive voice verbs, the subject is the receiver of the action. The performer is deleted from the sentence, or it is shifted to the end of the sentence in a prepositional phrase:
The ball was hit.
The ball was hit by the batter.
In passive verbs, the main verb is always a past participle
and the auxiliary just before the main verb is a form of be:
You were made chairman by the club. She has been elected chairwoman.
She is known to everyone in the club.
REVISING PASSIVES INTO ACTIVES
It’s often helpful to rewrite passive sentences as active sen- tences. It’s easy to rewrite this passive sentence:
You were made chairman by the club.
Simply shift the club to the subject position and you to the direct object position. In this case, chairman becomes an object complement.
The club made you chairman.
But what do we do when the sentence contains no performer of the action?
She has been elected chairwoman.
In cases like this, we must either locate a performer in the larger context, or leave the passive unchanged. Here are some more passive sentences, and their active voice counterparts:
PASSIVE: The news was heard by me on the radio. ACTIVE: I heard the news on the radio.
PASSIVE: The essay was graded by the teacher. ACTIVE: The teacher graded the essay.
PASSIVE: The room was refurnished by our landlord. ACTIVE: Our landlord refurnished the room.
THE PASSIVE COMPLEMENTS
Previously, we’ve discussed complements in active sentenc- es. In particular, we’ve discussed transitive verbs and direct objects, indirect objects, and object complements.
Some passive verbs take complements, too, called passive complements. Let’s begin with this active voice sentence:
- Dad gave Mom her present.
Here Mom is the indirect object; her present is the direct object.
We can rewrite Sentence 1 in the passive voice like this:
- Mom was given her present by Dad.
In Sentence 2, Mom is now the subject. We’ve made the subject in Sentence 1, Dad, the object of a preposition. And her present remains the direct object in Sentence 2. This can only be done with active sentences that contain an indirect object as well as a direct object.
Here are more pairs of sentences—the first active and the second passive—with direct objects underlined and indirect objects in bold:
ACTIVE: Ed brought Ralph some hot soup. PASSIVE: Ralph was brought some hot soup by Ed.
ACTIVE: Dad showed Jimmy the door. PASSIVE: Jimmy was shown the door by Dad.
ACTIVE: Mr. Redden read the class a poem. PASSIVE: The class was read a poem by Mr. Redden.
When the direct object in an active sentence remains the direct object in the passive version of the same sentence, the object in the passive sentence is sometimes called a retained object. But we’ll simply call it the direct object.
Some sentences with object complements can also be made passive:
- The club elected Ralph sixth vice-president.
Here Ralph is the direct object and sixth vice-president is the object complement. When we make the sentence passive, Ralph becomes the subject:
- Ralph was elected sixth vice-president by the club.
In Sentence 2, the object complement of Sentence 1, sixth vice- president, is now a predicate nominative.
In the following examples, we will see object complements (underlined in the active sentences) become predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives in the passive sentences. The direct objects are in bold:
ACTIVE: We made Mom angry.
PASSIVE: Mom was made angry by us. (Predicate adjective)
ACTIVE: The chairman appointed Bob secretary. PASSIVE: Bob was appointed secretary by the chairman. (Predicate nominative)
ACTIVE: The class declared Ruthie the winner. PASSIVE: Ruthie was declared the winner by the class. (Predicate nominative)
As you may have noticed, all of the passive sentences you read are awkward and wordy. Active versions are often shorter and more direct than passives. Some of the passives might also be improved by simply deleting the prepositional phrases, as in Bob was appointed secretary.
All verbs (except some of the auxiliary verbs) have an important form that we have not yet discussed: the infinitive form. In English, an infinitive verb is simply the first-person present tense of the verb (like buy, sell, cook, bake, talk, walk) preceded by the word to. In this context, to is called a particle and is simply part of the infinitive. All of these are infinitive verbs:
All of these sentences contain infinitive verbs: My son is learning to speak French.
She wants to take a course to learn to speak well in public. We need to meet to discuss the contracts.
As you can see, infinitive verbs are important structures that we use every day. We’ll discuss their uses in another chapter soon. For now, notice the difference between infinitive verbs and prepositional phrases beginning with to. In prepositional phrases, to is typically followed by a noun or pronoun, not a verb. These are
We’re going to Oregon this summer. I’ll mail postcards to my friends.
And these are infinitives, with verbs—not nouns or pronouns— after to:
We’re going to travel this summer. I’m ready to mail our cards.
Phrasal verbs are two-word verbs used as one word. The second word, called a particle, always looks like a preposition but without an object:
I’ll look up the word. I’ll write out a check.
We’ll wait out the storm. She looked in on the kids We signed up for a class. They took off an hour ago. He sat in on the meeting.
We have put up with this long enough.
Although the particle looks like a preposition, it cannot be the beginning of a prepositional phrase. Notice the differences:
I’ll look up the word. (A phrasal verb)
I’ll look up the chimney. (A prepositional phrase.)
Despite disappointment, they went on. (A phrasal verb) They went on the train. (A prepositional phrase.)
In some phrasal verbs, other words (especially direct objects) can appear between the main verb and the particle:
I’ll look the word up. I’ll write the check out.
He built his confidence up. I’ll check the information out.
There is another verbal pattern that may resemble a phrasal verb. Consider these sentences:
I’ve put up with you long enough. I’ll put the book up on the shelf.
In the first, put up is a phrasal verb. In the second, put is the verb and up is neither a particle nor a preposition, but simply an adverb. (Compare I’ll put the book down or I’ll put the book aside.)
Don’t confuse the term phrasal verbs with the similar term
POINTS FOR WRITERS
When to use active and passive verbs.
Active voice sentences are often more effective than passive voice sentences. The active voice is usually more concise and direct. Compare these two sentences:
Chris is reading The Lord of the Rings for the second time.
The Lord of the Rings is being read by Chris for the second time.
In the first sentence, the subject is actively performing the action. The sentence is clearly about Chris, not the book, so it’s a reasonable choice to make Chris the subject.
But there are times when we do want to focus on the recipient of the action, as in this passive sentence, which we might see in our newspapers or hear in a broadcast:
A convenience store on Fifth Street was robbed last night.
If the writer does not yet know who performed this action, the passive may well be the better choice here. (Of course, we might also write Someone robbed a convenience store. )
Consider this example:
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
We all know that American voters, or a substantial number of them, elected Kennedy, and the writer may be intending to focus on Kennedy, not the electorate. The passive voice makes sense here.
Although the passive certainly has its uses, prefer the active voice unless you have a good reason for the passive.