The focus of the present thesis is the passive voice, perceived from a semantico-syntactic point of view

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The focus of the present thesis is the passive voice, perceived from a semantico-syntactic point of view. My primary aim is to explore the use and functions of the passive voice in English, examining the reasons which motivate an author to prefer the passive form to the active one. Secondary interest is devoted to the function and the use of the passive voice in Czech. As research material I have chosen the short stories by the American writer O. Henry and their Czech translations by Stanislav Klíma. The reasons why I have chosen the genre of a short story are that it is noted for the unity of time, place and action. I believe that due to this fact, the results of my research will give higher evidence of the use of the passive voice since the basis for comparison is unified and compact contrary to, for example, a novel. For the same reason of evidence, I explore just the translations of one translator, since everyone has his/her personal style and different way of thinking and understanding of original text.

I am interested in the issue of information packaging, especially in the different ways of expressing one and the same reality in the two languages: when both active and passive versions are formally permitted, what factors favour the choice of one over other? The passive voice is a phenomenon which is involved both in English and in Czech but in unlike extent. As far as I know, the passive voice is a favourite means of expression in English whereas in Czech its usage is not so popular. In view of this fact, I suppose that the results will work this way.

The thesis is divided into two main parts which are interlinked, and complement each other. The first part deals with the theoretical knowledge about the passive voice in English as well as in Czech, whereas in the second part I investigate the applications of the passive voice in concrete short stories. In addition, the text is divided into five chapters.

In the first chapter, I delineate the theoretical background of the use of the passive voice in English. This information is summarized from the professional literature and both from a syntactic and a semantic point of view. The same research as for the use of the passive voice in Czech is concerned, is performed in Chapter 2. Further, in chapter 3, I present the data for an analysis. It comprises two tables in which I make an incidence statistics of the passive expressions in the English fiction and in the relevant Czech passages. Chapter 4 analyses the frequency data and the different ways of translation of the passive forms, summarized in the preceding tables. The last, fifth chapter, focuses on the functional and semantic analysis, it looks at individual instances of the passive voice’s usage, trying to find out its practical circumstances and conditions. It compares the theoretical facts with my own findings and draws conclusions about the similarities and differences in the use of the passive in the two languages.

After I have gone through some of my resources, I have found out that the term passive voice covers various phenomena and can be expressed in several different ways, especially in the Czech language. That is why I decided to restrict my field of exploration in English only to the passive voice proper. This one is realized through the auxiliary verb to be + past participle of a lexical verb. The auxiliary verb may take different tenses and may occur in progress as well. The range of the passive as a means of functional syntax is wide, although not as much as that of the active voice.

To specify the interpretations of the passive voice, let me consider one basic example. The passive sentence: The man was bitten by the dog shows that the subject of the sentence receives the action expressed in the verb, in other words the subject is, in a passive manner, acted upon. The agent performing the action may appear in a “by the...” phrase or may be omitted. The dog here obtains the full amount of reader’s attention. One of the results of the use of the passive voice is the production of an indirect and wordy utterance, which can be rhetorically effective in given situations. My aim is to draw out the situations in which the passive voice is preferred, for example, when an author wants to emphasize some participant of an action other than the subject.

Regarding the critical approach that I am going to employ in my diploma thesis, I will compare and contrast my own conclusions about the use of the passive voice in English with those found out about this use in Czech. Further, I will compare my own results about the types of usages of the passive voice in English and in Czech with the theorems. This will distinguish those more appropriate and practically applicable ones from the rest, and I also hope to discover maybe a few specific usages of the passive voice which are not mentioned in the books.

1. The English language

    1. Introduction

In spite of the fact that the syntactic and the semantic structures form their own categories, there must be links between the two. The basic rule says that differences in syntax indicate differences of meaning (Miller 1985: 193). The differences may be ‘mere’ matters of perspective and orientation, which is my concern here; however, they exist and must be taken into account (Miller 1985: 193).

The notion of voice is defined variously in the literature; I have adopted the way as it is defined in A Grammar of Contemporary English: “voice is a grammatical category which makes it possible to view the action of a sentence in two ways, without change in the facts reported” (Quirk et al. 1974: 801), since this particular feature of the passive voice is the most useful and indeed utilized one. One and the same idea can often be expressed in two different ways, by means of an active, and by means of a passive construction. The active voice is considered as the unmarked member of the pair. The names active and passive derive from the role of subject-referent in clauses which express an action: it will standardly be the actor, or active participant in the unmarked version, and the patient, or passive participant in the marked version (Huddleston 1984: 438).

1.2 Formation of the passive

The English passive is formed with an auxiliary, generally be, but often also get or become, and the past participle of a full verb. The passive form of the verb phrase thus contains this pattern: be + past participle. Concerning the passive auxiliaries, get is a serious contender of be, however, its application is “usually restricted to constructions without an expressed animate agent”: *The boy got given a violin by his father. (Quirk et al. 1974: 802) Apparently well-founded, the get-passive is avoided in formal style. On the other hand, it is common as a resulting copula, in which case it is equivalent to become which is used to “express gradual change, often enhanced by modification with more and more, increasingly, etc.” (Quirk et al. 1974: 803). Biber et al. (1999: 477) argue that the get-passive is “a recent innovation in English and is [therefore] found almost exclusively in dialog in fiction”.

In ‘John was beaten by Tom’ the participant John or generally the subject of the passive voice is typically called the patient since it is associated with a passive role. By contrast, the participant Tom is traditionally called the agent as it is aligned with the active role. However, in clauses which do not express an action, the roles in question are sometimes called by more relevant names of experiencer and stimulus, e.g. The premier was hated by most members of the cabinet (Huddleston, Pullum 2002: 1427). Furthermore, Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 1428) refer to the agent as to an internalised complement, for they do not want to confuse the term with the name of a semantic role. In the active, Tom is the subject and hence external to the verb phrase, but in the passive it is internal to the verb phrase (Huddleston, Pullum 2002: 1428).

‘Tom beat John’ (active) and ‘John was beaten by Tom’ (passive) means essentially the same thing, and yet they are not in every respect synonymous, and it is therefore not superfluous for a language to have both turns. As Leech notes, “an active sentence has a different meaning from its passive equivalent, although in conceptual content they seem to be the same” (Leech 1981: 19). Such clauses (as above) are alike as far as the ‘type of process’ and the ‘participant roles’ are concerned: the difference has to do with such matters as information focus (Halliday: 1967, cited in Huddleston 1971: 64-5). Leech treats them against the background of thematization (i.e.“the process of organizing the elements of the message so that weight and emphasis fall in appropriate place”) (Leech 1981: 195). The thematic meaning of an utterance is “communicated by the way in which a […] writer organizes the message, in terms of ordering, focus, and emphasis.” (Leech 1981: 19) The clauses are different in respect of thematic or discourse organization. The thematic dimension involves such matters as foregrounding or emphasis, distinction between ‘given’ and ‘new’ information etc., which typically affect the order of elements in the sentence and the intonation and rhythm (or punctuation). Leech claims that the semantic difference between an active sentence and its passive transformation can be seen in the layers of different types of meanings. For example,

(i) Mrs Bessie Smith donated the first prize.

  1. The first prize was donated by Mrs Bessie Smith.

Certainly these two parallels have different communicative values and call for different contexts: in (i) we know who Mrs Bessie Smith is and the issue in focus is the fact of donation of the first prize; thus we can ask “What did Mrs Bessie Smith donate?” Whereas in (ii) the focus of our attention is drawn to the agent who is unknown to us, thus we can ask “Who donated the first prize?”, which implicitly suggests that the fact of a donation of the first prize by someone is known to us, possibly from the context or from a previous mention (Leech 1981: 19). Leech concludes that the change of an overall meaning (communicative value) of an utterance caused by a change of the thematic meaning is inevitable in each active -> passive transformation.

This basic schema of the formation of the passive is often extended by an agentive phrase added to the elemental structure be + past participle. Leech speaks about transformational rule that operates on syntactic structures with their associated semantic content as follows (Leech 1981: 196):

Passive rule

…Sa VP [active] (…) Ob … → …Sb VP [passive] (…) (Adverbial Phrase)

by Noun Phrasea

(where a and b indicate the corresponding arguments in the semantic representation).

This rule provides a “device of linear organization on the syntactic level” (Leech 1981: 196) and its function is to “assign different thematic meanings to sentences which convey the same conceptual meaning”. (Leech 1981: 197)

Before I proceed on to discuss the different kinds of verbs which allow passive transformation, since there are various terms and notions in the books, I have to state clearly which terminology I am going to follow in this work. I have chosen to conform to the conceptions defined by Rodney Huddleston, who – for my purpose here - distinguishes two subject functions, referring to them as the pre-passive subject and the concord subject. The former “is defined on the phrase-markers which represent the structure of the sentence immediately before the passive rule applies” (Huddleston 1971: 62). The concord subject can also be called ‘post-passive’ subject. This latter type corresponds to the traditional notion of ‘grammatical subject’. I consider these labels transparent enough, very easily comprehensible, that is why I have chosen them.

1.3 Which verbs allow the passive?

The basic category in verb genus is the active voice. It can be formed in all verbs (there are verbs which form only the passive voice, but their number is very limited, e.g. John was said to be a nice man1), and has broader range of meanings than the passive voice.

The passive voice can essentially be formed from verbs that have an object, though even these verbs do not form the passive voice in some cases which I will discuss later. In the simplest cases the relation between the structures at the pre- and post- passive levels is exemplified in:

  1. a John killed Peter

b Peter was killed by John

(ii) a John died

b *was died by John

With intransitives, passivization cannot occur and so there will be no difference in structure at the two levels (Huddleston 1971: 93). With transitives, passivization is optional; if it is applied the pre-passive subject and the direct object become adjunct (with by as the governing preposition)2 and subject respectively at the post-passive, or concord, level, and be + en is introduced into the auxiliary. This is the general oversimplified account of voice in English.

Active transitives with no passive counterpart

In the first place there are transitive actives with no acceptable passive equivalent (Huddleston 1971: 93). In some cases there may be a quite general explanation for the absence of a passive. Passivization does not normally take place where:

a) pre-passive subject and object are identical – i.e. we do not normally find reflexive agents: John knew himself to be in the wrong but *John was known by himself to be in the wrong. “This constraint does not hold if there is contrastive stress on the reflexive agent: cf. Halliday`s (1968: 189) he was supervised by himself with himself as agent (we are not of course concerned with the ‘on his own’ interpretation)” (cited in Huddleston 1971: 94).

The same principle applies where:

b) the pre-passive object contains a possessive determiner that is coreferential with the subject: Mary`s briefcase was lost by her (i.e. Mary) is unacceptable if there is not contrastive stress on her – and indeed rather marginal even if there is. Similarly, inherently reciprocal verbs, so-called equative verbs, do not normally allow passivization (Quirk et al. 1974: 803). Thus *‘house’ is meant by ‘maison’ or *nine is equalled by three squared are ungrammatical whereas that isn`t what was meant and the world record was equalled by Smith, with non-symmetric meanings of the same verbs, are perfectly normal (Huddleston 1971: 94). However, the acceptability of passives with symmetric verbs seems to be subject to some degree of dialectical variation (cf. Halliday`s Mary isn`t resembled by any of her children, 1967: 68) (cited in Huddleston 1971: 94).

c) statal verbs like in Mary hated/liked/loved/preferred/wanted John to play the piano hardly allow passivization with John as concord subject – in contrast to similar clauses containing expect, intend, request, require and so on (Huddleston 1971: 94).

d) the verb have is marked as an exception that blocks the passive rule, although its meaning ‘to posses’ is necessarily active and the verb ‘posses’ itself can occur in the passive. The constraint is absolute only for one of the two main uses of have, for we can attest passives like dinner can be had at any reasonable time, the last word was had by Mary. The two uses I have in mind are distinguished by whether or not the auxiliary do is required in the interrogative, negative, etc. It is the use where do is required that allows passivization – compare at what time do you have dinner?, *at what time have you dinner?, at what time can dinner be had?, versus how much money does John have?, how much money has John?, *how much money is had by John? (Huddleston 1971: 94-5).

1.4 Special types of passive formation

Verbs can be divided into single-word verbs (e.g. John called the man) and in multiword verbs, which are phrasal verbs (e.g. John called up the man), prepositional verbs (e.g. John called on the man) or phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g. John put up with the man) (Quirk et al. 1974: 811).

1.4.1 Prepositional verbs

Prepositional verbs cannot occur in the passive so freely as the in the active (Quirk et al., 1974: 804). The constraints can be divided into two spheres, the first being determined by abstract/concrete distinction and the second by the degree of cohesion between the verb and its preposition.

Pseudo-passives’ is the term used by Huddleston for the construction where the “concord subject derives not from a direct object but from the object of a preposition” (1971: 95). Pseudo-passives are typical of the construction in which the prepositions are determined by the verb or verbal idiom rather than being contrastive and lexically meaningful – though as far as constituent structure is concerned they are nevertheless bracketed with the noun phrase, not the verb.

Chomsky (1965: 105-6) observes that with the ambiguous John decided on the boat passivization is not possible if on the boat is locative (‘John was on the boat when he made his decision’), but is possible where on is non-contrastive (‘John chose the boat’); it is obvious that the underlying relationship of the boat to decide is quite different in the two cases, and this difference may well reflected in different bracketings at the pre-passive level, as Chomsky`s proposal would imply.

However, not all pseudo-passives are of this type: the preposition is in some cases lexically contrastive.

According to Dušková (1988: 251), the possibility to form the passive in verbs with preposition depends on the type of relation between the verb and the preposition. Also Quirk et al. (1974: 804) emphasize the degree of cohesion in relation to the formation of passive. If the government is loose and the preposition represents non-governmental addition, e.g. agree with, the passive cannot be formed: *She was agreed with. It follows that only “highly cohesive” (Quirk et al., 1974: 805) prepositional verbs can take the passive. Namely if the free addition is of an adverbial nature, it may suggest something concrete and the passive is not formed. However, one and the same collocation can have also abstract interpretation, in which case the government is not loose and it is of objective nature (Dušková 1988: 251). Compare:

1. (concrete) They went into the hall.

They arrived at the railway station.

2. (abstract) The matter will be gone into.

No decision has been arrived at.

Such prepositional verbs accept the passive only in the figurative use (Quirk et al., 1974: 804).

Jespersen (1933: 123) proposes even different view of the issue of the ‘pseudo-passives’. In such a sentence as Everybody laughed at Jim, laughed is intransitive; Jim is “governed by” or as it may also be termed “the object of” the preposition at. But the whole may also be analysed in another way, laughed at may be called a transitive verb-phrase having Jim as its object. In this way, Jespersen claims, we come to understand how it is possible to turn the sentence into the passive: Jim was laughed at by everybody. Other similar passive sentences are This must be looked into. The bed had not been slept in. Even phrases containing a transitive verb with its object followed by a preposition may be thus turned into the passive: The original purpose was gradually lost sight of ( Jespersen 1933: 123).

1.4.2 Verbs with adverbial preposition

Dušková (1988: 251) marks off when a preposition has an adverbial meaning, like for example in to live in, sleep in, sit on. In these constructions, the passive voice is formed very rarely according to her: “the house does not seem to be lived in, the bed has not been slept in, the chair is rarely sat on” ( Dušková 1988: 251). Nevertheless the passive transformation is sometimes possible and she accounts for it in terms of “interchangeability of a word with preposition by one-word transitive verb: live in a house = inhabit; sleep in a bed = occupy/use a bed; sit on a chair = occupy” (translated from Dušková 1988: 251).

Another view of the matter is the one proposed by Huddleston, who says that

the object in prepositional phrases of time, duration, manner, reason, etc., cannot become the concord subject of a passive: *the first day of term was eloped on, *a couple of hours were read for, *enthusiasm was sung with, *the rain was remained indoors because of; but with some place and perhaps instrumental prepositional phrases, passivization does seem possible: that bed hasn`t been slept in for years, that chair musn`t be sat on, this cup has been drunk out of, ?this blade has already been shaved with twice. (1971: 95-6)

He thinks that the acceptability of a passive with a locative phrase depends in large measure on “whether the action not only occurs at the stated place but also affects that place: a cup that has been drunk out of needs washing, to say that a bed has bee slept in may suggest that the sheets need changing and so on” (Huddleston 1971: 96). Huddleston further suggests that we are more likely to accept the bed had been slept in than the village had been slept in. With regard to a deep structure of the sentence that bed has been slept in Huddleston distinguishes two roles that the expression that bed fills: affected and locative. More precisely the locative role would deal with in that bed and it would then be the affected role that was relevant to passivization (Huddleston 1971: 96).

1.4.3 Ditransitives

Ditransitive verbs are verbs with a direct and an indirect object. However, if in the active there are two objects, only one of them can be made the subject in the passive, i.e. externalised, the other is retained as such; in other words, a passive verb can have an object. But which of the two objects is made the subject of a passive sentence? Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 1432) argue that in principle, ditransitive actives have two passive counterparts. If it is the indirect object that is externalised they call the thus created passive as first passive. The version with the direct object externalised is called second passive. These terms are based on the linear position of the relevant object in the active construction.

Indirect object as the subject of passive construction

Jespersen (1933: 121) records that originally only the direct object could be thus used, e.g. Her husband left her propertyProperty was left her by her husband. But during the last few centuries there has been a growing tendency to make the indirect object the subject in the passive (Jespersen 1933: 121). He proposes an explanation of this tendency in the fact that the greater interest started to be felt for persons than for things, which naturally led to the placing of the indirect before the direct object. It can be seen in the active They offered the butler a reward; consequently the order in the passive becomes: The butler was offered a reward. Along with Jespersen’s conclusion, Huddleston (1971: 97) claims that it is normally the indirect object that is mapped onto the concord subject in the passive. “Of the three types:

  1. John was given the money

  2. The money was given to John

  3. The money was given John

the first two are a good deal more usual than the third – Halliday explains this in terms of the comparative rarity of someone gave John the money in the reading where John carries the tonic stress and is thus the focus of new information” (cited in Huddleston 1971: 97). The case b) derives from (someone) gave the money to John: in accordance with the previous observations it is the only passive version of that clause (which is not ditranstive). However, c) is not ungrammatical, so that we must allow for two passive versions of (someone) gave John the money.

Another case when the subject of a passive construction can only be the former indirect object is found in Dušková. It is when a direct object is expressed via infinitive or subordinate clause, for example, I was given to understand that…., we were told to come at three, she was promised that the offer would remain open till her return (Dušková 1988: 252). All in all, nowadays, ditransitive verbs can have a double passive construction in English because the subject of the passive voice can become either of the two objects. However, there are several restrictions as for the various types of predicates are concerned.

Huddleston (1971: 96) argues that with three-place verbs like blame, present, provide, etc., where there is a choice as to which underlying preposition is deleted to yield a direct object, it is “only the noun phrase whose preposition has been dropped that may become concord subject of a passive” (Huddleston 1971: 96) – compare:

  1. He blamed the error on John
  2. The error was blamed on John

  3. He blamed John for the error

  4. John was blamed for the error

  5. *John was blamed the error on

  6. *The error was blamed John for

Further on Huddleston (1971: 97) singles out a group of verbs like envy, where there is never a preposition at the pre-passive level, and in which only the indirect object may become concord subject: she was envied her good looks, *her office was envied her.

Dušková (1988: 253) summs up simply that the choice of the subject of the passive construction of a ditransitive verb is in line with functional sentence perspective, this means that the subject is the former object with less degree of communicative dynamism. For example: John has been awarded the first prize the first prize has been awarded to John. She adds that also an indirect inanimate object (not only animate) can become the subject of a passive construction, for example the proposal bill will be given consideration to (Dušková 1988: 253).

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