improve your English Learn English

Passives: the long and the short of it

©  DIGITAL VISIONIn a previous post, I mentioned that the passive without an agent (also called the ‘short passive’) is one of a dozen ways of reporting and commenting on events and situations without specifying an actor – e.g. “The fire had been fully extinguished by yesterday morning.”

But why do we use the passive with an agent (also called the ‘long passive’?) Well, it’s often used, in preference to the active voice, in order to highlight or draw attention to the actor(s) – e.g. “The fire engine broke down on its way to the farm, and the fire was extinguished by a group of villagers.” So, interestingly, the passive without an agent and the passive with an agent often have, in a way, opposite functions: the former hides the actor(s) in the wings, while the latter brings them into the spotlight, centre-stage.



In another post, I presented another typical example of a passive sentence in which inaccurate information about an actor is corrected; the true actor is spotlighted by being put in end position in the sentence, while the ‘topic’ occupies front position. You could say that, by enabling the actor to be put in end position, the passive with an agent compensates for the lack of an object-verb-subject word order option in modern English.

But there’s more to it than that. Here are a couple of examples of the kind of furtive discussion that goes on between team members in pub quizzes; today’s quiz topic is 19th century English literature.

In response to the question “What’s the title of Emily Brontë’s only novel?”:
A I think it’s Jane Eyre.
B No, it’s Wuthering Heights. Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte.

In response to the question “Who is the author of Wuthering Heights?”:
A I think it’s Charlotte Brontë.
B No, it’s Emily. Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte.

Both exchanges include the sentence “Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte”, but with different pragmatic purposes: in the first exchange, the purpose is to highlight ‘Charlotte’, while in the second exchange the purpose is to highlight ‘Jane Eyre‘. So the second exchange goes against the general principle of using the passive with an agent to highlight the actor.

Now consider how these utterances are likely to spoken:

(1) (No, it’s Wuthering Heights.) // jane ↘↗ EYRE // was written by ↘ CHARlotte //
(2a) (No, it’s Emily.) // jane ↘ EYRE was written by charlotte //

(See here for an explanation of the transcription conventions.)

Here we can see that highlighting is not simply a product of the position of an item in an utterance; it also depends on intonation. In both (1) and (2a), the item in the spotlight is the one with tonic prominence and falling intonation, marking it as ‘new’ information. In (2a) there is no intonationally prominent material after ‘Eyre’. In this alternative version of (2):

(2b) (No, it’s Emily.) // jane ↘ EYRE // was written by ↘↗ CHARlotte //

– there is a subsequent tonic prominence, on ‘Charlotte’, but the fall-rise intonation marks it as non-new information.

When you listen to English, you can hear how speakers’ pragmatic intentions are reflected in the intonation choices they make as well as the order in which they present material. But when you read, you don’t have direct access to any information about intonation. The written sentence “Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte” is true, but this spoken utterance:
// jane ↘↗ EYRE // was written by ↘ CHARlotte //
– would make no sense in the context of the second exchange above. As always, you have to read with your ears as well as your eyes, so that you can hear what writers are saying.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author

Jonathan Marks

Leave a Comment