Passive Voice Below the Clause Level

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

Basic principles:

  1. Our common understanding about passive voice is passive sentences —  the main verb takes the passive form
  2. The passive form is also possible at the phrase level
    1. Participial phrases (e.g. Controlled properly, + main clause)
    2. Post-modifiers of a noun phrase:
      1. Embedded relative clause (e.g. … staff members who are assessed recently)
      2. Embedded participial phrase (e.g. …staff members assessed recently)

In my previous tutorials, we explored the basic structure of passive voice and the motivation of using passive voice in writing. By “basic” I mean the structure at the sentence level through making the main verb into the passive form, and switching the positions of the Subject and Object. 

(1) Active: (Supervisors) control the activities of individual staff members properly.
(2) Passive: The activities of individual staff members are controlled properly.

Most of us can understand this fundamental structure as it is straightforward. What about using passive voice in other places of a sentence? In this post, I will push this to one level below, and see how we can use passive voice at the phrase level.

Participial phrases

A participial phrase acts like a “condensed” version of a dependent clause. It needs to be attached to an independent clause, and can have functions like adverbials, such as describing cause, effect or conditionals. When the dependent clause is in the passive form and converted into a participial phrase, both the conjunction, the Subject and the linking verb disappear, leaving the past participle denoting passive voice:

Dependent clause (conditional): If staff performance is controlled properly, it can be better supervised and measured.
Participial phrase: Controlled properly, staff performance can be better supervised and measured.

In this case, the meaning of the participial phrase, which is a conditional, has to be inferred by reading the rest of the sentence. The Subject of the conditional clause now goes to the main clause to replace the referencing pronoun it. We can explore more about participial phrases in later posts.

Post-modifiers of a noun phrase

Passive voice can also work within a noun phrase, when a post-modifier is present in two forms: a relative clause or a participial phrase. Both cases would have the same corresponding version in active voice, for example:

(3) Active voice: The clerk whom the management fired yesterday did not get his final pay check.

The passive forms in the two post-modifying forms would be as follows:

(4) Relative clause: The clerk who was fired yesterday did not get his final pay check.
(5) Participial phrase: The clerk fired by the management yesterday did not get his final pay check.

Similar to converting a clause into a participial phrase, the relator who disappears with the linking verb, leaving the past participle within the noun phrase. In my opinion, using a participial phrase makes the sentence more concise, while actually the two versions mean exactly the same. 

From the above illustrations, we can see that the passive form does not just occur in main clauses. It is present in different positions of a clause — in participial phrases and relative clauses. This on one hand shows how complex English grammar can be, in that we have to look beyond sentences and dig deep into the phrases. On the other hand, it also shows how flexible language is, in that a grammatical form can appear in various places of a sentence. This gives us rich resources to form meanings, link ideas together and make a text concise.

Apart from the sentence, clause and phrase levels, passive voice can also appear in verb groups and prepositional phrases. They involve to-infinitives (e.g. in order to be + past participle) embedded within. I purposely leave them out, so that I can exclusively examine them in the next post. 

So see you next time. Thanks for reading!

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