Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Passive Voice and Principle of End-Focus

English verbs have fixed meanings . Their transitivity or intransitivity is pre-detaermined as a result of this . For example, beat always means to give blows and not to receive blows . In other words , beat is a transitive verb which should have a performer (subject) and a sufferer (object) . In English subject always begins a sentence  and object follows the verb . This rigid word-order may sometimes create problems . For example,  in a passage about Mahatma Gandhi, sentences are expected to begin with  the subject viz. Gandhi . If I were to write a sentence like this  in the passage "Godse assassinated Gandhiji on 30 Jan, 1948" , it might sound a bit discordant . But as assassinate is a transitive verb with fixed meaning , I would be forced to begin the sentence with the inappropriate subject .. What is the way out ? The answer is passive construction !

The English language discovered as long ago as the Anglo-Saxon period that past participle of a verb had the force of an adjective . This led to the emergence of present perfect tense and later to the emergence of several perfect tenses . This characteristic of the past participle was put to excellent use for passive construction towards the end of the Middle English period .

As the past participle has a dominant adjectival quality ,the object of the transitive verb  can be shifted to the subject position ,and the relevant form of be verb  made  to  precede the past participle. .  .This  is what is happening in the passive construction . The active voice subject can be shown , if necessary, as a prepositional phrase ( by+ agent) at the end of the passive sentence .

Passive construction gained ground owing to the influence of French during the Middle English period . In French ,  the past participle behaves exactly like an adjective . It agrees with the  subject in number and gender. Hence, be is the regular auxiliary verb before past participle in French in passive construction . English followed the French practice .

In present-day English,  however,  passive construction is widely used whenever the subject is not worth mentioning . such as in scientific  writing , official documents , law etc There is no need for the past participle to have the quality of an adjective  for passive construction in present-day English . .  Passive construction is possible even when the past participle has a dominant actional aspect .

The construction get+ past participle did not find favour with English speakers""My car was repainted last year" is better than"My car got repainted last year " , at any rate , in formal English

Passive construct6ion is preferred when 1) the object  is  more important than the subject 2 )when the subject is unknown and 3)wnen the subject is too obvious to mention it The subject of an active voice sentence can be retained as a prepositional phrase by+ agent in the passive version . As the agent comes at the end of the sentence , it receives end-focus . Thus passive construction  enables us to emphasize the subject of an active sentence by changing it into passive voice .


My son painted this picture 
( no emphasis on my son )

Who painted this picture ? 

This picture was painted by my son 
( focus on my son
N.B Contrastive focus on my son is an alternative way for emphasis . ., but end-focus is generally preferred in  English 

Thank you for visiting

Prof . V.P Rajappan


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