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09 September 2009 @ 08:53 am
Note to self (but open to comment)  
When ozarque gets to voice in her current series on grammar, I want to ask about passive voice, and whether everything that looks like passive voice really is.

supergee pointed to This blog was posted by me, a blog post on the passive voice.

The author states that reasons to use the passive voice include:
  • To hide information about who was responsible (ysabetwordsmith refers to this particular subset of passive voice as "passive exonerative" and gives as the canonical example "Mistakes were made").
  • When you don't know who was responsible.
  • To downplay the information or save it for later.
  • Stylistic choice, especially in reports.

Specifically, the sentence "The window was broken" is passive.

Is it still passive in this longer sentence? "The window was broken when John walked into the hotel room, so he called maintenance." What if I change "window" to "thermostat", since thermostats are more likely than windows to stop working without anyone actually breaking them?
aedificaaedifica on September 9th, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do believe that's still passive voice. Any verb that doesn't have an assigned performer-of-the-action counts.

My credentials or lack thereof: I've never made a formal study of English grammar, but I've picked up a lot of it anyway in the course of studying six foreign languages.
aedificaaedifica on September 9th, 2009 03:10 pm (UTC)
A clarification: when I said "an assigned performer-of-the-action," I didn't mean to exclude constructions like "by InsertNameHere." "The party was thrown by Fred" is still passive even though Fred is right there. I think I'm making my meaning muddier rather than clearer, though, so I'll stop there.
The Talking Moosethetalkingmoose on September 9th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
My first instinct was to say that it's still passive based on "window was broken." However, that's actually part of an introductory clause and is not the actual heart of the sentence. Break the sentence down to its most essential elements, and you have, "John called maintenance."

I am not, however, 100% convinced of my own interpretation -- despite the fact I have an English Lit. degree.
Jim Hetleyjhetley on September 9th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
Still passive. "John broke the window" is active. "The window was broken" is passive. Part of the confusion of the longer sentence is that you have both passive and active voice there -- John is actively walking, and actively calling maintenance. But the window is still passively broken . . .
El Coyote Gordo: editsupergee on September 9th, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)
I think it's ambiguous because "broken" can be construed as part of the verb (in which case it's always passive) or as an adjective (the window had been broken for years).
Janet Miles, CAP-OMjanetmiles on September 9th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
That's actually one of the things I want to ask Suzette about. She already posted a bit about verbs and their relationship to adjectives.
Emilytakumashii on September 9th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
I hate to link to Wikipedia as if it were an authorative source, but I actually found their article on participles to be helpful.

My own first instinct was to say that it's being used more like an adjective than like a passive verb, because what we're describing is not the action of the window being broken, but the state of the window being broken. But according to WP, even in something like "the attached files," the verb is being used in a passive sense.
Johnjohnpalmer on September 9th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
I think there might be a difference between whether "broken" is a past tense verb ("someone or something broke the window" = "the window was broken") or an adjective ("I saw that the window was in a state of disrepair" = "the window was broken").

I think John saw an noun-that-was-adjective, not a-noun-that-had-verb-occur. But I'm not sure.

"The window had been broken when John walked into the hotel room" would strike me as a proper use of passive voice (you want to hide the (unknown) actor).

Janet Miles, CAP-OMjanetmiles on September 9th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
*nods* That's why I'm wondering -- is it a verb or an adjective?
marnanel on September 9th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
I think any conception of passive voice which can cease to be passive voice if you change a noun to another noun is itself broken.
Janet Miles, CAP-OM: oopsjanetmiles on September 9th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I understand -- could you expand on this a bit? I'm not even sure I can explain why I don't understand.
marnanel on September 10th, 2009 12:18 am (UTC)
The grammatical function of a word is a matter of syntax, not semantics. For example, the commonly-repeated mantra that a noun is "a person, place or thing" is a lie; a noun is a word which can play a given part in the sentences of a given language. Any plural noun can be substituted for "ideas" in the sentence "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" and it will still be a grammatical sentence, although in most cases it will remain nonsensical. Similarly here: the voice, mood, tense, or aspect of a verb cannot be determined by what nouns it governs, but only by the verb itself.

Unless I'm misinformed, of course.
Peter Engdornbeast on September 9th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
Is it still passive in this longer sentence?

I'd say that the core of the longer sentence is "John walked into the hotel room," and that the sentence is not in passive voice.
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on September 9th, 2009 05:00 pm (UTC)
I think ozarque said something in an earlier post about linking verbs--that is, "the window was broken" is the same construction as "the room was cold" or "John is a tailor," making a noun-plus-attribute into a sentence. Active/passive isn't a useful category here.
Janet Miles, CAP-OMjanetmiles on September 9th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC)
Ah. Okay, yeah, that makes sense. I read the earlier entry on verbs / linking verbs / adjectives, but didn't grasp that last bit about "active/passive not really being useful in certain circumstances".
redneckgaijinredneckgaijin on September 9th, 2009 05:12 pm (UTC)
What you have here is a compound sentence- two complete and independent sentences joined by a conjunction, separated by a comma.

The two sentences are:

"The window was broken when John walked into the hotel room."

"John called maintenance."

For the first sentence, the core part of the sentence is, "The window was broken." The when and everything after can be ignored- it's a prepositional phrase, acting as an adverb on was broken- and you still have a functional sentence.

"The window was broken" is a passive verb use, always was, always is, always will be.

The second part, "John called maintenance," is an active verb use.

As a general rule, both passive verbs and compound sentences should be used sparingly in fiction writing. Passive verbs don't keep the reader involved in the action of a story as well as active verbs do. Compound sentences can lead to the reader losing track of what the sentence is about. Sometimes, however, you can't help using one or both of these tools.

If you were bent and determined to eliminate both from your example sentence, a possibility would be: "John called maintenance as soon as he entered his hotel room when he found the window broken." Depending on the context of the sentence in the surrounding prose, though, that might not be the best solution; the example you gave might work better for reasons of flow, meter, or mood. It's a judgment call.

The Broad Majestic Shannon: languagems_interpret on September 9th, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC)
"The window was broken" is a passive verb use, always was, always is, always will be.

I disagree. Broken can also be an adjective. "The toy is broken" --> "The toy was broken, so I fixed it" It's not that someone or something broke it, it was just in a state of brokeness. I'd say that "The window was broken" could be equivalent to "The room was cold".
redneckgaijinredneckgaijin on September 9th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)
Any use of any form of the verb "to be" is a passive verb use- in fact, that's pretty much the defining characteristic.

Active verbs show the subject of the sentence doing something.

Passive verbs define the subject's state of existence at a given moment, and can almost always be re-stated in adjective form, i. e. "The man was running," = "The running man..."

Active verbs denote a change of that condition, something new happening. Passive verbs denote a lack of change, an ongoing condition, inertia.
une idee fixeideealisme on September 9th, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)
Sorry, but that sounds incorrect to me.

"was running" is the use of past imperfect in the active voice. The only difference is that you are breaking up the verb into "to be" (past tense) + present participle.
The Broad Majestic Shannonms_interpret on September 9th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
My first instinct is to say that in the second sentence, broken is an adjective, and that the clause is equivalent to "The room was cold".

To make it a passive voice clause, you'd have to say, "The window had been broken (by someone/something) when John..."

Unless of course, it was John's act of walking into the room that caused the window to break, in which case, it's passive.
une idee fixeideealisme on September 9th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
Whether it is "window" or "thermostat" the nature of the object makes no difference. This is not passive voice, any more than "The house was red" is passive voice. There is not even the implication of any agency. "Broken" is a past participle and serves as an adjective qualifying the noun "window". That is why it uses the verb "was" - if you wished to imply agency you would say: "The window had been broken". That would be passive voice as in that case there is no argument that the window was broken by somebody

Edited at 2009-09-09 11:11 pm (UTC)