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Chapter XII


The category of voice presents us with its own batch of difficulties. In their main character they have something in common with the difficulties of mood: there is no strict one-way correspondence between meaning and means of expression. Thus, for instance, in the sentence I opened the door and in the sentence the door opened the meaning is obviously different, whereas the form of the verb is the same in both cases. To give another example: in the sentence he shaved the customer and in the sentence he shaved and went out the meaning is different (the second sentence means that he shaved himself), but no difference is to be found in the form of the verb.

We are therefore bound to adopt a principle in distinguishing the voices of the English verb: what shall we take as a starting-point, meaning, or form, or both, and if both, in what proportion, or in what mutual relation? 1

As to the definition of the category of voice, there are two main views. According to one of them this category expresses the relation between the subject and the action. Only these two are mentioned in the definition. According to the other view, the category of voice expresses the relations between the subject and the object of the action. In this case the object is introduced into the definition of voice.2 We will not at present try to solve this question with reference to the English language. We will keep both variants of the definition in mind and we will come back to them afterwards.

Before we start on our investigation, however, we ought to define more precisely what is meant by the expression "relation between subject and action". Let us take two simple examples: He invited his friends and He was invited by his friends. The relations between the subject (he) and the action (invite) in the two sentences are different since in the sentence He invited his friends he performs the action, and may be said to be the doer, whereas in the sentence He was invited by his friends he does not act and is not the doer but the object of the action. There may also be other kinds of relations, which we shall mention in due course.

The obvious opposition within the category of voice is that between active and passive. This has not been disputed by any

1 Difficulties of a somewhat similar kind are also found in dealing with voices of the Russian verb. On the one hand, the same external sign (the, affix -ся) may express different meanings, viz. reflexive (бриться), reciprocal (ссориться), passive (строиться), etc., and on the other, the same meaning (passive) may be expressed both by the affix -ся and by the pattern "быть + participle in -н- or -м-", е. g. дом строился — дом был построен. See В. В. Виноградов, Русский язык, стр. 639 сл.

2 See Грамматика русского языка, т. 1, 1953, стр. 412. The problem is treated in Academician V. Vinogradov's book, p. 607 ff.

Active and Passive 115

scholar, however views may differ concerning other voices. This opposition may be illustrated by a number of parallel forms involving different categories of aspect, tense, correlation, and mood. We will mention only a few pairs of this kind, since the other possible pairs can be easily supplied:

invites is invited

is inviting is being invited invited was invited

has invited has been invited should invite should be invited

From the point of view of form the passive voice is the marked member of the opposition: its characteristic is the pattern "be + second participle", whereas the active voice is unmarked: its characteristic is the absence of that pattern.

It should be noted that some forms of the active voice find no parallel in the passive, viz. the forms of the future continuous, present perfect continuous, past perfect continuous, and future perfect continuous. Thus the forms will be inviting, has been inviting, had been inviting, and will have been inviting have nothing to correspond to them in the passive voice.

With this proviso we can state that the active and the passive constitute a complete system of oppositions within the category of voice.

The question now is, whether there are other voices in the English verb, besides active and passive. It is here that we find doubts and much controversy.

At various times, the following three voices have been suggested in addition to the two already mentioned:

(1) the reflexive, as in he dressed himself,

(2) the reciprocal, as in they greeted each other, and

(3) the middle voice, as in the door opened (as distinct from I opened the door).

It is evident that the problem of voice is very intimately connected with that of transitive and intransitive verbs, which has also been variously treated by different scholars. It seems now universally agreed that transitivity is not in itself a voice, so we could not speak of a "transitive voice"; the exact relation between voice and transitivity remains, however, somewhat doubtful. It is far from clear whether transitivity is a grammatical notion, or a characteristic of the lexical meaning of the verb.

In view of such constructions as he was spoken of, he was taken care of, the bed had not been slept in, etc., we should perhaps say that the vital point is the objective character of the verb, rather than its transitivity: the formation of a passive voice is possible if the verb denotes an action relating to some object.

116 The Verb: Voice

Last not least, we must mention another problem: what part are syntactic considerations to play in analysing the problem of voice?

Having enumerated briefly the chief difficulties in the analysis of voice in Modern English, we shall now proceed to inquire into each of these problems, trying to find objective criteria as far as this is possible, and pointing out those problems in which any solution is bound to be more or less arbitrary and none can be shown, to be the correct one by any irrefutable proofs.

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